Can anyone still take Gail Sheehy seriously? With the publication of ‘Hillary’s Choice’ this month, Sheehy has become suddenly ubiquitous, plugging the book in every media outlet in town. ‘The New York Observer’ gave it a rave review, while ‘The New York Times’ damned it with faint praise, and ‘The New Yorker’ and ‘Slate’ were bold enough to trash it. The critics have focused on the book’s lack of insight. But the real scandal is Sheehy’s reporting style. She plays fast and loose with the facts, twists quotes to fit her agenda, and allegedly violated a confidentiality agreement she made with Hillary Clinton. The latter occurred back in 1992, when Sheehy wrote her first Hillary profile for Vanity Fair and sensationalized it by putting a nasty off-the-record quote on the record. The quote is repeated on page 204 of Hillary’s Choice, and many people believe it to be the reason why Hillary didn’t cooperate with the author for this book.
The first salvo against the book came from Hillary’s campaign press secretary, Howard Wolfson: Contrary to Sheehy’s reporting, Hillary’s father did attend the Wellesley graduation where Hillary spoke. When Tim Russert asked Sheehy about this on Meet the Press, she tried to weasel out of it. For one thing, she said, none of her sources saw the man at the graduation. For another, Wolfson refused to return her fact-checking calls for three months. When Russert asked simply, “Was he there or wasn’t he?” she said, “We don’t know.”
Suddenly errors began to pop up daily, many in the “Reliable Source” column in The Washington Post. For example, Al Haig didn’t say he was in charge when Nixon resigned, and Mack McLarty’s marriage did not fall apart. Sheehy’s book misidentifies many people—calling Gene Lyons a “well-known Arkansas novelist,” for example, although he is not a fiction writer.
Several people also say they were misquoted. When Garry Wills saw his description of the First Lady, “as charming as ever,” changed to “as Hillary as ever,” he declared Sheehy “as manipulative as ever.” Betsey Wright told The New York Observer that Sheehy “misapplies quotes totally outside the topic of what the conversation was really about.” In a footnote, Sheehy says she interviewed Tony Podesta, but Podesta says, “I was never interviewed” for the book. (Sheehy disputes Wright, offering to make the Wright transcripts available. She disputes Wills and says that one of her researchers interviewed Podesta.)
The problem with misstating the minutiae is that Sheehy uses these details to construct her big theories. And there’s another reason why this book’s theories are suspect: It contains almost no new interviews with Hillary Clinton. The New Yorker first pointed this out, speculating that Hillary took a dislike to Sheehy after reading the V.F. profile in 1992. Indeed, that piece damaged Hillary by introducing a now famous quote, in which she complained about how the media had exposed Gennifer Flowers, but not the so-called other Jennifer, a woman who was rumored to have had an affair with George Bush.
Bush denied it, and Hillary took all the heat, but it was Sheehy who pulled a fast one, putting an off-the-record quote on the record. How do I know? I was working at V.F. in 1992, and I helped the head fact checker on that piece. After reviewing the transcript, we saw that Hillary had clearly gone off-the-record before she talked about the “Jennifer” rumors. We alerted Tina Brown to the situation, recommending that she cut the quote.
The rest is history. The “Jennifer” rumor was trumpeted in the press release, and instantly made the cover of the Daily News and the New York Post. But few noticed Hillary’s official response: The quote was “a garbled version of a private conversation.” Back then, Sheehy told a reporter: “I don’t think you tell a journalist about a private conversation if you don’t want to have it printed.” (That’s a lesson Hillary learned the hard way.)
In a written response to the Voice, Sheehy first claimed the entire interview was on-the-record, but later switched to, “I never agreed to keeping that outburst off-the-record.” Tina Brown declined to comment, and Sheehy attributed the criticism to a plot by the “White House spin and counterattack machine.”
Sugar Daddies Sue Hitchens
But there’s more. This September, the Voice has learned, Hitchens and Verso got sued again in English court. The plaintiffs are the Fanjul brothers of Palm Beach, Florida, Cuban exiles whose multinational Flo-Sun controls about a third of Florida’s sugarcane production. The family has a “sterling reputation,” says their lawyer Joseph Klock. (Indeed, Bill Clinton attended a fundraiser at Alfonso Fanjul’s home just last summer.) Klock says this is the first time the Fanjuls have ever filed a libel action.
On pages 32 through 35 of No One Left to Lie To, Hitchens allegedly implies that the Fanjuls belong to “the Mob.” The offending passage goes something like this: As part of his triangulation method, Clinton panders to the interests of both “populism” and “the elite.” For example, in 1992, Clinton made promises to the left, even as he pocketed checks from Jorge Mas Canosa and Alfonso Fanjul. Hitchens telegraphs his problems with these controversial men; their foibles are chronicled in detailed exposés that appeared in The New York Times, July 1998, and Time, November 1998, respectively.
After the 1993 inauguration, Hitchens suggests, the president sold out the little people. Driving home the triangulation conceit, he writes that “in Florida at least, Clinton had turned to The Mob rather than the mob. To the former constituency, at least, he kept his promise. Within weeks [of the inauguration], Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt arranged a sweetheart deal on the Everglades with the Fanjul family.”
Of course, a literary person would read the “Mob” reference as a pun, but some people have no imagination. Indeed, before his death in 1997, Jorge Mas Canosa successfully sued The New Republic over a headline that called him a “mobster.” And the Fanjuls seem to admire his strategy: Klock calls Hitchens’s “Mob” reference “absurd,” adding that the Fanjuls have “never been involved in a touch of scandal” and never received a “quid pro quo” for a campaign donation. “In Mr. Hitchens’s mind,” he says, “the turn of phrase is more important than truth.”
Hitchens and Verso managing director Colin Robinson declined to comment.