Sucking it up

The Clintons think about boycotting the White House Correspondents dinner because it's honoring Michael Isikoff.

Published April 29, 1999 1:00PM (EDT)

Will they or won't they?

On Tuesday, the word around the White House was that both President Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton were planning on boycotting the White House Correspondents Association annual dinner, to be held this Saturday night. The Clintons are miffed that Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff will receive the prestigious Edgar A. Poe Award at the annual black-tie affair for his reporting on the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Now, the smart money seems to be back on the Clintons doing as they have for the past five years and making an appearance. Last year, the president made a command performance despite the fact Paula Jones was also invited to attend.

This year, Isikoff will be called to the, er, head table to accept the award for the story that almost destroyed the Clinton presidency, and certainly tainted it forever. The Clintons hold no fondness for Isikoff, and certainly don't relish the idea of attending an event that honors him. In their eyes, Isikoff not only broke the sex scandal that led to Clinton's impeachment, but also crossed a journalistic line and played an active role in creating the story.

"Mr. Isikoff has made his views perfectly clear about the president," says White House spokesman Jake Siewert. "He has admitted that he became part of the story."

As of Tuesday night, "there was a good chance that he would pull out," an aide said of the president. According to the aide, one of the more compelling arguments against a presidential boycott of the event was that it would draw even more attention to Isikoff and his reporting. "If they don't go," says the aide, "it will simply make the whole story come to life again. Who needs that?"

The arguments seem to have worked. By Wednesday afternoon, according to White House spokespeople, the first couple was planning on attending the dinner. Their respect for Isikoff, however, still knows bounds. "He wouldn't have gotten our vote [for the award]," Siewert says. "Let's put it that way."

The Clintons were put in the same situation last month at the Radio and Television Correspondents Association dinner. They were sitting on the stage at the head table when ABC-TV reporter Jackie Judd received the association's award for having broken the story that there existed physical evidence that the president had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky -- a semen stain on a navy blue dress from the Gap -- thus lending credibility to charges that the president had both committed and suborned perjury.

"They showed a ton of class sitting through that ordeal," says a reporter who was sitting a few feet from the Clintons at the Radio and TV Correspondents gala. But Isikoff is another story. The scrappy investigative reporter covered the White House sex beat from Paula Jones to Kathleen Willey to Lewinsky. He fought hard with his former editors at the Washington Post to get the Jones story into print, and it's quite possible that absent Isikoff and his tenacity (some might say obsessiveness), the world might have never gotten to know the former intern whose affair with the leader of the free world made him the only president in this century to be impeached.

Along the way, Isikoff became a major player in the scandal, a big journalistic no-no. As even he admits in "Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story," Isikoff "was part of the story. I didn't like it. There is a principle in quantum physics -- Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: The act of measuring the object changes the direction of the object being measured. My reporting had been the journalistic equivalent. The players in this saga -- the accusers, the conspirators, even the president -- had all at times calculated their actions in response to what I might do."

Once again, the presence of Isikoff is affecting the president's decisions -- though this time it's thankfully on a much smaller scale. And in the end, it looks like the first couple is planning on sucking it up and attending anyway -- though don't be surprised if a last-minute international trip suddenly makes attendance at the event impossible.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Bill Clinton Hillary Rodham Clinton