Editor's note: In the fall of 1999, President Bill Clinton endured
something to which he was not accustomed -- a member of the news media
challenging him with tough questions about issues of concern to the
American people. WorldNetDaily Washington bureau chief Paul Sperry,
then a reporter with Investor's Business Daily, went toe-to-toe with the
president during a picnic on the White House south lawn. The widely
publicized confrontation caused Clinton so much consternation that
Sperry was subsequently banished from the White House.
The following was originally published as the cover story for WorldNet Magazine (later renamed Whistleblower) in February 2000.
WASHINGTON -- There's probably no finer place to throw a party than the South Lawn of the White House, and no better time to do it than on a mild and breezy day in early fall. And there's probably no guest more grateful for such a free fete than the Washington press corps.
My colleagues will climb over each other to get to a table full of rubbery hoagies, soggy chips and stale Budweiser. Doesn't matter what it is, really, so long as it's free.
But this. This was hog's heaven for the cheap scribes who filed onto the White House grounds that Friday night in September for a Cajun party in their honor. What a spread. On red-checkered picnic tables spanning the length of the plush green lawn, beckoned trays of jambalaya, boudin and boiled shrimp.
And the bars, under colorful tents, were stocked full of liquor. No kegs here. Black-tie-clad help poured your favorite libation from bottles. Forget Budweiser; they had Guinness Stout and other imported brews. Fine reds and whites, too, and highballs. All free.
Zydeco tunes skipped across the crowd of giddy guests. As the sunny day faded to dusk, the soft lights of the White House portico glowed behind us. Intoxicating. What a night.
But, for me, there was still something wrong with this party -- namely, the host.
President Clinton, the function's main attraction, was due to make a cameo appearance at any moment. Despite having to wade through 40-plus scandals over the previous seven years, my cohorts in the press were all atwitter at the prospect of pumping Clinton's arm and snapping shots of him with their spouses and kids.
Just 48 hours earlier, four FBI agents had testified before the Senate that Justice Department lawyers had stopped them from pursuing leads back to Clinton in the ongoing campaign-finance investigation.
Not only that, agents swore that lawyers for months had blocked their request to ask a judge for a warrant to search the Little Rock, Ark., office of Clinton fund-raiser Yah Lin "Charlie" Trie. Agents sifting through his trash found that key records subpoenaed by the Senate had been shredded.
Among the torn-up documents: checks from Asian donors to Clinton's legal defense fund, Democratic National Committee donor lists, travel records for Chinese money men and statements from Chinese bank accounts. There was also a FedEx slip showing the White House had sent two pounds of documents to Trie just two months before a 1997 Senate probe of Chinagate kicked off.
What's more, one agent said 27 pages of notes detailing her struggles with Justice over the Trie case were ripped out of spiral notebooks after she turned them over to her superiors.
The explosive testimony was ignored by most of the media. But I couldn't shake it from my mind, no matter the occasion. Was Clinton's attorney general covering for him in one of the gravest probes in U.S. history, one with national security implications? Did Clinton have any knowledge of it?
Sometime after 6 p.m., the president emerged from the Oval Office. Dressed in a suit, he strolled down the walkway, only to disappear through a doorway. His aide Sidney Blumenthal strolled on and joined the crowd. At his side was Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. (I ran into Markey later in the evening inside the White House. He was giving his wife and father a tour. Markey's now all over the TV talk shows flacking for Vice President Al Gore's campaign.)
The suspense built as the guests closed in around a loose rope line that stretched from the edges of the Oval Office area to the stage where the band played. Then, at last, Clinton came out of the White House wearing what can only be described as a get-up -- tight black pullover shirt, tight black pants with a big silver-buckle black belt and black cowboy boots.
Strutting past me, he looked like a bad imitation of Johnny Cash. Or was it an over-the-hill Elvis? Tom Jones? Whatever, the silver-haired devil made a beeline for the stage, climbed up on it and drawled on about how great it was for all of us to be there with him on such a wonderful night listening to such great music. At that, a guest tried to hand a tenor saxophone up to him. Several painted-up women pushed their way to the stage. By the way, Clinton remarked, "Hillary wanted to be here with y'all, but she's up in New York tonight." Wink-wink.
Little did he know that in just a few minutes, a rude guest would give him a Maalox moment to remember and probably spoil any entertainment plans he had for the evening.
As Clinton worked the rope line on his way back toward the White House, it was hard not to be taken up in the electricity of the moment. Everyone was having such a good time. And a buoyant Clinton was working the crowd, yucking it up like no one can. At one point, he was even wearing baubles around his neck. Husbands were offering up their wives and children for grip-and-grin shots. Photojournalists were camped out like paparazzi. Why not? A notorious celebrity was in their midst. Even one of my reporters was snapping shots with his instamatic -- for his wife.
I stood there slack-jawed, watching one powerful journalist after another clamor like so many fawning teen rock-idol fans to grasp the hand of the most corrupt president in U.S. history.
So many scandals, so many unanswered questions -- so many unasked questions. National security at stake. That little boy there, that little girl over there ... your sons, your daughters. Don't you care what this president has or hasn't done with our military secrets?
Maybe I just cared too much. Relax. Yes, have a good time; it is a party after all. Don't be so serious. Loosen up.
But just as I was about to give in to the perverse euphoria, suspending disbelief about the harmlessness of old Slick like everyone else around me, I recalled a Proverb I'd read that morning -- "Do not envy wicked men, do not desire their company" -- and I closed my eyes for strength.
It was my turn to meet the celebrity president. As he approached me, I politely, if coolly, asked him when he would hold his next formal press conference. It had been several months since his last and he's had fewer than any recent president. I admit I was trying to agitate the proper forum for questions about the FBI agents' charges. But, to me, this was still a rather innocuous question, even within the supposedly neutral zone of a party. A relevant question, too, given the gathering. Other hard-nosed reporters surely were wondering when they'd get another crack at Clinton.
Or so I thought. My simple question was rewarded with boos and hisses from the adoring Clinton groupies around me. So much for the adversarial press.
But that was nothing compared with Clinton's reaction to my inquiry about his next press confab. In an instant, his 100-watt charm shut off, replaced by a taunting belligerence. "Why?" he barked.
"Because the American people have a lot of unanswered questions," I replied, struggling to hold my bladder. At that point, he moved back down the rope, pulling up square in front of me, and demanded, "Like what?"
"Well, like illegal money from China and the campaign-finance scandal ..."
What happened over the next 10 minutes was nothing short of a "scene." The party-goers collapsed in around us. I watched the blood rush to Clinton's gargantuan face as he launched into a tirade against ex-Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, the FBI, Bob Dole and Republicans in general. All the while, he tried to belittle me by making faces (to get a rise out of his fans) and intimidate me by getting in my face.
And now I can see how he can do that to people. Clinton's not just intellectually intimidating, he's physically imposing. He's tall (6-2) and big-boned.
Luckily, I'm the same height and was able to stand toe-to-toe and eye-to-eye with him. I'll never forget the maniacal look in his bloodshot eyes. There was a moment, fleeting, where I sensed he wanted to try to take a swipe at me. I was getting full frontal Clinton. His volcanic temper, hidden so well from the public by his handlers, erupted less than 12 inches from my eyes.
Clinton always is game for a debate. That I asked him hard questions at a party wasn't what ticked him off. It's what I asked him about. He clearly doesn't want to talk about the mother of all scandals -- Chinagate.
He also may have been thrown by my grasp of the facts. I'd been tracking the Beijing-tied Lippo Group's influence in the Clinton White House since 1996 and have been suspicious of the probity of Attorney General Janet Reno's special task force since she let John Keeney Sr. set it up -- a month after the election -- to look into Lippo's influence.
Keeney's son is none other than a defense attorney for John Huang, the former Lippo executive and convicted Clinton-Gore fund-raiser. Junior, who's also a long-time Democratic National Committee lawyer, cut Huang a deal with daddy's old task force that got him no jail time and immunity from prosecution for espionage.
Clinton also was unprepared for my tenacity. Other reporters may back down after he singes their eyebrows with a verbal fusillade. Dummy me, I hung in there for more abuse, challenging his answers, following up with more questions. Which only made him madder.
Take, for instance, the exchange we had after I asked him what he thought of the FBI agents' charges two days earlier that they'd been blocked from following trails back to the White House in the Chinagate probe. (When I first mentioned the agents, he acted dumb: "What FBI agents?")
"The Eff-Bee-Ahh," Clinton said, his tone dripping with contempt and suspicion. "What do you think of the FBI?"
I don't have an opinion, sir. My question is to you.
"Yeah, the FBI wants you to write about that rather than write about Waco," a reference to lingering questions about the agency's role in the 1993 fire that killed Branch Davidian separatists in Waco, Texas.
It was an extraordinary remark. The president was questioning the motives and veracity of his own agency.
I piped up that these were career FBI agents. One had been with the agency 25 years. And they made these charges under oath.
"Are you suggesting they're not telling the truth, Mr. President?" I asked.
Clinton's face turned a darker hue of red, almost the purplish color of raw hamburger meat that's been left out on the counter. Changing the subject, he attacked Republicans for their own fund-raising woes.
After Clinton had had enough of me, he tried to move on. But, I pressed, reminding him that he still hadn't answered my original question: When will you have another formal news conference?
"You just had one," he snapped.
With that, I turned around and knifed my way through the crowd that had gathered. Two women -- one from AP, then another from CNN -- rushed up to me. Both asked what got Clinton so angry.
"Why'd he turn so red?" asked one. Good question, I said, then replayed the exchange for them. Both asked for my card, though neither of their news agencies filed a story.
Before grabbing a plate of Cajun food and a much-needed cold one, I scribbled down what Clinton had told me on some White House napkins and left the grounds soon after. As I made my way to the Metro station, I realized my knees were a bit wobbly.
Still dazed by the time I got home, I trudged in the front door and only half-jokingly told my wife to prepare for an IRS audit. As I did radio shows around the country over the next few weeks, I found I wasn't the only one with that thought. Except callers weren't fooling.
Some warned me to get my tax forms in order and "not to take any plane trips." They were concerned I'd pay a heavy price for "standing up to the scary occupant of the White House," as one put it.
Another radio caller reckoned "there is a lot of info from FBI files being used to leverage reporters." (That's actually not so far-fetched. White House correspondents have to submit to background checks.)
One wise guy actually posted a phony Washington Post obituary on the Internet.
"Paul Sperry, the Washington bureau chief of Investor's Business Daily, was found in the swimming pool of his Richmond, Va., home early this morning," the prankster wrote. "He had apparently shot himself in the head in his living room before throwing himself fully clothed into the pool. A .45-caliber bullet was found in his skull and he was holding the suicide weapon, a 9 mm automatic with the serial numbers filed off.
"His notes and home computer were found burning in a trash can," he added. "Police were alerted to the body by an anonymous tip. No foul play is suspected."
I'm of the mind that the president and first lady, both of whom have strangely gone out of their way to remind the public that they've "even been accused of murder," like that people think that. It breeds fear, and fear makes those who might otherwise confront the Clintons with the facts think twice about doing so.
Still, after taking calls into the wee morning hours, such thoughts didn't exactly help me sleep over the next several days as the story grew legs.
Saturday night, Sept. 25: As I was typing up my story, James Grimaldi, a reporter for the Seattle Times, called me at home. He had been covering the Microsoft trial in Washington but he was working on another story -- mine -- and had a few questions for me.
Turns out Grimaldi was standing right next to me during the exchange with Clinton. He heard the whole thing and we compared notes. He said he was filing a story for the Times' Sunday edition. At first, I was frosted seeing that Grimaldi would beat my story. My paper at the time, Investor's Business Daily, only publishes Monday through Friday and Monday's paper is put to bed on Friday. So my story wouldn't run till Tuesday.
Even so, I was thankful that another major paper would corroborate the interview.
"The blood was rushing in and out of his face," Grimaldi observed over the phone. "He actually blew up. His initial blow-up was unexpected and unanticipated."
He counted at least 10 exchanges, "back and forth." Not one question I asked, he said, was "rude" or "disrespectful," although the entire impromptu interview could be construed as such. He also said Clinton "was baiting you" into asking more questions.
At one point, Grimaldi said the official White House photographer standing behind Clinton shouted: "This is so inappropriate! This is so inappropriate!" I never heard him. Clinton's own shouting must have drowned him out.
Tuesday night, Sept. 28:
The Drudge Report posted a story at the top of its website: "Fight Club: Furious Clinton Orders Reporter Banned After Grilling!"
Wednesday, Sept. 29, at 3:12 p.m. EDT: In the White House briefing room, a Washington Times reporter asked Clinton spokesman Joe Lockhart about Clinton's FBI remark. But Lockhart brushed him off. Then the reporter asked about the Drudge Report.
Before answering, Lockhart lectured reporters on the "virtues or lack thereof" of using citizen cyberjournalist Matt Drudge as a news source. He nonetheless confirmed Drudge's report.
"I was asked for comment from the reporter about the incident and I made the comment that the only regret I have is inviting him to the party -- and I wouldn't make that mistake again," he explained. "So to the extent that we judge coverage of this building by the parties, he's banned."
Lockhart left the impression that he personally told me I was banned. And that's the way the press reported it.
In fact, Lockhart never called me. He had his girl give me the news. And even she passed it along sheepishly.
On Monday, Sept. 27, I had called Lockhart's deputy Jake Siewart to see if the president wanted to clarify any of the remarks he made to me. Siewart replied, bluntly, that Clinton "doesn't regret making" them.
Not 10 minutes after I hung up, a woman called from the White House identifying herself as Lockhart's assistant. She had a message for me.
What is it? I asked.
"I didn't say it. It's not coming from me," she assured me, speaking under her breath. "It's specifically from Joe Lockhart."
All right, what?
"The only regret we have is inviting you to the party," she said, quoting her boss, "and we won't make that mistake again."
Is he serious? I asked.
How juvenile, I thought, but how predictable for this White House.
I left that part out of my story at the request of my editor, who asked me to divorce myself from the story as much as I could.
But the next day, Drudge called from Hollywood and asked about the story which, by then, was bouncing around the Internet. I mentioned being kicked off the invite list. He wasted no time in posting the news later that night on his website.
Where Drudge got the "Class A s--thead" slur, I don't know. No one from Lockhart's office uttered it to me. (Could it be that Drudge has a mole in the White House?) If Lockhart indeed used the childish epithet, he clearly was accusing me of being a relative.
Wednesday, Sept. 29: Washington Post reporter Beth Berselli called my editor Wes Mann in Los Angeles for comment on the Drudge Report. Her first question: "So what disciplinary action do you plan to take against your reporter?"
The presumption of guilt came through loud and clear in the next day's "Reliable Source" column she helped pen. Reporting with the certainty of an eyewitness, Berselli said I "ambushed" Clinton.
Only, she wasn't there. She relied on the account of Lockhart, who told her I was "badgering" the president. Only, Lockhart wasn't there either. Berselli never talked to me.
I never planned to buttonhole the president, but I'm glad I did. His heated reaction to simple questions was revealing. And I pried away some remarkable quotes, particularly about the FBI.
Though admittedly a far cry from the backbiting seen during Watergate, there hasn't been this much tension between a president and his chief law enforcement agency since President Nixon.
It was news. Big news. Yet the Washington press corps, by and large, passed on the meat of the story and focused instead on the theater of a reporter mixing it up with the president at a picnic.
"National Papers Miss Flare-Up Highlighting Clinton-FBI Rift," said a report in Media Critic, an online newsletter of the nonpartisan Center for Media & Public Affairs in Washington.
"Beltway Blinders: Smaller Papers' Scoops Get Little Notice," said White House correspondent Josh Gerstein in his ABCNEWS.com column. Gerstein was the only reporter who picked up my line of questioning with Clinton. On Oct. 1, as Clinton was dashing off to California, he pressed Clinton to open up more about his problems with the FBI, though without much luck.
Sure, the New York Times and the Washington Post eventually used my revealing quotes, while holding their noses and calling me "rude" and "impertinent" for extracting them at a social event -- as if I were the first to do that. According to former press secretaries, both Sam Donaldson and Helen Thomas worked over President Reagan and President Bush at press parties and state dinners.
A social aide for Reagan told me the two veteran correspondents were hectoring the president to such a degree during one dinner that she and other aides had to literally put their bodies between them and the president to spare the guests from more obnoxious shouting at closer range.
Funny how the press corps suddenly stands on ceremony when a Democrat is in the White House.
The old bar flies at the National Press Club roundly booed me when they saw me talking about the dust-up on one of the Fox News shows. And they weren't just booing my TV performance.
Though I clearly exposed a nerve on Chinagate, the White House press corps has failed to tap into it. At Clinton's Feb. 16 press conference, no reporter plied him with questions on the still-mushrooming conspiracy and now-fully active cover-up -- even though 10 days earlier the Los Angeles Times had reported that a foreign donor with ties to the People's Liberation Army laundered money through convicted Clinton fund-raiser Trie (who, it turns out, drove around Beijing in a PLA-issue car).
Citing FBI interviews, the story also revealed Trie sought "fund-raising help" from the Chinese consulate in Houston right after Clinton told him he was running for president early last decade.
Did Clinton in fact meet with Trie back then? What did they talk about? Did he have any idea that his Arkansas friend was so tight with the communists in Beijing? No one bothered to ask.
If I get banned for asking tough questions about a deadly serious scandal (unlike the Lewinsky affair), what does that say about all those among the White House press corps who haven't been banned? Are they tossing up softballs?
"I've been all around this country, and you are the first person to ask me about (Chinagate)," Clinton claimed. "Not one person has brought that up."
Maybe no one among the media elite. But average Americans have. Surely, Clinton's heard or seen the placard-waving citizens who for months have been protesting his blind appeasement of China at the north entrance to the White House. Many of them are tied to
FreeRepublic.com, which has built a compelling chronology of the Chinagate scandal.
Investor's Business Daily got more than 1,100 e-mails and letters and hundreds of phone calls from readers. All but one were supportive (the lone dissenting voice wished I'd asked about the homeless). And most demanded more answers about Chinagate. Here is a sample:
"When President Clinton said Mr. Sperry was the first person to ask about the Chinese campaign finance scandal, he showed just how badly the American people are being under-served by the media," said T. Downs of Neptune Beach, Fla. "We Americans really would like to know what went on in the Chinese funny-money scandal."
Wrote Wendy Jacques of Farmington Hills, Mich.: "I read what happened to you when the president did not wish to answer your factually-based question regarding the apparent cover-up by the Justice Department of the president's acceptance of illegal campaign donations and apparent compromise of our country's national security in exchange for those donations. I admire you for asking an important question."
"Keep going after this China thing," said Jerry Hatch of Idaho Falls, Idaho.
Christopher Sivley of Decatur, Ala., said: "If the president took illegal money from the Chinese in exchange for U.S. technology, then he is guilty of treason. It's about time the press started ... asking real questions."
"Thank you for your courage in asking the president to explain to the people of the United States why he sold our secrets and weapons technology to the Chinese for campaign money," wrote Esther Nobrega, Nashua, N.H.
Patrick Giagnocavo e-mailed: "Please know that I, too, would like to see many more answers from the White House concerning the very serious, very detailed charges of what can only be called treason."
"I send my appreciation to Mr. Sperry for asking President Clinton about China and campaign finance," wrote Connie Ward of Pensacola, Fla. "I am disgusted by the president's response."
"Despite what Mr. Clinton says, the American people do want to know," said Michael McTaggart.
R. North responded: "About time somebody rattled his cage about a very important matter."
"Please thank Mr. Sperry for his courage in confronting the president with questions about the Chinese contributions to the DNC," Bill Bynum e-mailed. "The president hasn't heard those questions asked in his travels around the U.S. because he is shielded. But I guarantee there are people like me who want answers to them."
Michael Audette insisted: "I, for one, am very interested in his connections with the People's Republic of China."
"It's about time the news media stopped giving Clinton a pass," wrote R.H. Langill of Plainfield, N.H. "The selling of policy for Chinese money in 1996 and probably earlier should be completely aired."
"Paul Sperry is to be congratulated for his efforts. He is asking what many Americans want to know," said J.A. Brady of Mashpee, Mass. "I hope that other reporters will also ask President Clinton for more details about his involvement. Clinton has never been held accountable for his part in those fund-raising activities due to the stonewalling of Attorney General Janet Reno. Please continue to press for answers."
Bo Mosley of Honolulu wrote: "The China fund-raising scandal has burned me to the core, and I am pleased to see that some inside the Beltway are just as concerned as I am."
"Someone has to have the guts to ask some of these questions," said Steve Tronnes of Edgerton, Wis. "If there wasn't anything to any of these allegations, then the president would not have gone ballistic."
Excellent point, but one apparently lost on my normally hard-boiled colleagues. They seem more interested in currying favor with this White House and maintaining their good standing in the Washington cocktail class than ferreting out the truth for the American people and holding the president accountable for sending our national security to China in a handbasket.
The press corps should be ashamed that a single reporter was able to fire off as many, if not more, specific and tough questions at the president about Chinagate in 10 minutes than they've managed to do in the three years since this scandal broke. Did I pay a price in becoming the persona non grata of the Clinton White House? Yes, but I wear it as a badge of honor. I did my job. Now it's your turn.