Michael Isikoff

Stories by Michael Isikoff

  • A Very Close Call For Al

    Charles Uribe, chairman of A.J. Construction Co. in New York, got an unusual phone message on Feb. 2, 1996. "The vice president is on the line," his secretary said. "Vice president of what?" Uribe barked. "The vice president of the United States," she said. Uribe immediately took the call, and other executives in the room listened curiously to their boss's end of the conversation, a string of "yes, sirs" and "no, sirs." When Uribe got off he explained. "We need to raise $50,000 for the campaign," he said, according to an account a colleague later gave the FBI.It was business as usual for Gore. Dubbed "solicitor in chief" for his aggressive fund-raising, he placed 71 calls from his White House office. Legal questions about Gore's dialing for dollars led Attorney General Janet Reno to consider--twice--appointing an independent counsel to investigate. Both times she declined, drawing bitter criticism from Republicans and even some of her own senior prosecutors.Just how close did Gore...
  • The Secret Money Chase

    Trent Lott was angry, and he got right to the point. Early last month the Senate majority leader called in a group of high-tech lobbyists and made a blunt pitch. He said he was outraged over a series of "vicious" attack ads airing in Michigan against Spencer Abraham, a fellow Republican senator considered one of this year's most vulnerable incumbents. Lott, a participant recalls, wanted the lobbyists to pay for hard-hitting counterattack ads. The lobbyists --who knew they were going to need Lott's help to push an upcoming tech bill through the Senate --got the message. "My sense," one wrote in an e-mail later that day, "is that the companies in the room will take care of it."In hardball Washington, Lott's appeal itself was hardly unprecedented. (The senator's spokesman says the meeting was "not intended to pressure anybody.") But instead of instructing the lobbyists to send the money to Abraham's campaign or to the Republican Party, Lott gave them the phone number and mailing...
  • High Noon On The Hustings

    There are plenty of reasons for Al Gore and George W. Bush to take the gun issue seriously. Pat Thomas is one of them. In 1995 her son Jerome was at a party at a friend's house when a group of rowdy young men started bullying his friends. Jerome stepped in to calm them down. Instead, they pulled out guns and shot him in the leg. When he fell to the floor they stood over him and fired twice more into his back, killing him. "The thought of it still knocks me to my knees," says his mother. Pat O'Keefe knows the feeling all too well. Her 18-year-old daughter Michelle was shot and killed last February in a parking lot near her Palmdale, Calif., home. The tragedy "pushed us over the edge," O'Keefe says." A gun owner, she's now for gun control.Thomas and O'Keefe were among the throngs of women who descended on Washington Sunday for the Million Mom March, the brainchild of a suburban New Jersey mother whose goal was to show Congress--and the presidential candidates--the power of a grass...
  • The Microsoft Primary

    Bill Gates didn't take the bait. Last April the Microsoft chief paid a quiet visit to the Texas governor's mansion for his first-ever meeting with George W. Bush. Over a dinner of stuffed quail, the two chatted breezily about the digital revolution and the future of the Internet. Then, according to a Microsoft executive who attended the dinner, Bush made a passing comment about the "rough time" Microsoft was having in Washington, D.C. Gates didn't respond--and Bush quickly moved the conversation along. "Neither of them wanted to go there," says the Microsoft exec.Still, the unpublicized tete-a-tete was part of a delicate political dance between the software giant and the Republican Party. Each has something the other wants. Dollar signs in their eyes, GOP leaders covet big political contributions from Microsoft coffers. In turn, Microsoft execs, plagued by the Clinton Justice Department's lawsuit, hope that a Republican president and Congress might shut down efforts to punish the...
  • The Other Drug War

    Only last summer, the White House seemed wary of greater U.S. involvement in Colombia's vicious drug war. Republicans on Capitol Hill wanted to add muscle to Colombia's anti-drug forces, but administration officials favored more diplomacy. A top State Department official returned from a visit to Bogota and described himself as "sobered, but certainly not panicked." Then, two months ago, the president announced a stunning $1.3 billion aid package, including 63 U.S.-made helicopters and other military hardware. If approved by Congress, the massive program would be the largest single increase in drug-war spending since Bill Clinton took office. Critics--including some inside the administration--fear a nasty entanglement. "When I first saw this," says a veteran U.S. anti-drug official, "my reaction was, 'What, are they nuts?' "Why did Clinton suddenly change tack? The answer, according to a NEWSWEEK reconstruction, is a surprising Washington tale of the pressures that influence White...
  • The Happy Maverick Drives Into A Ditch

    John McCain seemed defined by his bus. While George W. Bush flew above in a jet named Great Expectations--or in a quiet charter bus surrounded only by aides--McCain rattled happily along in the Straight Talk Express. Instead of hiding with his handlers, McCain wolfed down jelly doughnuts and gabbed with reporters who, contrary to modern campaign stereotypes, were friendly and forgiving. McCain was having the time of his life, cracking jokes and making fun of his own staff, who seemed to be along mostly for the ride.Then the picture darkened. McCain seemed to retreat into something reporters and staffers called "the bubble," his traveling entourage. His inner circle of strategists turned out to be hard-bitten pols. Under fierce and sometimes underhanded attack, the candidate became more strident, even whiny, lashing out at his opponent for playing dirty. The press began to play the old "gotcha" game, catching McCain in "gaffes" that became three-day stories. On the last night, after...
  • How Mccain Does It

    John McCain's feisty 88-year-old mother, Roberta, stood at the bar last week at a fashionable Washington book-signing party and, between bites of an hors d'oeuvre, declared that her son's presidential campaign is a "miracle." She said she had never seen any signs of political ambition in the boy as he grew up. "John has no side," she went on, using an old upper-class expression for lack of pretense. "He doesn't need money or to be famous or powerful." His actions were sometimes unpredictable, she went on, but they were always "honorable."Many voters share Mother McCain's view. They see the former naval hero as a refreshing exception to the poll-driven posturing of politics. But because McCain has a code of honor and can be wittily self- effacing does not mean that he is guileless. Like most great charmers in public life, his offhand manner is studied. Just as Winston Churchill was said to have rehearsed his extemporaneous remarks, McCain's gift is to appear spontaneous while...
  • The Money Machine

    You've probably never heard of Heinz Prechter. The diminutive 57-year-old Bavarian immigrant made a fortune by inventing the sunroof for the auto industry. He is known by his friends for his good cheer and for driving expensive, German-made sports cars through the streets of Detroit at high speeds. The name Brad (Fargo) Freeman may not be familiar, either. Freeman made millions as a merchant banker in Los Angeles. A bon vivant who squires models around Beverly Hills, Calif., Freeman is known for his practical jokes, like placing for sale signs on the manicured lawns of his business buddies.Prechter and Freeman and a half dozen or so other wealthy Republican businessmen deserve to be better known--as potential kingmakers. If George W. Bush survives John McCain's challenge and goes on to win in November, the biggest single reason may be money. Through 1999 Bush had raised a staggering $67 million, four times as much as McCain and more than the two Democratic rivals, Gore and Bradley,...
  • A Maverick's Paper Trail

    On Dec. 16, John McCain held a highly unusual press conference with Democratic contender Bill Bradley to highlight their reputations as reformers and decry the current system of campaign finance. Yet just five days before, it turns out, McCain was acting as an exemplar of politics-as-usual. As chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, he sent a letter to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, pushing the regulatory agency to take action on a request by media magnate Lowell Paxson to take over a public TV station in Pittsburgh. Paxson is a major contributor to McCain's campaign. He co-hosted a fund-raiser and arranged for more than $28,000 in contributions. McCain also used Paxson's corporate jet to fly to campaign appearances four times last year.No one suggests that McCain's motives are venal. Yet, like other lawmakers, he has written letters to regulatory agencies on behalf of companies that are significant contributors to his campaign. Among the 500 letters from...
  • Vietnam: The War Hero Takes Fire

    John McCain was about to get ambushed. In June 1996 an angry group marched into the Arizona senator's Capitol Hill office and demanded to see him. While they waited, the visitors--activists calling for government action on U.S. soldiers still missing in Vietnam--scrawled nasty notes in the guest book. "McCain--You are a traitor!!" wrote one. When the senator tried to brush past them, the group surrounded him. One woman later tried to file assault charges against McCain, claiming he'd "shoved" her into the wall. (The Capitol police wouldn't take the case.) McCain calls the charge "crazy"; but nobody denies the raw emotions between the senator and his visitors.To McCain, the enmity was nothing new. Though he is a decorated Navy flier who languished nearly six years in North Vietnamese prisons, some of the roughly 5,000 people who make up the POW/MIA movement consider him a bitter enemy. The senator has harshly criticized some professional POW/MIA groups for promoting conspiracy...
  • More Temple Trouble For Al?

    Everyone knows what Al Gore got out of his 1996 appearance at a Buddhist temple in California: $140,000 for the Democratic National Committee and a lot of grief. But now a document that has turned up in an unrelated lawsuit has shed some light on what the temple's leaders expected to gain. NEWSWEEK has learned that four months after she arranged Gore's appearance at the temple, immigration consultant Maria Hsia approached him at a fund-raiser in San Francisco. It appears that Hsia wanted Gore's help getting the temple designated as a federally sanctioned testing center for Asian immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship. A day later, Hsia sent a letter to Elaine Kamarck, a top Gore aide, citing a conversation with the vice president. Another Gore aide then faxed the letter to the Immigration and Naturalization Service with a note reading, "Please have the right people get in touch" with Hsia.Hsia's letter was not part of the record when a Senate committee investigated Gore's dealings...
  • The Reformer Tunes His Money Machine

    Charlie Ergen was grateful, and he knew how to show it. Last March, the satellite-television billionaire was in a nasty turf battle with the TV networks. Ergen, founder of EchoStar Communications, lobbied for a Senate bill that would let companies like his continue intercepting network signals--a practice the networks say is piracy. He found an ally in Sen. John McCain. The chairman of the powerful Commerce Committee championed the bill, and it cleared the panel undamaged. A week later, the Colorado tycoon threw a fund-raiser for McCain's presidential campaign at his Denver home. Estimated take: $47,000.Hardly an unusual tale in money-driven Washington. But for McCain, it seemed an odd disconnect. No politician has more fiercely denounced the corrupting influence of big money on politics. For years he has fought an uphill battle to curb the millions in "soft money" that flows from corporations and unions into the political parties, and he routinely rails against the unfair advantage...
  • Funding Clinton's Legacy

    On the president's official schedule, the meetings are cryptically listed as "private events." In restaurants and hotel suites, surrounded by his most faithful and wealthiest supporters, Bill Clinton is quietly raising money for the project most important to him: the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library.For the president, frustrated by countless scandals over the years, the library that will bear his name has taken on a special urgency. It is, at last, something he can control. Clinton envisions the museum and public-policy center, to be built along the banks of the Arkansas River in Little Rock, as a place that will preserve the legacy he believes he deserves--one far different from the one his political enemies will try to depict.So far the president has kept his fund-raising largely under wraps--shielding the names of donors from the press and the public. Legally, he can do so: as a private, nonprofit organization, Clinton's library foundation can take unlimited amounts...
  • The Waco Flame-Up

    The spent shell was sitting in plain sight. Sifting through the scorched rubble after the government's deadly 1993 raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, a member of the Texas Rangers was surprised to find the 40mm shell lying on the ground. He showed it to an FBI agent supervising the cleanup. "What's this?" the ranger asked, according to a law-enforcement source. "I'll have to get back to you," the G-man answered.The agent never did. But last week the FBI for the first time confirmed what the Texas Ranger had long ago suspected. After denying for years that federal agents used incendiary devices in the raid, FBI Director Louis Freeh acknowledged that two pyrotechnic tear-gas canisters were indeed fired at the compound. The news sent the FBI into a protective crouch--and infuriated antigovernment activists who have long believed the Feds covered up the truth about Waco. Few law-enforcement operations have spurred as many conspiracy theories--or resonated as deeply...
  • The Funeral-Home Flap

    When Texas regulators launched a probe into funeral homes last year, Houston mortician Robert L. Waltrip fought back. A tough-talking tycoon, Waltrip is chief executive of Service Corporation International (SCI) Inc., which owns more funeral homes than anybody in the world. He also has powerful friends. Not long after the investigation began, Waltrip called the head of the state agency that regulates him and demanded that he "back off." If not, funeral commission chairman Charles McNeil recalls Waltrip telling him, "I'm going to take this to the governor."So began the flap that may become more than a pesky annoyance for Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican presidential front runner. The state's former chief funeral regulator, Eliza May, has sued the state, SCI and Waltrip, charging that Bush's aides repeatedly pressured her to end the probe--and that when she resisted she was fired. (Bush is not a defendant in the suit.) The dispute has a whiff of politics: a Democrat, May once...
  • Taxing Times For Robertson

    When Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coaliton in 1989, he boasted he would create a powerful new voting bloc that would elect "pro-family" lawmakers to Congress. By the early '90s the coalition had become an undeniable force, with phone banks and "voter guides" that mobilized millions of voters. GOP candidates begged for its blessing. ...
  • The Right Wing Web

    Adapted from "Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story." (c)1999 Michael Isikoff. To be published by Crown Publishers, a Division of Random House, Inc., in April 1999. ...
  • The Capital's Indian War

    BRUCE BABBITT WAS THE LAST CLIN-ton official anyone thought would get snagged by scandal. In Washington the Interior secretary is widely regarded as a straight shooter. And yet he now finds himself fighting charges that he tilted an Indian casino deal in favor of big Democratic donors-and then lied to Congress to cover it up. One of Babbitt's old friends has contradicted the secretary's version of events, and Attorney General Janet Reno is investigating. ...
  • Gore's Pollution Problem

    THE NEWS FROM EAST TENNESSEE last Christmas was hardly comforting for Al Gore. A citizens' group was about to put up a nasty billboard resurrecting a ghost from the vice president's past: the Pigeon River. A coffee-colored brew of industrial pollutants that sometimes smells like rot- ten eggs, the Pigeon flows through impoverished Appalachian towns; its troubles begin in Canton, N.C., where for the last 90 years the Champion International paper mill has dumped by-products from the bleaching of wood pulp. Gore has made his name as the savior of plundered rain forests and melting polar icecaps. But back home, many say he has shown a curious lack of zeal in doing battle with what is widely regarded as the region's biggest polluter.The issue resurfaced late last year when EPA chief Carol Browner signed off on a North Carolina permit granting the company an exception from federal water-quality laws. For years, environmentalists had avoided confronting Gore over the Pigeon. But this time...
  • Hold For The President

    THE MESSAGE FROM THE White House secretary got Richard Jenrette's attention: the president wanted to talk to him. A powerhouse investment banker, Jenrette was used to politicians tapping him for contributions. Now it was Bill Clinton's turn. ""He told me he was trying to raise money for the DNC,'' Jenrette told NEWSWEEK about the Oct. 18, 1994, phone call he got from the president. Clinton didn't ask for a specific amount, but he made clear exactly what he wanted. ""In response to your request, I wanted you to know that I am sending checks totaling $50,000 to the Democratic National Committee,'' Jenrette wrote Clinton in a letter a week after the call. ""You said you wanted to raise $2 million from 40 good friends--by my Wall Street math, this comes out to $50,000 that you requested from each.''Jenrette's account and letter is the first documentary evidence that Clinton made fund-raising phone calls from the White House. For months, Clinton had danced around the question of the...
  • A Twist In Jones V. Clinton

    THE PHONE CALL WAS provocative, to say the least. Early last January, Joseph Cammarata was preparing to help argue to the Supreme Court that his client Paula Jones should get a trial for her sexual-harassment suit against President Clinton, when--he says--the voice of a woman, distraught and hesitant, came on the line. "I had a similar thing happen to me in 1995," she said. She refused to give her name but offered enough details to allow Cammarata to track down the woman he believes made the call: Kathleen E. Willey, 51. Last week Cammarata subpoenaed Willey to question her about whether she had been the victim of an inappropriate sexual advance by the president in the White House. willey's testimony is necessary, Cammarata argues, to establish a "pattern of behavior" by Clinton of sexually harassing women. An aggressive lawyer will try to tar his opponent any way he can, and Cammarata wants to use the threat of delving into Clinton's alleged sex life--and the resulting publicity-...
  • The Dark Side Of The Money Trail

    THE PROPOSAL, MARKED ""PRIVILEGED AND CONFIDENTIAL,'' was a model of bluntness. Entitled ""Background Research: Senator Don Nickles,'' the May 16, 1997, document, obtained by NEWSWEEK, outlined an extensive plan to scour the Oklahoma Republican's life for embarrassing or incriminating details: searching courthouses for ""civil, criminal, divorce and bankruptcy litigation''; hunting for ""fictitious name filings''; reviewing his and his wife's ""personal business activities.'' The goal was to show that Nickles was ""linked to the oil industry.'' The memo's author: Terry Lenzner, a former Watergate counsel who now runs a private investigative firm with close ties to the White House. The Democratic National Committee is one of his top clients. This week, Lenzner may appear as an expert witness at the Senate campaign-finance hearings - where he'll sit across from his proposed quarry, committee member Nickles. ...
  • 'I Want Him To Admit What He Did.'

    The Supreme Court rules that Paula Jones can have her day in court. The president desperately wants the case to go away - but it won't be easy.PAULA JONES SCREAMED WHEN SHE heard the news. ""Are you kidding me?'' she asked one of her lawyers, Joe Cammarata. ""Come on. Really?'' She had been drifting off to sleep in her modest Long Beach, Calif., apartment after putting her 9-month-old boy into his playpen when her phone rang last Tuesday morning at 7:15. The U.S. Supreme Court had just ruled that Jones's sexual-harassment suit against President Bill Clinton could go forward. By a 9-0 vote, the justices had rejected the president's argument that chief executives are constitutionally protected from lawsuits resulting from their private actions. Jones began to cry. ""I couldn't believe they actually ruled for me,'' she told NEWSWEEK. ""You know, I feel like I've been done so dirty, and now this. I got my faith back in the system.''Bill Clinton was playing the role of world leader when...
  • Oh, What A Tangled Webb. . .

    IF WEBSTER HUBBELL FELT disgraced, he sure didn't show it. In the summer of 1994, just a few months after he quit a top job at the Justice Department amid allegations that he'd bilked his clients and his former law partners out of half a million dollars, Hubbell was living the good life. Though he was supposedly out of work and facing a criminal investigation by the Whitewater special prosecutor, Bill and Hillary Clinton's old Arkansas friend was flying first class between Little Rock and Washington. He was paying college tuition for two of his four kids. He told friends he was taking a "vacation" in Indonesia and went golfing in Bali. How could Hubbell, who used to take the subway to the office, afford it all? ...
  • A Shadowy Scandal

    ROGER TAMRAZ WAS A MAN WITH a plan--and all he needed was a nod from the president of the United States. Tamraz, born in Cairo of Lebanese parents, is an oil tycoon with an M.B.A. from Harvard and a knack for knowing all the right people in the Middle East. In 1995 he conceived the notion of building a 930-mile pipeline from Turkmenistan, the former Soviet republic on the Caspian Sea, to Turkey. The pipeline was to bring wealth to a backward region and, by passing through Armenia and Azerbaijan, help quell their bitter ethnic quarrel: Tamraz, who sells grandiose ideas with evangelical fervor, called it ""the pipeline of peace.'' U.S. backing was essential, and Tamraz had a plan for that, too. Despite his generous support of Republican causes in the past--his political convictions seem a bit changeable--Tamraz showed up one day at the Democratic National Committee's Washington headquarters and announced that he wanted to help the party. ...
  • With Friends Like These...

    HE WOULD CALL FROM THE LOBBY OF THE OLD EXECUTIVE Office Building--just yards from the White House. Johnny Chung rarely had an appointment, but he always carried the cachet of being a big-time Democratic moneyman--a Chinese-American entrepreneur who raised $366,000 that has since been returned because the party couldn't verify its true source. In his heyday, however, Chung often talked his way into the offices of Hillary Rodham Clinton. He came to the White House on more than 50 occasions since 1994; 21 of those visits were cleared through ""Hillaryland.'' ""He'd say he was in the main lobby and he'd badger the poor receptionist into letting him in,'' recalls an ally of the First Lady's. He'd get ""waved'' past security and plunk himself down on the striped silk armchair in the waiting area of Room 100, just outside the office of Maggie Williams, the First Lady's chief of staff. Chung loved bringing presents to the White House; he once gave the president a sweater. In March 1995 he...
  • From Little Rock To Malibu--And Back

    EVEN BY WASHINGTON STANDARDS, IT WAS AN EXTRAORDINARY ABOUT-FACE. ON Friday, just four days after Ken Starr abruptly announced he would quit in August for a job as dean of Pepperdine law school in Malibu, the Whitewater independent counsel called yet another press conference--and took it all back. The decision to leave had been unwise, he said. ""When I make a mistake, Starr admitted, ""it's a beaut.'' Starr now says he'll stay until his probe into the Clintons is ""substantially complete.'' ...
  • The White House Shell Game

    THERE WERE TWO weeks to go until Election Day, and the Democrats needed money--lots of it--to turn out their voters. On the night of Oct. 22 Bill Clinton was working a $1,500-a-person fund-raiser at the stately Biltmore Hotel in Miami when one of the guests slipped the president a business card. On the back was written: "My associate has $5 million he is prepared to donate to the DNC." Clinton started to walk away, glanced down at the card and stopped. In political fund raising, $5 million is a giant figure. The president turned back and looked at the man, a south Florida exporter named R. Warren Meddoff. "Let me have another one of those cards," said Clinton. He explained he wanted to give it to "a member of my staff." This wasn't just small talk. A few days later Meddoff got a call from White House deputy chief of staff Harold M. Ickes, the president's loyal, workaholic political point man. ...
  • Man In The Middle

    BRUCE LINDSEY IS EVERYTHING Bill Clinton isn't--thin, shy, short and unassuming. But the top White House aide couldn't be closer to his boss. When the president took a boat across Sydney harbor in Australia last week, most aides waited on shore. Lindsey was the only senior staffer aboard, standing at Clinton's side. ...
  • The Real Scandal Is What's Legal

    August 2, 1996. The Jefferson Hotel, Washington. Upstairs, chief Clinton strategist Dick Morris ordered champagne and an intimate dinner for two. He wanted to celebrate, he told prostitute Sherry Rowlands, because earlier that day President Clinton signed the welfare bill, putting the election ""in the bag.'' Downstairs, as the Secret Service secured the hotel for the president's arrival, Democratic officials prepared for their own kind of political flesh-peddling-- another fund-raising dinner for anyone with $50,000 or so to spare for the party. ""Let us resolve to reform our politics so that power and privilege no longer shout down the voice of the people,'' Clinton said in his inaugural address. Not that night. It's safe to say that no welfare mothers were dining with Clinton at the Jefferson. ...