In fact, Leubsdorf’s newspaper was forced to retract a story that it had briefly posted online, alleging that a Secret Service officer had witnessed Clinton and Lewinsky in a compromising position and had already been in touch with the office of Independent Counsel Ken Starr. The paper’s editor explained that its original source for the story had recanted the account.
I myself was sent on such a chase around the same time, after a rumor swept Washington that Leon Panetta, as Clinton’s White House chief of staff in 1995 and 1996, had spied Clinton and Lewinsky canoodling in the White House movie theater. Panetta, by then out of government and back home in Carmel Valley, California, was not returning calls from the Washington bureau of The New York Times. So I, then the paper’s Los Angeles bureau chief, was urgently ordered to board a Sunday-afternoon flight to Monterey to knock on Panetta’s door in person. I was walking down the jet bridge to the plane and was only spared the trip when I got a call on my cellphone from Panetta’s wife, Sylvia, saying he had seen no such thing.
In the end, Starr’s final report would find no eyewitnesses to any encounter between Clinton and Lewinsky, but that wasn’t known in the heat of the moment, when every tip, no matter how small or seemingly unlikely, was followed feverishly. A steady stream of leaks from Starr’s office, and from the cadre of friendly conservative freelancers who were allied with him, constantly fanned the flames.
Read: How to survive impeachment
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a veteran media scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, told me she knows of no academic study that attempted to quantify the distracting effects on other news coverage during the Clinton impeachment, or the Nixon Watergate and Judiciary Committee hearings.
But the distracting effects on Clinton’s public-policy initiatives were evident enough, for all his vaunted compartmentalization. (Remember, he delivered a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress just days after the scandal broke and never so much as mentioned it.) Clinton had begun 1998 determined to press Congress for expanded authority to negotiate free-trade agreements, severely regulate tobacco products, and overhaul Medicare and Social Security.
“Every item on this ambitious agenda had a common theme: It would require Clinton to push his own party against its liberal grain,” writes John Harris in The Survivor, his book on the Clinton years. “A politically prospering president might have been able to do this. A president fighting for survival—and thus dependent on every last Democratic vote in order to avoid being herded out of office by Republicans—proved virtually impotent to challenge his party’s orthodoxies.”
Trump’s lack of discipline, and his seemingly insatiable desire for instantaneous rhetorical revenge on his adversaries via Twitter at all hours of the day, seem all but certain to keep the media focused on impeachment, if only because the president himself is focused on impeachment. Trump’s relentless attacks on Schiff—not so long ago a well-respected but comparatively anonymous congressman from Southern California—have helped elevate the Intelligence Committee chairman into a national political figure.