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Newsweek Writer Michael Isikoff Discusses the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal.

Newsweek writer Michael Isikoff has written the new book "Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story." (Crown) It details his investigation into the Monica Lewinsky affair. Before joining Newsweek in 1994, he wrote for The Washington Post. He also serves as news analyst for MSNBC and is a frequent guest on NBC's Meet the Press. Isikoff lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland.


Other segments from the episode on April 14, 1999

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 14, 1999: Interview with Michael Isikoff; Interview with Serge Schmemann.


Date: APRIL 14, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 041401np.217
Head: Michael Isikoff
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The war in Yugoslavia eclipsed what had been the national obsession, the presidential sex scandal. But this week it was back in the news. A federal judge held President Clinton in contempt of court, saying he had willfully provided false testimony under oath about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in the Paula Jones sexual misconduct lawsuit.

And today, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr urged a Senate panel not to renew the independent counsel law that authorizes the position.

Journalist Michael Isikoff has covered the presidential sex scandal since Paula Jones' 1994 press conference in which she alleged that the president sexually harassed her. Isikoff was the first reporter on to the Monica Lewinsky story.

Now he's written a book about investigating the scandal called "Uncovering Clinton." Isikoff was a reporter for "The Washington Post" from 1981 till '94 when he joined "Newsweek."

He first heard about Monica Lewinsky through Linda Tripp. He told me how Tripp became his source.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF, JOURNALIST, "NEWSWEEK" MAGAZINE; AUTHOR, "UNCOVERING CLINTON: A REPORTER'S STORY": In January of 1997, at the time that the Supreme Court was hearing arguments about whether the Paula Jones case should go forward, I received some information from one of the Jones lawyers, Joe Cammarata, about an anonymous phone call he had gotten at just about that time involving another woman.

He didn't know who the woman was, but there were a number of clues as to the identity of the other woman. The other woman claimed that something like what happened to Paula Jones had happened to her while she was in the White House -- while she was working at the White House.

I eventually, taking the clues and the tips from the anonymous phone call, figured out that this woman was most likely Kathleen Willey. I asked her for the names of any people who she had related this incident to at the time.

And one of the women she mentioned was Linda Tripp.

GROSS: The first time she offered to play you tape of her phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky you declined to hear the tape. Why did you decline?

ISIKOFF: It was a very uncomfortable situation. I had been talking on and off to Tripp for months, first about the Willey incident, but she had made clear to me that the Willey incident was not the real story here.

She thought there was a more serious story that was ongoing involving a young woman whose identity she was at that point not willing to divulge. But who was a former White House intern who was then working for another agency of the United States government, and had been involved in an ongoing sexual relationship with the president.

And I certainly wanted to know a bit more, especially when she said that the relationship involved efforts by the president to placate her by finding her employment. Either within the federal government at other federal agencies or, as it later turned out, outside -- outside the government.

I got invited in October of 1997 to attend a meeting at the apartment of Jonah Goldberg, the son of a New York literary agent -- Lucianne Goldberg. Who Tripp said was advising her about what to do about all this.

And I attended the meeting, and for the first time learned that Tripp had been secretly taping her conversations with Lewinsky. And that's when I first learned the name Monica Lewinsky. I didn't know it until I went to the meeting, and I didn't know that there was any taping involved.

But I -- taping without somebody else's consent is not something that I as a reporter do. And given that Tripp informed me that she was -- that her secret taping of this woman, Monica Lewinsky, was ongoing at that time, I did not want to become involved or immersed in that process. I was more than willing, and quite eager, to hear what Linda Tripp had to tell me about what Lewinsky had told her.

But I did not want to participate even by extension in the taping of Monica Lewinsky, and declined to listen to the tapes.

GROSS: When did you change your mind about listening?

ISIKOFF: When I learned much later that Ken Starr, the independent counsel, had launched a secret criminal investigation of the president and the tapes were the central evidence in this -- in this investigation. At that point, A, the taping by Tripp was completed -- was not an ongoing process.

And that most the part that bothered me the most. But more importantly, at that point I thought it was very important to hear what was on the tapes and what was the evidence in this investigation of the president.

GROSS: At one point in your discussions with Linda Tripp she suggested that she tried to steal the semen stained dress and get it to you. Would you describe her plan?

ISIKOFF: Well, it was -- it was pretty unusual to say the least. As I say, during this period of the fall of 1997 I was in touch with Tripp, and to a lesser extent Lucianne Goldberg -- sort of hearing what they had to say. But mainly working on other stores.

And then one -- as I describe in the book -- one morning I receive a somewhat breathless call from a whispering Linda Tripp telling me that she had been to Lewinsky's apartment the night before and she had been shown this dress that Lewinsky had told her had the president's semen on it.

And, you know, she said, "what do you think?" And I said, "well, I think that's rather incredible." What else could one say under those circumstances? And she said, "what do you think?" And I said, "about what?" And she said, "do you think I should take it?"

And at that point I was a bit startled and said, "and do what with it?" And she said, "give it to you." And I paused and said, "what would I do with it?" And she said, "well, you could have it tested."

And at this point I sort of took a deep breath and said, "what is going on here?" I tried to impress upon her that there really wasn't anything I could do with the dress. Even if I were inclined to take it, which I would not have been because I was not about to become a party to theft, there would be no practical way for me to test it anyway.

I didn't have a sample of the president's DNA. There wasn't anything I could do with that dress to prove the relationship between Lewinsky and the president.

And I mostly sort of, you know, just sort of chalked it up as something rather a bizarre development and thought that Tripp was a bit strange to say the least in asking me about this -- and sort of put it aside. And of course, you know, months later the dress returned in a rather significant way.

GROSS: What were your thoughts about Linda Tripp as a source? On the one hand, she was giving you great information. On the other hand, you know, she was secretly taping phone conversations with somebody who was ostensibly a friend. She was offering to steal that friend's dress and give it to you so that you could get it tested in a laboratory.

ISIKOFF: I thought that I was profoundly ambivalent about all this. You're right, you know, I was a reporter and I was interested in her information because it was -- it seemed to me that it was potentially quite newsworthy.

On the other hand, I did have a lot of doubts about what she was doing and about the role that I was playing even in listening to what she had to say. But it was clear to me, or became increasingly clear, that she saw me as the vehicle to get the story out.

Now I, you know, there was a coincidence of interests here, because if what she was telling me was true and if all of what she was telling me was true; I thought it said quite a bit about Bill Clinton. I thought it was particularly in the context of the ongoing Paula Jones lawsuit.

It was rather shocking behavior by the president. It was rather reckless behavior by the president. And it had the potential to create great disruption to his presidency.

On the other hand, I was very wary of Tripp and of becoming too immersed in what increasingly became clear, and I didn't know everything at the time. I only learned these things over time. But her machinations involved to essentially entrap the president were -- gave me a great deal of pause as well.

GROSS: At what point did you think it's time to actually print something about Monica Lewinsky?

ISIKOFF: Not until I learned in a rather -- on a rather dramatic afternoon that Tripp had gone to Starr. That Starr had launched this secret criminal investigation of the president. That he had wired Tripp for a lunch with Lewinsky at the Ritz-Carlton hotel.

And at that point there was no question in my mind that for an independent counsel to go to this extraordinary length of launching a secret criminal investigation of the president, and wiring a woman in an effort to sting the president's alleged girlfriend; that that was a quite monumental story.

That would tell us as much about Ken Starr as it would about Bill Clinton. In fact, my initial reaction when I heard about Starr getting involved in this was "that's nuts." And that this was going to blow up in somebody's face, and whether it was going to be Bill Clinton or Ken Starr at that point, I didn't know.

I thought it was as equally possible that it was going to blow up in Starr's face and discredit Starr as it would Clinton. I think at the end it probably brought much discredit to both men, but at least that's how I initially perceived it.

GROSS: My guest is "Newsweek" reporter Michael Isikoff. His new book is called "Uncovering Clinton." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Michael Isikoff. He's written a new book about covering the presidential sex scandal called, "Uncovering Clinton."

Would you describe the debate at "Newsweek" about whether to publish the Monica Lewinsky story when you thought it was time to go with it.

ISIKOFF: Yes, and it was quite dramatic because it took place on the same Saturday that Clinton was being deposed in the Paula Jones lawsuit and being asked questions about Monica Lewinsky; having no idea at that point that the allegations of his relationship with Lewinsky were known not just to "Newsweek" magazine, but to the independent counsel Ken Starr.

And that he was at that moment the subject of a criminal investigation into obstruction and subornation of perjury. At that point we knew all this at "Newsweek." We also knew that Starr had gone to the Justice Department and that Janet Reno had authorized an expanded mandate for Starr to conduct this investigation.

Stripped of the sexual dimension, this would have been a no-brainer. It was at that point a matter of official record that Starr had received an expanded mandate to conduct this new criminal investigation of the president, and had gone to this, you know as I said, extraordinary length of conducting a sting of Lewinsky -- designed to gather evidence about the president.

But it was at its core about a sexual relationship, and that gave -- made everybody uneasy. Especially because it involved a woman, Monica Lewinsky, who at that point we didn't really know anything about. We had not had a chance to interview her. We had not had a chance to see her, to listen to her voice.

Well, we had listened to her voice because we listened to the tapes the night before. But we were going to be taking a private figure, Monica Lewinsky, and thrusting her into the middle of a media maelstrom that would instantly erupt once this story became public.

So there was a lot of agonizing about what to do about this. Now, a number of us felt that the fact of the criminal investigation was -- made this story a compelling newsworthy event that we had an obligation to tell our readers about. But there was this nagging fear among the editors that Lewinsky could well have made all this up.

That she really didn't have anything like the relationship with the president that she had described to Linda Tripp. That Starr may discover that very quickly and that we would go with a very big news story about this criminal investigation hinged on the allegations of a sexual relationship, and it would quickly become clear that no such relationship existed.

Now, in retrospect that is obviously not what took place. But the editor's fear of going with a story that was going to blow up in "Newsweek"'s face ultimately carried the day and "Newsweek" did not publish the story that weekend.

GROSS: Do you think that was the right decision?



ISIKOFF: Because I think that, as I said, I argued very strongly; my colleague Danny Klineman (ph), and ultimately assistant managing editor Evan Thomas all argued that the fact of the Starr investigation was -- was such an overwhelming news event that we had an obligation to report it.

GROSS: What questions do you still have, if any, about the relationship of Kenneth Starr and his office with Linda Tripp?

ISIKOFF: Well, I think that Tripp misled everybody. She certainly misled Monica Lewinsky for starters, but she missed Starr. The critical moment in this whole investigation -- in this whole story -- really comes down to Monday evening January 12, 1998.

And this is a meeting that hasn't gotten much attention, but it's the night Jackie Bennett and several of his deputies go visit Linda Tripp in her home in Columbia, Maryland. And they, for the first time, hear in detail Tripp's allegations about Lewinsky and how Lewinsky had been pressuring her, Tripp, to lie under oath in the Paula Jones lawsuit.

And Tripp says that she was so frightened by this and so disturbed by this that she was going to wire herself to gain new tape recordings of what she is describing to Starr's people as a federal crime -- or federal crimes.

And Jackie Bennett stops or and says, "you're not going to make any more recordings. If there's going to be recordings we're going to do them." And that is really the moment that Starr's office becomes committed to conducting this investigation.

And what is amazing, when you look back in retrospect at that -- at that instant, is how little Jackie Bennett and Starr's people knew about what they were getting into. Linda Tripp didn't tell them -- didn't tell Jackie Bennett and his aides -- that she had essentially arranged through the Paula Jones lawyers for the subpoena that she says, you know, she was so frightened of.

That she had in effect set all this up. She didn't tell Jackie Bennett that she had been talking to Lucianne Goldberg, a New York literary agent, who had been in touch with all the lawyers for Paula Jones. She didn't tell Jackie Bennett that she had been talking to me at "Newsweek," and that I knew about all of these claims.

So when Bennett made the decision to have Starr get involved, he was really flying blind. Now, in his defense, you know, he will say and one can at least understand where he's coming from; he didn't know what Tripp wasn't telling him.

On the other hand, I think it is probably legitimate to ask whether or not some more prudence and caution should have been taken by the people in Starr's office. And more questions should have been asked before they very quickly became involved in this, what turned out to be, quite messy case.

GROSS: What are the ethical questions relating to reporting that remain the most blurry to you now?

ISIKOFF: Well, I think the ones -- and I talk about this in the epilogue in the book -- is the relationship between reporters and sources with an agenda. It is quite common, indeed it is essential, to investigative reporting to have sources who insist upon anonymity. And you are obligated as a journalist to respect that.

But in this case, and I think it is a case that has applicability to many different avenues of reporting, one can learn a lot more over time about one's sources and what do you do when you discover your sources are misleading you or doing things that make you feel uncomfortable? And what do you do when the sources themselves become the story?

We have, you know, very clear professional and ethical lines about protecting our sources, and indeed, you know, we in all spheres of life -- in all spheres of reporting -- go to extraordinary lengths to do that. But once you make those deals with sources you're stuck with them and put in very awkward situations, as I was in the course of this when I discovered that, you know, my sources -- in this case Tripp and to a lesser extent Lucianne Goldberg -- were very much responsible for the events I was seeking to cover.

It's not an easy question, and anybody who thinks there is -- who thinks that there were easy answers here -- I don't think has really thought through all the problems you can face.

GROSS: Well, Michael Isikoff, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

ISIKOFF: Well, thank you for having me.

GROSS: Michael Isikoff's new book is called "Uncovering Clinton." Monica Lewinsky will be our guest on FRESH AIR Friday April 23rd.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Michael Isikoff
High: "Newsweek" writer Michael Isikoff has written a new book, "Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter's Story." It details his investigation into the Monica Lewinsky affair. Before joining "Newsweek" in 1994 he wrote for "The Washington Post." He also serves as a news analyst for MSNBC and is a frequent guest on NBC's "Meet The Press."
Spec: Media; Politics; President Clinton; Lifestyle; Culture; Michael Isikoff

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Michael Isikoff

Date: APRIL 14, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 041402NP.217
Head: Serge Schmemann
Sect: News; International
Time: 12:30

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The war in Yugoslavia has widened the gulf between the U.S. and Russia, which has condemned the NATO bombing. Yesterday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with her Russian counterpart, but little progress seemed to be made in closing the gap or creating a coordinated strategy to develop a peace plan.

My guest Serge Schmemann is an expert on Russia. He's the former Moscow bureau chief for "The New York Times" where he is now acting foreign editor. Schmemann is also the author of the book "Echoes of a Native Land," a history of the Russian village which had been part of his family's estate before the family was driven out by the Russian Revolution.

The book has just been published in paperback.

I asked Serge Schmemann about the historical reasons behind the alliance of Russia and Serbia.

SERGE SCHMEMANN, ACTING FOREIGN EDITOR, "THE NEW YORK TIMES;" AUTHOR, "ECHOES OF A NATIVE LAND: TWO CENTURIES OF A RUSSIAN VILLAGE": Historically, there is a sense that these Southern Slavs -- "Yugoslav" means that -- are kin folk or relatives and they shared the same Eastern Orthodox faith in World War I. The Russians of course watched very carefully before that.

So there is a sort of an almost spiritual sense of a bond. Now, you can't take that too far. Perhaps it works when they both feel threatened from outside. But certainly, the Russians had no love for Yugoslavia during the communist era -- the Soviet Union.

There is no great permanent alliance or linkage -- the languages are not all that close, although there are many common roots. But there is a sense that we're both Orthodox Slavic countries and we're both confronting a West that is to some degree callous and to some degree patronizing towards us.

Secondly, I think what we're beginning to see now is a certain bond, a certain linkage of old communists. Milosevic's wife is quite an adamant communist nationalist. The Russian parliament is very much dominated by communist nationalists or nationalist communists, whichever way it works better.

And these people are beginning to see in this a certain chance to ride nationalist feelings back to some influence and power. You know, the strongest noises are being made by be old communists, whether in Russia, Belarus or Yugoslavia.

So there are two bonds -- two sort of tenuous bonds -- which are being activated by this conflict.

GROSS: Are there Russian agendas that are less than obvious that you can tell us about?

SCHMEMANN: I don't think so. I think that in this case they are improvising, and in fact I think they have a certain problem. The Yugoslavs would like to draw them in as allies. The Yugoslav parliament has spoken of an alliance of Russia, Belarus and Yugoslavia.

And I think that's farther than the Russians would like to go. They still rely heavily on Western aid. They don't want to be totally excluded from global activities from some alliance -- not alliance, but some dealings with the United States.

And so I'm not sure they want to go any further towards the Yugoslavs than they already have. But if this continues I think both their public opinion and their own sense of indignation could drive them closer towards the Serbs. I'm not sure this is something though that they really desire or seek.

GROSS: I understand why people could be outraged at the bombing of Serbia where civilians can get hurt, but it's hard to understand how people could side -- how Russians could side with Milosevic if they have any idea of what's happening in Kosovo. Could you explain why there seems to be this growing support in Russia for Milosevic?

SCHMEMANN: You know, I think in a curious way that you can separate the two -- indignation over Kosovo and support for the Serbs, not so much for Milosevic. And it's not only the Russians, this is something we've seen in other parts of the world including Greece, for example.

And I think part of it is an irritation with NATO. It's been growing for quite some time. There's a sense that NATO is becoming a Western club, that NATO and the Americans in particular don't understand the Eastern world. That they have no idea what's going on there.

That a large part of this policy of bombing and reacting is almost improvised. That there is a quality of a bully to it. That NATO will impose its own solution in this problem. That's the one part I think that, you know, much of it is just irritation with the West rather than specific support for the Serbs or for what they're doing.

And secondly, I am not sure that anyone out there is getting a full picture. I know that Russian television did not show many of the scenes from Kosovo that we have been watching for quite a while. And now I gather they are beginning to, and perhaps getting a clear idea of what the Serbs are doing in Kosovo.

And I'm sure once people see what's going on there they do become indignant. They do become angry about it. But that does not translate into support for NATO. There's still a larger resentment of NATO and the role it has as sort of a self-proclaimed peacemaker.

GROSS: You've written recently about the paradox of increased ethnic fighting during a time of globalization and jet travel and the Internet uniting us; things that are making the world more interconnected. So how do you make sense of this paradox?

SCHMEMANN: Well, I think we have found that the collapse of the communist world -- of the old sort of bipolar world, black and white, us and them -- has forced us to see again that in fact in many parts the world there are still lingering tribal, religious, ethnic identifications which are very strong.

And even in an age of globalization a dictator, a leader seeking autocratic power, finds this to be the easiest tool. So, you know, even a young Serb who's on the Internet everyday, speaks perfect English and has lived in Germany can be inspired by a dictator -- by Milosevic -- to feel some Serbian feelings.

I mean, even all these people who marched against Milosevic two years ago have joined in supporting the government on the war effort because something stronger takes hold when you feel that your country is at war. That your country has to be supported when your country is being bombed.

So we find that people have been quite successful, whether it's Saddam Hussein or Hafez al-Assad in Syria or Milosevic in Yugoslavia, in exploiting these feelings now that they have once again emerged from under the blanket of a bi-polar world.

GROSS: Serge Schmemann, you're now the acting foreign editor at "The New York Times," and I'm wondering if "The Times" reporters have been allowed back in Belgrade.

SCHMEMANN: We have had one reporter, Steve Erlinger (ph), doing a superb job all along. I mean, he was expelled for I think two days when everybody was chased out, and then his visa was valid and he was allowed back in. And he has been in Belgrade ever since reporting on all the people, how they're taking it.

He has ventured out of town. For example, when the train was bombed he was at the scene. We hope to get more people in. For now, Kosovo is closed to our reporters and we're trying to get more people into -- into the Serbian part as well.

In Kosovo, of course, it's very important to get witnesses in on the ground to see exactly what has happened. We're dealing to such a degree on the statements of refugees and on the claims of NATO and the Pentagon. And we are really anxious to get witnesses of our own into that part of Yugoslavia to see what is going on.

GROSS: How are you trying to get your reporters into Kosovo?

SCHMEMANN: Basically constantly waiting and looking for openings to see if the Yugoslavs will let them in, to see if they can drive down from Belgrade. You know, they are constantly asking and probing. So far without meeting much success.

In a situation like this, of course, "The New York Times" and any other news organization is very wary of having people injured. So there is a certain reluctance to sneak people in of course because it is dangerous in there is bombing, there is roving bands of soldiers. There's all the obvious hazards.

But it is terribly important to have somebody, as soon as possible, give an independent account of what has gone on and what is going on.

GROSS: My guest is Serge Schmemann, "The New York Times" acting foreign editor and former Moscow bureau chief. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us my guest is Serge Schmemann. He is "The New York Times" acting foreign editor and "The Times" former Moscow, Bonn and Jerusalem bureau chiefs. He is also the author of the book "Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village," which has just been published in paperback.

You mentioned that Russians see NATO as this Western club. Do you think that Russia and Yugoslavia and maybe Greece see this kind of connection through the Orthodox religion? Even though religion was taboo in Russia for so long it's still such a part of the culture.

SCHMEMANN: Certainly that is a very major part of the bond they feel. As you say, of course, religion was suppressed in Russia for a long time. It is now emerging. It has not emerged fully yet as a dominant force in Russian life or in Russian culture.

And Greece, of course, has had all the erosion of secularization, of modernization. So, even if religion is no longer a dominant force in either society it is one that forms a historical bond between them. They were all part of the Byzantine Orthodox world.

And I think their sense is one that the Western Christianity, whether Catholicism or Protestantism, looks at them in a condescending way. You know, when the pope declares -- demands an Easter pause in the bombing without taking into account that the Orthodox Easter is on a different date.

This kind of thing leads to a perception that the West treats the East and their religion and their orthodoxy, which of course is every bit as ancient and as deep and as widespread, perhaps, as Western Catholicism. But they feel that it's treated in a condescending, patronizing way.

So these things do create certain, I think -- certain resentments on -- and certain resentments that bring the Russians and Greeks together in this sentiment.

GROSS: Serge Schmemann, in your book "Echoes of a Native Land," in which you research the history of the village that your family is from, you write a little bit about your father who was an Orthodox priest. And when he came to the United States you say he became the guiding spirit in forming the Orthodox church in America.

And then also did radio broadcasts to Russia -- was it through Voice of America?

SCHMEMANN: Through Radio Liberty.

GROSS: Through Radio Liberty. So what -- why was the Orthodox religion so important to him to keep alive in America at a time when it was being suppressed in Russia?

SCHMEMANN: Well, part of it was that. Part of it, of course, is faith. He believed in this, but his fundamental belief was that the Orthodox faith is universal. Many of the groups -- the ethnic groups, the refugees coming to America clung to religion because it was sort of the unifying force in their ethnic communities. Whether it was Romanian, Bulgarian, Russian, Ukrainian -- whatever.

So they used the faith more as an ethnic bond, and my father's fundamental principle was that orthodoxy is universal and equally applicable to the American situation -- to the Western situation. And therefore our church, the Orthodox church in America the church that he was instrumental in forming, is really an American church.

The services are all in English. And the ethnic bond is in no way stressed or present.

GROSS: What impact did it have on your ability to report in Russia when you were the Moscow bureau chief? And the authorities must have known that it was your father who was doing these Orthodox broadcasts through Radio Liberty.

SCHMEMANN: I've often wondered. They never attacked him. And they never attacked my connection to him directly. They attacked every other member of the family and they attacked me. I have a feeling that at some point the KGB, which was like everything else in the Soviet Union a huge and clumsy bureaucracy, made the decision that they don't want to draw attention to this link.

They knew that my father is quite well listen to; that he has quite a bit of authority. And if they declared, with whatever purpose, that I am in fact his son and made a big deal of this, this would only draw attention both to his radio broadcasts and to me. And an attention that they probably thought wouldn't be in their interests. That's the only way I can interpret it.

Because they consistently failed to draw the connection between us or to attack him in the press.

GROSS: What about the Russian people? Did you run across a lot of people who heard your name and thought of your father and really respected and appreciated the work that he was doing?

SCHMEMANN: Certainly. Especially among the intellectuals -- the intelligentsia. He was very widely known. He spoke not only on spiritual themes, but also about literature. So, you know, it was a very wide audience.

His broadcasts were passed around on cassettes or in written form -- (Unintelligible) as they called it underground. And his books were as well. So he was a well-known figure. And it gave me a certain credibility -- instant credibility -- in a certain part of the population.

So I think that certainly was in my favor.

GROSS: My guest is Serge Schmemann, he is acting foreign editor at "The New York Times." He also served as bureau chief in Moscow, Bonn and Jerusalem. He's the author of a book called "Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village," which is part memoir part history. It's a book in which he explores the history of the village that his family is from.

I'd like to talk with you a little bit about that book. Your family was ordered out of the country by the Bolshevik's in, I think, 1919?

SCHMEMANN: What happened was after the takeover of the land by the Bolshevik's they were allowed to stay for a while, but then a subsequent order came down when the more intensive crackdown on the land began to throw out all former landowners. And so they were driven out.

But the villagers -- the peasants -- were tremendously loyal because they had a fairly good bond. And so they took them under armed guard to Moscow to make sure that they are not harmed along the way.

They then stayed, most of them, outside Moscow. My grandfather and his brother left immediately after the war and made their way to France, but my great-grandfather and sisters and others stayed and tried to make a go of it. But then another -- one of their sons was arrested and executed by the Bolsheviks, and then they realized that they can't stay.

And so at the very end of the '20s they bought their way out, as many people were doing at that time. So in 1928 they made their way to Paris.

GROSS: Did studying your family history in Russia teach you a lot about purges and intolerance in ways that you feel you've constantly been applying to current stories?

SCHMEMANN: Oh, it's hard to say. You know, I came to the United States I was six and basically have grown up as an American. And I think most of my instincts and perceptions are those that have been largely shaped by how I've grown up as an American.

But I think, you know, just living abroad for many years -- we lived abroad for 21 years in all these various foreign assignments. It makes you quite sensitive perhaps to cultural differences. It makes you quite wary of imposing a certain model.

And sometimes we do get the feeling that the United States, which does have this remarkable functional Democratic economic model which really is so extraordinarily effective and perhaps even just.

So we begin to presume that is universally applicable, and then we learn to our great dismay that it's not. That not every culture, and in fact most cultures, are not prepared for a system of the sort. That they don't have the basic building blocks, whether in terms of democratic tradition, in terms of fair play or in terms of economy.

That they don't have the basic building blocks to handle our system. And so, then we are dismayed. I think Russia is one example, you know, all of our -- all of our perception of Russia today is based on the fact that their democracy really hasn't succeeded and their economy is in shambles.

But I think, you know, if we try to look at other things, culture for example which is very strong, we find that there are great books being published, superb poetry. That in fact there is a freedom of expression which is expressed for those who watch Russian television and superb documentaries.

You know, so, we don't look at the things they do well. We look at the things we expected them to do, which they have failed to do. Now granted, you know, economic development and politics is terribly important, but what I'm saying is we always have to be careful.

And this is something I have learned in the years abroad to -- we have to be careful not to constantly superimpose our own templates on every other part of world.

GROSS: My guest is Serge Schmemann, "The New York Times" acting foreign editor. He's also "The Times" former bureau chief in Moscow, Bonn and Jerusalem. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is Serge Schmemann, "New York Times" acting foreign editor and former Moscow bureau chief. And author of the book, "Echoes of a Native Land" about the Russian village his family is from.

Did finding your family's place in Russian history help connect you to the meaning of history?

SCHMEMANN: It did very much. Not -- two ways. One is searching out their history, finding it in the archives, in their memoirs. It was an enormously gratifying kind of exercise because -- because I learned so much. Because there were so much to learn I did not come up against frustrations.

Doors would open, I kept finding more and more archives. But I think what made it really remarkable was that I had already spent about nine years in the Soviet Union -- in Russia. And that my basic roots search coincided with the process of a country rediscovering its own past. The Bolsheviks -- the communists -- had maintained a brutal grip on the past.

This was their monopoly. They wrote histories. They told you what you could remember and what you couldn't remember. They controlled the images -- who were heroes, who were the enemies. And so suddenly an entire nation is freed to reassess its own past. And for me, the fascination of the process was the degree to which it coincided with what Russia was doing.

And we would sit -- when I would go to an archive the people there -- the archivists -- would sit with me for hours just discussing what I was finding. And they became so involved that there were times when they would come to my house in Moscow and say look what else I found.

And, you know, it was a joint process of going backwards, which lasted for a few years. Of course, then Russia's own problems took over and the past became less fascinating, you know, because the present became stage center.

And to some degree we parted ways. To some degrees the project ran its course and ended. I mean, when I end the book people say it's a bit perhaps sad, perhaps pessimistic. Because basically I leave a Russia that I feel slipping away again, slipping into a form that is not necessarily welcoming to me.

And in which I really no longer have a part. And so, when I leave it is with the knowledge that I really don't belong there. I found my place there. I claimed my place there, in that history, but it's not my place any longer.

GROSS: In what sense do you feel the country is slipping away?

SCHMEMANN: It went back to instincts of -- well, how should I phrase this? It's what I was saying, you know, they are unfamiliarity with democracy. They were, you know, the way that Yeltsin had to bomb his own White House. The way the church was becoming very nationalist in its orientation.

You know, they had -- they were still very much their own nation, and the scars of communism you knew would take generations to heal. They were still very much shaped by the 70 years of communism, by the history they had had before. By the fact that they really have never had what we know is a rule of law where the law is above all.

All these things are not yet familiar. They were again becoming suspicious of me -- why was I there? You know, here I was an American who wasn't sort of spending money, investing. Wasn't doing all the things I was expected to do. Just raising a lot of questions.

And so they found that they have no need of me any longer. And I ran out of things to ask, and we parted ways. I still am in contact. I get letters. I have terrific friends. But the book, in a way, I guess as roots books tend to do -- it satisfied that part of me that needed to lay a claim to this part of my heritage.

GROSS: Well, Serge Schmemann, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

SCHMEMANN: Thank you.

GROSS: Serge Schmemann is "The New York Times" acting foreign editor and former Moscow bureau chief. His book "Echoes of a Native Land" about the Russian village his family is from has just been published in paperback.

I'm Terry Gross.

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

Dateline: Terry Gross, Washington, DC
Guest: Serge Schmemann
High: Journalist Serge Schmemann is foreign editor and former Moscow bureau chief for "The New York Times;" and a Pulitzer Prize winner. He'll discuss the situation in Kosovo and Russia's response. He'll also talk about his own family's exodus from Russia. His new book, "Echoes of a Native Land: Two Centuries of a Russian Village." Schmemann is the descendant of several families of the higher Russian nobility. He was born in Paris.
Spec: Media; Europe; War; Lifestyle; Culture; Serge Schmemann

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Serge Schmemann
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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