A gonzo journalist who transcended print — an Andrew Breitbart or James O’Keefe, perhaps, before there were Breitbarts and O’Keefes. A Huntress S. Thompson, you might say, but her particular Las Vegas was the political Swamp. A mover and shaker who made the power elites — the Swamp Things — move and shake in their boots. A legendary literary agent, a great writer, a fierce warrior, a funny lady (I won’t say “broad”; she did). A true friend.
Lucianne Goldberg, who died on Oct. 26, was an attack dog of the Right. That was not only because she loved a good fight — she surely did — but because the Right was worth fighting for.
She commenced her unique activism by barely dipping her toes into political waters at the Washington Post; briefly with the Lyndon B. Johnson campaign in 1960; and more short stints at the Democrat National Committee, with the Kennedy inaugural staff, and in the Kennedy White House. But eventually, around 1972, she found a place in and for the right wing. At the behest of Nixon crony Murray Chotiner, she insinuated herself among the press entourage of the Democrat president candidate George McGovern. Her job, at one grand a week, was to listen, watch, and report — about the candidate, aides, reporters, whomever. News, strategy, gossip — dirt.
She made nightly reports. None of them, like McGovern himself, was ever very interesting. But Lucianne found her métier — dishing, dirt, dissing. The mother’s milk of politics, but, until her, pretty thin on the right.
Her credentials for the press entourage were sketchy though legitimate, as she was editor of the Women’s News Service. It was a subsidiary of the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA), which had just been acquired by United Feature Syndicate (UFS). Her husband, Sid Goldberg, was editor of both. It was Sid who hired me as an editor about this time.
Sid’s mentor had been John Wheeler, a pioneer of newspaper syndication and the founder of NANA. I had known the elderly Wheeler — whose career had begun around 1910 — and he was a mentor of mine, after William Loeb of the Manchester Union-Leader (now the New Hampshire Union Leader). Bill’s father had been Theodore Roosevelt’s White House secretary, and my interest in Roosevelt cemented our relationship. The Wheeler connection sent me to UFS and a long friendship with Sid, who died in 2005 and was the most modest, talented, generous newspaperman I would ever meet.
When Lucianne was unmasked and booted from the McGovern press group, Wheeler was a Dutch uncle, too. He warned Sid, “That girl is going to get you into trouble someday.”
Lucianne likely viewed those words as marching orders; such was her appetite. Various sorts of troubles, or risky dangers, were Lucianne’s stock in trade for the rest of her career. Sid weathered them fine as her husband; and so did Lucy (as he called her), who emerged from many a fiery furnace.
Lucianne could be loved, loathed, feared, and embraced, sometimes by the same people at the same time.
(Minor-league cloak-and-dagger stuff was in the air in 1972. My girlfriend and I were active in Young Americans for Freedom, and we were recruited — by someone who later endured calumny and jail time during the Trump presidency — to be “disrupters” in whatever crowd of hippies and Yippies would gather at the Democrat convention in Miami. I never would have passed the casting call.)
Lucy Ann Steinberger was born in Boston and grew up outside Washington, D.C., in Alexandria, Virginia, earning a degree from George Washington University and beginning her career on the periphery of national politics, as noted above. She became Lucianne Goldberg when she and Sid married in 1966, her second marriage.
When I started at UFS, my duties included the comic strips — my first love — but, happily, a host of other duties: celebrity caricatures; editing the PONY package for weekly papers; editing crossword puzzles (an assignment worse than composing obits on a weekly shopper); and editing some columns. I suppose I drank from the same cup as Lucianne, for I confess that I amused my right-wing self by occasionally calling victims of Jack Anderson’s columns to warn them about incoming fire the next morning.
On many evenings, Lucianne came to our offices in the Daily News Building to “collect” him, as the Brits say. Computer terminals were a new thing, and the obstreperous Goldberg boys always ran around causing short circuits, usually at the worst moments of transmissions. Joshua, around 5 years old, eventually was an editor for his mom and ran for a New York City Council seat. Jonah was maybe two years younger, and he became a talking head on conservative print and TV venues.
As Jonah lately has drifted leftward, or whatever — anti-Trumper, Biden booster, among other self-identifications — he has become a nonperson in his old media haunts. So much so that, after Lucianne died, the staff of her website made special mention of him. Lucianne.com is one of the web’s premier aggregation sites, a magnet for conservatives, and her last great activity. At the end of its death announcement was an assurance to readers and subscribers that Jonah would not inherit a role, at all, in the continuing web operation.
Lucianne soon after the McGovern campaign espionage connected herself to some of the gaudiest and most controversial names in entertainment and politics. What a ride, and increasingly in the right-hand lanes. She wrote several novels, started an anti-feminist group when the Equal Rights Amendment threatened American society, and opened a literary agency. She modestly maintained that right-flavored publishing properties went begging at that time, aside from Regnery, so she signed some clients by default.
Yet her skills at negotiation — and a growing persona of venomous charm — became the stuff of success in Washington, in New York, and in gossip venues. Her clients eventually included Maureen Dean, wife of the consequential Watergate figure; Mark Fuhrman, the Los Angeles gumshoe on the O.J. Simpson case; Leo Damore, a reporter who uncovered secrets about Chappaquiddick; Kitty Kelley, author of unauthorized celebrity “tell-alls”; Maurice Stans, the Nixon secretary of commerce and campaign finance chairman convicted of Watergate infractions; and even then-Prince Charles’ valet, about whose book the Royal Family “was not pleased.”
That persona became as famous as her books and literary properties. Lucianne could be loved, loathed, feared, and embraced, sometimes by the same people at the same time. Even when there was no imminent publishing deal, she made deals, made introductions, made things happen. As befit her stratospheric position, sought out and whispered about in Washington and New York, she affected feather boas, outrageous glasses, and cigarette holders — everything, it seemed, but a lorgnette. Andrew Ferguson in Time discerned a touch of Angela Lansbury in Lucianne, recalling the colorful character from Auntie Mame.
In all she became a figure as interesting as any of her friends or clients … or her books’ subjects. A full biography ought to be written; it would, proverbially, read like a novel. Certainly, her career is the stuff of a fascinating movie, at least if it were more truthful than the portrayal of her in the recent multi-episode FX series Impeachment: American Crime Story. It was based on what was likely Lucianne’s most celebrated footprints in the landscapes of politics and journalism, the Clinton–Lewinsky affair. She brutally was depicted in the docudrama as a scheming, manipulative opportunist, greedily betraying her friend Linda Tripp. The sex-charged series ironically was based on a book written by Jeffrey Toobin and was “co-produced” by Monica Lewinsky.
The Lewinsky affair was a major event that mirrored, and triggered, many other Clinton scandals. It absorbed the public’s attention for many months. It brought to light, and confirmed, other sexual escapades of President Bill Clinton. The allegations were of routinely unwanted sex, rape, and attempted sex. The aggrieved ladies included Gennifer Flowers, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick. Other names in the burgeoning file of putative victims emerged: Christy Zercher, Eileen Wellstone, Sandra Allen James, Karen Hinton. The cascade of charges obliged Clinton to submit to grand jury testimony. He made public statements and gave personal assurances to his cabinet that he later admitted were lies. He paid settlements to at least one of his accusers. He was impeached but not convicted by a partisan vote of the Senate.
And he manipulated and betrayed Monica Lewinsky, the 22-year-old White House intern who was hopelessly infatuated with him.
Lucianne’s role in the sex-to-impeachment scandal was both central and, in some ways, surprisingly peripheral. She only started some balls rolling, but it is certain that there might never have been revelations and exposures, scandals and a governmental crisis, if not for her.
Her major roles included advising the career government employee Linda Tripp to record phone conversations with Lewinsky. She persuaded Tripp to convince Lewinsky to keep the semen-stained dress as evidence against Clinton and as “insurance” if she needed it. (Clinton remains the only United States president whose semen was part of a DNA test.) As a conduit during important stages of the unfolding saga, Lucianne played a consequential role.
Sometimes serving as a go-between — certainly not casually; her eyes always were on possible book deals — her work was a testament to her instincts, her network of contacts, and her enterprise. Tony Snow, the late George W. Bush spokesman and then a cable TV host, introduced her to Tripp, a career bureaucrat. From her desk near the Oval Office, Tripp was offended by Clinton’s brutish and lustful behavior and the slobs on his staff. Even pre-Monica, Tripp contemplated writing a book about the desecration of the White House.
Lucianne wearied of Tripp’s amateurish indecision and ended the conversations. A year later, Tripp’s new friend Monica, openly boasting of oral sex with Clinton and sobbing forth heartbroken vapors, became part of the story. Snow contacted Lucianne again. They talked.
She convinced Tripp to buy and operate a cheap RadioShack tape recorder. Yes, that simple: probably more consequential than Rose Mary Wood’s tape recorder, all things considered. Lucianne encouraged Michael Isikoff and Newsweek to pick up the hot story, but, at a meeting in her son Jonah’s apartment, Isikoff was reluctant, and the magazine resolutely rejected the chance for a cover story. Lucianne tossed a lateral pass to her young friend Matt Drudge, and the Drudge Report took off.
She dispensed tidbits hither and yon “for the cause” — that is, to fan the embers — for she viewed Clinton’s incumbency as a cancer on the body politic. No tips, however, were book excerpts, because there was no book. “Monica Kept Sex Dress As Souvenir” (New York Post); “Bill Had Hundreds [of Women]” (New York Post); “Monica’s Own Story — Affair started on day we met — after I flashed my sexy underwear” (the Weekly Star). Those 20 hours of tapes and interminable phone calls with Tripp were not fruitless.
Ken Starr, Alfred Regnery, lawyers at the Federalist Society … a cast of thousands, seemingly; many of them were the denizens of Lucianne Goldberg’s Rolodex. Like a vortex, other names were sucked into the scandal; Vernon Jordan and Bill Richardson helpfully offered to find a job on some governmental shelf far away from the White House.
As noted, this major chapter in Lucianne’s career — and the nation’s — was also one of modest business impact or financial gain. She endured major public opprobrium (except from the Right, of course) but truly did not give a fig, or words to that effect. She never made a dime off the Lewinsky matter. No book deal for anyone. Nor herself. And, against the perception of her as a manipulator, she actually met Tripp only twice throughout all the years. Lucianne was sympathetic toward Tripp; she had mixed feelings, including pity for Monica and never-ending, never-waning bitter contempt for Clinton.
That “bottom line” refuted the portrayals of Lucianne as a rapacious harpy masquerading as a literary representative. Of course, there were whiffs of anti-Semitism — never aimed at Lewinsky but, stereotypically, against Goldberg. Despite the Jewish faith of Sid and her sons, Lucianne was an Episcopalian all her life. In fact, her faith fueled her patriotism.
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For despite her proclivity for dishing, dirt, and dissing — and, yes, deals — Lucianne was a patriot. Her activities cannot be classified, or dismissed, as right-wing darts aimed at the balloons of the liberal establishment. She rather saw American society as being suffocated by a corrupt left wing, its members, and stooges in divers places. As she exposed, she educated. Concerning what would remain the main focus of her biography, she was asked, in a PBS interview about the Clinton–Lewinsky saga, “Are you proud of your role in what happened?”
She said: “I’m not ashamed of it … I’m proud that I knew the truth. That once I knew the truth, I got the truth out. I’m proud that I took care of my friends in doing so.… There’s nothing that I did that I’m ashamed of for an instant. It’s just that things worked out the way they worked out.”
The woman who thrived on tweaking the Establishment and maintaining her carefully cultivated, but authentic and outrageous, persona seldom fibbed. But she was amused when opponents drew conclusions. She was fiercely loyal to friends. Her bite could indeed be worse than her bark; yet, she had an abundant dose of good will and an extravagant sense of humor. She was cynical about many things and many people, but loyal to friends and to her country. Conservative ideals and her faith and a great community of friends sustained her.
Through it all, Lucianne Goldberg only occasionally let her hair down to the outside world. When she did, it confirmed the essence of the Right’s own Joan of Arc. She told Ferguson in Time:
We, as a country, needed a test…. And that’s what [the Clinton] scandal was: a little priority test, for everybody—particularly for people who’ve had kids in the past 30 years, when all this nonsense was going on. You know what I mean, this whole mind-set: screw everybody you want. Don’t have a husband if you have a baby. Walk out on relationships. Latchkey kids are O.K. Don’t marry anybody. The whole general morality. Get [oral sex] in the bathroom of the Oval Office. We needed a wake-up call, and this was a major wake-up call.
America has lurched onward if not forward since that imbroglio. Lucianne Goldberg appeared to play offense, but, in fact, she was a major team player on defense, encountering stars and scars both. Her dogged commitments and clever stratagems will be missed.
Rick Marschall is the author of 75 books and a former political cartoonist, columnist, and syndicate editor.