The Talking Points

The day after the Lewinsky story broke, news organizations learned that on Jan. 14 Monica Lewinsky had handed Linda Tripp a three-page document that began "Points to make in an affidavit." The memo, which was dubbed the "talking points" in Newsweek's America on-line report, bedeviled news organizations for months though it scarcely makes an appearance in the Starr Report. In the height of the coverage, several different versions of the "official" memo emerged. In the Jan. 22 on-line story, Newsweek reported that it was not clear who wrote the talking points "but Starr believes that Lewinsky did not write them herself. He is investigating whether the instructions came from (Vernon) Jordan or other friends of the President." Because the memo was in pseudo-legalese, it was assumed that Lewinsky did not write the talking points. In the coverage that followed the Newsweek report, many journalists accepted and repeated this line of thinking. The memo became a potential "smoking gun" ( NBC , 1/22/98 ; USA Today 7/1/98) that many news organizations were chasing and trying to link to various Clinton friends and confidants even after it was clear there were different versions of the memo. In its Feb. 9 issue Time magazine said, "Starr may have good reason to press (Bruce) Lindsey under oath." On Feb. 23, Fox News reported that Starr thought Clinton himself might have helped write the memo.

Talk show hosts and guests speculated about the authorship and the likelihood that the talking points represented witness tampering. Several publications printed versions, speculated on the origins and implicated the President, Jordan or Lindsey. Some news accounts speculated that Starr's office was suspicious the talking points were a smoking gun and Fox News reported that it "has learned" that Lewinsky would not be immunized until she told who assisted in their writing.

After Lewinsky received immunity, several stories reported the talking points were no longer considered central to the investigation.

The Starr Report devotes just one paragraph and one footnote to the memo, saying that Lewinsky gave the document to Tripp and that she testified she wrote it herself perhaps with ideas from Tripp. The footnote says that in contrast Tripp testified she believed Lewinsky had assistance in drafting the talking points. The talking points are not mentioned among the "substantial and credible information that may constitute grounds for an impeachment."

The press cannot be held accountable for not knowing the authorship of the talking points. Nor is historical accuracy the standard by which the press should be accountable. Journalists can strive only for the best obtainable version of the truth at the time. But they can be held accountable for not reporting the limits of their knowledge and for not demonstrating a certain amount of skepticism for the information they gather.

A Chronology of the Talking Points:

  1. On 1/22, Newsweek disclosed the existence of the "talking points" memo, at its online site, reporting it was "not clear who prepared these talking points, but Starr believes that Lewinsky did not write them herself. He is investigating whether the instructions came from (Vernon) Jordan or other friends of the President."

  2. On 1/22, NBC News at Sunrise reported, "prosecutors suspect the President and his longtime friend, Vernon Jordan, tried to cover up allegations that Mr. Clinton was involved sexually with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and other women — which is why this document, obtained last night by NBC News, could be a smoking gun. It's called, 'Points to make in affidavit.'"
  3. On 1/24, US News Online published a version of the Talking Points containing the line: "You have never observed the President behaving inappropriately with anybody." It was the only version that would have the line.
  4. On 2/2, USA Today reported that Lindsey disavowed any responsibility for the talking points.
  5. In US News's 2/2 issue, an editor's note reported that the version posted was "only the first page and parts of the second page (and) that the copy we were given was retyped at least once.That could account for minor typographical differences of the talking points published by different news organizations."
  6. On 2/4, the NBC Nightly News, referring to the Talking Points memo, reported "Sources in Starr's office and close to Linda Tripp say they believe the instructions came from the White House. If true, that could help support a case of obstruction of justice."
  7. On 2/5, the Washington Post reported that in a proffered statement to the prosecutors "Lewinsky did not discuss the origins of one of the crucial pieces of evidence in the investigation — the so-called talking points. Sources said that Ginsburg had told prosecutors that Lewinsky was prepared to provide a full version of events — including the origin of the talking points — if an agreement was concluded based on her statement."
  8. On 2/5, USA Today ran a slightly different version of the memo.
  9. On 2/6, USA Today reported "Starr's investigators are exploring whether anyone close to Clinton prepared or knew about the talking points."
  10. On 2/8, the New York Times ran another slightly different version of the memo.
  11. In its 2/9 issue, Time said that in his appearance before the grand jury, "potentially the most damaging questions for (Bruce) Lindsey will concern the list of 'talking points' that Lewinsky allegedly gave Linda Tripp in mid-January, shortly before Tripp was scheduled to give a deposition in the Paula Jones case. The origins of the talking points remain a big mystery, but Starr may have good reason to press Lindsey under oath."
  12. On 2/10, the Washington Post ran yet another slightly different version of the memo's text along with analysis of it and interviews with lawyers who "concluded that the document may have a lawyer's hand behind it."
  13. On 2/19, the New York Times reported "It is unclear who wrote the talking points and whether they were given to Ms. Tripp on Jan. 14 to encourage her to give false testimony in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit against the President. These are questions of intense interest to Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr, said lawyers close to his investigation.The talking points could be an important piece of physical evidence showing that there were unlawful efforts to encourage false testimony in the Jones case.Whether the genesis of the somewhat clumsily crafted talking points memorandum will ever be known is unclear."
  14. On 2/19, CNN confused matters when they used the term "talking points" to describe an altogether different memo Lewinsky had told Tripp she had taken off her boss Ken Bacon's desk, about an overseas journey by the President. CNN said, "Sources independent of the investigation who took notes while listening to the secretly recorded tapes tell CNN Lewinsky stole what she described as the 'talking points' to try to position herself to be on the trip. Lewinsky's lawyer is denouncing release of this information"
  15. On 2/23, Fox News Special reported "according to sources" Starr's team is "considering the possibility that President Clinton helped Monica Lewinsky write the so-called 'Talking Points' memo'" because they met at the White House on Dec. 27, "just a few weeks before Lewinsky gave Linda Tripp the memo.
  16. On 3/7, the New York Times reported, "Based largely on two pieces of evidence — those talking points and the secret tapes made by Mrs. Tripp of her conversations with Ms. Lewinsky — Mr. Starr is trying to determine whether the President, Mr. Jordan, Ms. Lewinsky or others set about to obstruct justice in the Jones case by lying, concealing evidence, and tampering with witnesses."
  17. On 3/10, the Washington Post reported, "Because of (Bruce) Lindsey's earlier discussions with (Linda) Tripp about the (Kathleen) Willey incident, prosecutors appear to be trying to learn whether he had any role in helping Lewinsky prepare the three-page document. Lindsey, who has been summoned to the grand jury twice, has denied any connection to the Talking Points."
  18. In its 3/23 issue, Newsweek reported Lewinsky appeared to know what Clinton would say in the Kathleen Willey case, that Clinton would be extremely upset if Tripp contradicted him, according to Lewinsky, who added Tripp and her children were "'in danger' if she didn't testify the right way about the Willey episode." Lewinsky then handed Tripp the talking points, the story said, and that Tripp doubted they had been written by Lewinsky and thought "one part of the talking points seemed to echo the approach, if not the actual words, of Bruce Lindsey."
  19. On the 4/19 This Week, Tripp lawyer Anthony Zaccagnini denied the Talking Points said "Please lie about this." "I think the purpose of the talking points was to provide someone a means of communicating certain information without incriminating anyone," he said.
  20. On 5/18, the Washington Times reported, "Mr. Starr, according to lawyers and others close to the grand jury probe, wants to know what White House Deputy Counsel Bruce R. Lindsey and senior aide Sidney Blumenthal know about the source of the summary, or 'talking points' that were given to Mrs. Tripp by Miss Lewinsky, the former White House intern. The summary, which prosecutors are convinced was not written by Miss Lewinsky, could corroborate accusations of a White House attempt to obstruct justice and suborn perjury in the Jones suit, sources said.
  21. On 6/10, Fox News Special reported, "Fox News has learned investigators working for (Starr) won't consider a deal for immunity until Lewinsky reveals who helped her write the so-called 'Talking points' memo. Fox interviewed former Independent Counsel Michael Zeldin: "If you can establish that Vernon Jordan, the President or the President's agents gave these to Monica Lewinsky with the intent to have her improperly influence Linda Tripp to lie, then you've got something there."
  22. On 6/11, the New York Times reported "The talking points memorandum and the Tripp-Lewinsky tapes form the backbone of the independent counsel's inquiry into whether anyone lied or obstructed justice over Ms. Lewinsky's relationship with President Clinton."
  23. On CNBC, 6/17, Chris Matthews: "What I think is the toughest nut to crack here, could it be that Monica is not protecting Bruce Lindsey, and not Bob Bennett, not Vernon Jordan, but the person who may have given her the talking points may in fact have been the person she had the closest relationship with, the person who had the closest relationship with her, and that's the President. But if the President gave her the talking points, she can't give him away without bringing down this administration.I'll tell you one thing, if every prosecutor in this country were as tough as Ken Starr, the streets would be swept of criminals right now."
  24. On 6/22, The Washington Times reported that Starr "has focused on White House Deputy Counsel Bruce R. Lindsey" as the possible source for the talking points. "Specifically, the independent counsel's office is trying to gather evidence to bolster the following scenario: Mrs. Tripp relayed her concerns to Miss Lewinsky, who mentioned them to Mr. Clinton. The president then briefed Mr. Lindsey, his closest adviser, who responded by arranging for Miss Lewinsky to give Mrs. Tripp the talking points."
  25. On 6/29, USA Today reported "The document has emerged as possible evidence of obstruction of justice as Starr investigates whether Clinton or his associates made attempts to conceal the president's encounters with women."
  26. USA Today on 7/1 reported that the Talking Points memo might prove to be the most important evidence. The writers quoted "legal experts" saying the talking points are "the meat of possible obstruction of justice or witness-tampering charges. They quote Paul Rothstein, law professor at George Washington University: "The talking points are the closest thing to a smoking gun in this case." With the story is what they describe as "the actual text" of the talking points.
  27. On the 7/6 CNN Burden of Proof, English Professor John Gillis discussed his report, co-authored with Skip Fox, on the origin of the talking point. He believes there were two authors: "Our hypothesis is that it was some lawyer that was working on Linda Tripp's behalf very conscientious, albeit in haste. The second author seems to be some friend or confidante of Linda Tripp, and you can make your own guesses. We believe the most likely candidate would be Lucianne Goldberg." They speculate she emailed parts of the talking points to Tripp. In an online report on "The Real News Page" on Sept. 17, Gallagher and Fox asserted that sometime subsequent to this TV appearance Lucianne Goldberg reported her hard drive failed.
  28. On 7/27, the New York Times reported "The talking points, which seemed intended to coach Mrs. Tripp in possible testimony about Mr. Clinton, are central to Mr. Starr's effort to determine whether obstruction of justice occurred."
  29. On CNBC 7/29, Chris Matthews asked Lucianne Goldberg about the speculation that Lewinsky wrote the talking points with ideas from Linda Tripp. "I haven't spoken to Linda about it," she responded, "but I suggest that what happened would be that they were they were working out what they were going to do about the Willey situation, who was going to say what. And Linda said, 'well, if you want to know what I say about it, go and read the letter I wrote to Newsweek last summer.' So Monica toodles off, gets that language and incorporates it into her typing."
  30. On 7/29, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer interviewed print reporters on a Starr investigation update segment. The Time correspondent reported the talking points "to date had been the most tangible possible evidence of obstruction of justice that could have made in any case against the White House. Now we have Monica Lewinsky saying nobody at the White House helped me write them"

The Starr Report and Supporting Documents

The Starr report devotes only one paragraph to the talking points. It is as follows:

"On January 14, Ms Lewinsky gave Ms. Tripp a three-page document regarding "points to make in [Ms. Tripp's] affidavit." Ms Lewinsky testified that she wrote the document herself, although some of the ideas may have been inspired by conversations with Ms. Tripp."

There is also a footnote. It reads: "Ms. Tripp, in contrast, testified that she believed Ms. Lewinsky received assistance in drafting the talking points."