Oral History of Carl Stern
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of The Historical
Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewer is Judy Feigin, and the interviewee
is Carl Stern. The interview took place on the patio at Carl’s home in Washington, D.C., on
Friday, November 13, 2020. This is the fifth interview.
MS. FEIGIN: When we left off, I think we were closing out the reporter era of your career.
I know you went to DOJ next, so could you tell us how that came to be.
MR. STERN: That would have been in 1993 when I hit retirement age at NBC. I was
offered – out of the blue, I had not sought it – a position working for Janet
Reno at the Justice Department as head of the Office of Public Affairs. I was
asked to come and visit with her and with Web Hubbell, who had become the
Associate Attorney General, and I told them I’m not a Democrat. I have no
political affiliation. And they offered me a position as an SES-6. That’s the
Senior Executive Service. In other words, I was not going to be a
Schedule C political appointee. Many agencies have a few members of the
SES, people who are hired for their experience and expertise who are not
necessarily aligned one way or the other with the political agenda of the
MS. FEIGIN: Let me ask you something before we talk about what you did at DOJ. I know
some reporters are of the view that they shouldn’t vote. Are you one of
MR. STERN: I always voted, but I was always an Independent until a few years ago. A
neighbor of mine ran for City Council as a Democrat, so I did change my
registration to Democrat so that I could vote for her. Beyond my own non
affiliation, I discouraged my wife from joining political movements because I
was concerned that we remain as independent, at least perceived
independent, as we could be. As a reporter, I felt more comfortable taking
that position.
There is no general rule. It is a matter that reporters struggle with. I
remember Linda Greenhouse, a renowned reporter for The New York Times,
its Supreme Court correspondent, she got into a bit of a dust up with her
employer over her attendance on her own time with her daughter at a prochoice
march. Obviously abortion is an issue that comes before the Court.
We can argue about that, but I elected to stay out of partisan matters.
MS. FEIGIN: It always was interesting to me that some reporters felt that that went so far
as to mean they shouldn’t vote. Not only not to appear to be partisan, but not
even to vote.
MR. STERN: Reporters are notorious for trying to keep an arm’s length from a political
affiliation if they cover things that involve politics. The gardening editor, I
suppose it doesn’t matter much. One could as easily argue that it lends itself
to bending over backwards the other way in an effort to be fair and impartial.
I am sure I have done that, to make sure that the other side was being
adequately presented. It works both ways.
MS. FEIGIN: So you get to DOJ. It’s 1993. How is this job defined?
MR. STERN: Well it’s not defined. In fact, fifteen minutes after I became a federal
employee, I was summoned to Janet Reno’s office, the Attorney General, and
she and Web Hubbell were there. So was Mark Richard from the Criminal
Division, and the Attorney General asked us to take sides on the issue as to
whether some kind of irritant gas should be employed at Waco to make the
Branch Davidian compound less habitable.
MS. FEIGIN: We should say for people reading this in the future what Waco was.
MR. STERN: The Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Texas. I think most of your
readers will recall what Waco was all about. But to finish my point, I argued
against gas. I can remember clearly saying “Saddam Hussein gases his
civilian population. We don’t do that.” And then Mark was asked to argue
the other proposition, which was that it had been 51 days now that the siege
at Waco had lasted. The situation inside the compound was deteriorating
very quickly. In any event, what I want you to see is that here we were, four
or five days before the operation against the compound in Waco, and the
Attorney General is still unsure about going ahead with it.
MS. FEIGIN: When you say Mark Richard was “asked” to argue the other side, is that the
way it works; it wasn’t necessarily his personal view?
MR. STERN: Yes. She said Mark you argue this; Carl, you argue that.
MS. FEIGIN: So there was no plan to storm the compound?
MR. STERN: I can tell you that two days earlier – before I came on board, so this is what I
was told – she had rejected the FBI’s proposal to use gas to totally end the
stalemate. But she left open the idea of a more limited effort, and I was
present for what was the critical meeting which was in the Attorney General’s
conference room on the following Saturday, late in the afternoon. This is
now two days before the assault occurred.
William Sessions, the FBI director, was there, along with his principal
lieutenants, Larry Potts and Danny Colson. Director Sessions was on his feet
stomping around the front of the room saying, “They’re making monkeys out
of us.” I recall that phrase. His point was that the longest standoff situations
the FBI had ever endured were an incident in Puerto Rico which I believe
lasted four days, and a year before the Ruby Ridge incident which lasted for
eleven days. I don’t want to say Director Sessions was angry; I want to say
he was perturbed. He was frustrated that nothing much had been
accomplished in the way of dislodging the Davidians from the compound or
persuading its leader, David Koresh, to send more of the inhabitants out of
the compound. Thus, about 6:00 p.m., the Attorney General okayed a plan to
use gas but to insert it into a second-floor dormitory at one end of the
building in an effort to induce Koresh, if he had less space, to send more
people out. None of the children had been sent out at that point since March.
So the Attorney General’s idea was to shrink their usable space. There were
audio pickups from inside the compound, and witness accounts of Davidians
who had come out earlier, that conditions inside were becoming deplorable,
and that women and children were being abused. I remember the Attorney
General said, “You mean slapped around?” Those are the words she used,
“slapped around.” They said yeah.
MS. FEIGIN: The answer was yes or was it more than that?
MR. STERN: It was “yes,” but I need to say there was equal concern about the
deteriorating sanitary conditions inside, a situation so unpleasant I don’t even
want to describe it, but that was an important component of the Attorney
General’s concern.
In any event, okay, so she approved the use of gas into that second-floor
dormitory space. She specifically vetoed a dynamic entry, as it is called. In
other words, there was to be no direct assault on the compound. She vetoed
the use of pyrotechnic devices, lest they cause a fire.
It is true the Attorney General agreed that the FBI hostage rescue team
could return fire if fired upon, to suppress being fired upon, and that later
became the undoing of the Attorney General’s approval of a limited
One other memory from that Saturday meeting. Much significance was
given to the fact that the day before, Koresh had become furious, I mean
white hot angry, that one of the Army tanks that the FBI had borrowed
brushed against his beloved Chevy. It was concluded that someone who
worried that much about his car was not suicidal.
So what else do you want to know? When it comes to the morning of the
attack, I can tell you about that.
MS. FEIGIN: Please do.
MR. STERN: Well I got to the SIOC, that’s the command center for the FBI headquarters in
Washington. Technically, the term means Strategic Information and
Operations Center. That’s where the top people of the Bureau were able to
gather and watch with the TV and audio everything that was going on in the
compound, which was about thirteen miles outside Waco. So I was there in
the SIOC at 7:00 in the morning when the FBI in Waco first announced
through loudspeakers and through a telephone that they had managed to
connect with the Davidians, that they were beginning to undertake tank
movements against the compound. They said specifically that the Davidians
should take cover. Their expectation was that as part of the compound
became unusable, Koresh would send people out, particularly children,
something he hadn’t done in nearly a month. That was the idea. Well what
was the response? A Davidian picked up the phone and threw it out the front
door, and within five minutes – I have a notebook, I was keeping notes
minute-by-minute – by 7:05, the Davidians began shooting from a tower in
the middle of the compound, and the rest of what happened you know.
MS. FEIGIN: I do know, in part because I was around then, but not everybody reading this
will know so we should explain. First let me just ask one quick question.
When you say you went to SIOC, I assume Janet Reno was there too?
MR. STERN: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. And other top leaders of the Justice Department
and the FBI. I need to tell you there’s a lot of mythology that has persisted
about the events of that day. I don’t know if you want to get into it.
MS. FEIGIN: I do, because if its mythology and you could disabuse us of it, that would be
MR. STERN: Three or four things might be worth mentioning. First, this was not a happy
little village. There had been violence in the compound in the past. There
was a fight in 1987 that resulted in Koresh being tried for attempted murder.
The jury deadlocked; it was a hung jury. In 1989, one Branch Davidian was
killed with an axe.
MS. FEIGIN: By another Branch Davidian?
MR. STERN: As far as I know, there was nobody else in there. The local sheriff on several
occasions had expressed his concern to the ATF, that’s the Alcohol, Tobacco
and Firearms unit which was then under the Treasury Department, about
what was going on in the compound. His principal concern was the repeated
delivery of heavy weaponry and ammunition to the Davidian compound. He
was not alone in that. A postman, a UPS driver, and others reported the
delivery of heavy weapons to the Davidians. So I say again, this was not just
people dancing around the maypole. Of course these reports were what
prompted the ATF into obtaining a search warrant which led to the raid in
February of 1993, in which four ATF agents were killed and more than a
dozen wounded. Six Davidians were killed. The ATF had good reason to
check the amassing of weaponry inside the compound, so let’s get that’s
Secondly, as for the day on which it all ended, it was always a Justice
Department priority to get people out. In fact, that is a primary reason why
the armored vehicles were used to punch holes in the side of the building
after the gas had been inserted because the Davidians blockaded the doors.
They had pushed a piano up against the front door, and that was also where
they had a 50-caliber machine gun. I’m not sure I know the technical term
for it, but something that supposedly can kill at five miles range, which is one
of the reasons, by the way, why the fire engines were left at some distance
when the fire first broke out, because of the range of the weaponry that the
Davidians had.
In any event, I need to say to you that there was bewilderment in the SIOC
as to why the Davidians weren’t trying to come out, especially when the fire
started. No one I heard voiced a belief that Koresh would set the place on
fire once the engagement began. In fact, at 11:15, Janet Reno left the
command center to go to a previous engagement. It was some sort of
luncheon that had been agreed to, if I recall, with judges and lawyers from
the Third Circuit. Now why would she have left if she thought that
something terrible was about to happen?
When the fire did break out, this was about ten after 1:00, it broke out in
three different parts of the compound. There was complete surprise, horror,
in the SIOC. I witnessed it. I will never forget the FBI personnel, watching
on the TV monitors, calling out, “Oh my gosh, are they moving out? Come
out baby.” One woman came out and then went back in, and I wrote in my
notes an FBI supervisor calling out, “Oh my God, she’s going back in.”
Finally someone said ‘There’s nothing left. It’s gone.” That’s from my notes.
How did it come to that? The more I thought about it I came to believe
that once the Davidians opened fire, as I think the FBI expected them to do,
the FBI intended to end the 51-day siege, the standoff, right there.
Remembering that Saturday session and Director Sessions’ frustration, I
believe that was always their intention. And in fact, the tanks began rolling
right from the first moment on the 19th, Bradley fighting vehicles and CEVs –
combat engineering vehicles borrowed from the Army. In any event, all I’m
trying to say to you is that the FBI had obtained from Janet Reno an
agreement that they could suppress gunfire if fired upon, and that, in my
judgment, was the tripwire, to put it in a clear way, that opened the pathway
to ending the whole thing that day. And in fact the next morning I came into
Janet Reno’s office, and I sat on this loveseat by the window, this is in her
private office, and I said “Janet, the Bureau diddled you.” That’s the word I
used, diddled. And she said, “We’re never going to talk about it.” And she
never did. I suppose her admonition to me has expired by now. That’s the
MS. FEIGIN: That is dramatic!
MR. STERN: That’s my belief. Because of its own imperatives – frustration and the
appearance of impotence – the FBI maneuvered to get Ms. Reno to approve a
plan that would allow it, arguably, to end the standoff right then and there.
But it didn’t think it would end in mass suicide.
MS. FEIGIN: A tragic ending. And an extraordinary beginning to your time at the
MR. STERN: I should start by telling you generally that working at DOJ gave me the most
responsibility I ever had in life because I became one of those who had to
push the buttons, and that’s a responsibility. I loved it, but I think that’s
largely because the Attorney General let me do whatever I thought was right.
MS. FEIGIN: Push the buttons to make things happen or to get the news out?
MR. STERN: Both. Ms. Reno only told me to do what I thought was right, and she never
bawled me out.
MS. FEIGIN: Was she a very hands-on AG?
MR. STERN: Hands on? The very first day I was there, when I was leaving, I was driving
out the Tenth Street driveway, and I look, and there in the guard booth
waving the cars through is Janet Reno [laughter]. I called out, “Janet, you
don’t have to do it all yourself” [laughter]. She was following a tradition at
the Department that started with Bobby Kennedy, who made a point of
introducing himself to everyone in the building. She was a workhorse.
If it wasn’t the first day, it was the second or third day that I was there, I was
in the bathroom at home shaving at 7:30 in the morning. I’m not an early
riser, and the phone rings, and it’s Donna Templeton, the Attorney General’s
private secretary, saying “Carl, could you come upstairs for a minute?
Miss Reno would like to see you.” I’m not even in my underwear yet
[laughter]. She’s just assumed that by 7:30 in the morning I would be in the
office. She would start out of 5:00 in the morning from her apartment near
the Department. She would have the detail – the FBI security agents – drive
her up to the Washington Cathedral, and then she would walk to work. It
must have been four miles. She walked down in her big white sneakers
MS. FEIGIN: That was her daily exercise?
MR. STERN: Well I don’t know that she did it every day, but I certainly remember it. She
could drive the detail nuts. They went kayaking with her one weekend on the
C&O Canal, and she cut left at some little island, and they cut right, and
when they came out at the other end they couldn’t find her [laughter], which
is not a small matter. So she was always, in that respect – I’m sure they
loved her – a bit of a challenge because of her activity.
MS. FEIGIN: Just a tiny point. It’s interesting to me that she was referred to in the
Department as “Miss Reno”; her predecessors, I think, always were called
“General.” Is that correct?
MR. STERN: Yes. I suppose so. I haven’t given that much thought. She had no pretense.
In fact, one of the banes of my existence was whenever I was with her at
some social event, she would be drinking beer. And not only was she
drinking beer, she would drink it right out of the bottle [laughter], and I never
figured out a polite way to tell her to stop doing that. Of course, she was best
known to us in the press office for her persistent admonitions – I’m sure you
already know some – “Do the right thing,” and “We are not selling
anything.” She probably said that to me a million times. And “We don’t do
We tried to set up maximum access to her. We established a weekly press
availability. If she was out of town or otherwise unable to attend, we would
have the next in command, such as the deputy or the associate, take her
MS. FEIGIN: Was part of your job to be liaison between her and the press?
MR. STERN: My job was to answer their questions, and if I didn’t know the answer, to
find out what the answer was. At one point, the munchkins at the White
House sent me a message. They wanted me to describe what our
communications strategy was. I responded, “We answer the phone.” And
that’s it. It was important that we keep a certain distance from the White
In fact, I was there about two weeks, and I received a somewhat disturbed
message from the President’s Chief of Staff asking why I wasn’t on the
morning round robin. I don’t know if it still exists, but in those days each
department of the executive branch participated in a phone call with the
White House Press Office and others at the White House, to give them a
heads up on what we were doing, especially that day, so that the White
House wouldn’t get blindsided by one of our announcements or activities.
Well, the participants signed on: Treasury Department, Commerce
Department, Interior Department, Labor Department. Toward the end, a
voice said “DNC.” I said to myself, DNC? That’s the Democratic National
Committee. What are they doing on this call? I went right upstairs and
walked into Miss Reno’s office, and I started to tell her the story, and I didn’t
get to my second sentence, and she said, “You’re off that call.”
MR. STERN: Now thereafter, in an effort to be cooperative, we did have a member of our
office – we had about twenty-two in our immediate office — read the daily
public schedule to those who were listening to the round robin. But clearly
there were activities of the Department that we did not want to share with a
political entity. That’s the sort of awkward situation we sometimes faced in
our office.
One Sunday morning I received a phone call from George
Stephanopoulos, then the Communications Director at the White House. An
administration official, I forget which one, was about to go on “Face the
Nation,” and George wanted to check the status of an investigation in case
the official was asked about it. What did I do? I said “George, I can’t talk to
you. If the White House has a question, go to the Attorney General’s office
or the Deputy Attorney General’s office, but we do not directly talk about
investigative activities with the White House. Period.”
Perhaps the most extreme example I can give you is in 1993, there was
that truck bombing that demolished part of the World Trade Center in
New York. Do you recall that?
MR. STERN: There were six people killed and many injured. Within a day, the FBI largely
solved the case using the serial number on a remnant of the truck that was
found in the ruins, if you recall. In any event, President Clinton decided that
he’d like to do a briefing on the arrests that had occurred, and I was sent over
to the White House to brief the President and others on what they could say.
I sat in the Cabinet Room with Bill Clinton across the table from me, Al Gore
sitting to my right, and nobody else. Bill Clinton sent for a Diet Coke. That
will authenticate my story [laughter]. The President described what he
intended to say about the “perpetrators” who had been arrested and I said,
“Well you can’t call them that.” Al Gore, I remember, kind of poked at me
and said, “The President is the chief law enforcement officer of the country
and you mean he can’t say the arrested men did it?” And I said, “No, he
can’t”, and he didn’t. He went on to the press briefing room.
It was one of the really bizarre moments of my life because as I was
following the President — this is a little bit off-topic here — but as I followed
the President into the briefing room, I had to go to the restroom. There’s a
tiny restroom about halfway between where we were and the briefing room,
and knowing where it was was a great relief to me. As we approached it, I’m
steps behind the President. The President steps into the restroom. Well what
do I do [laughter]? Is it allowed for me to go into the restroom with the
President? I mean this is just a little powder room sort of thing. No. I
waited. Discretion is the better part of valor, is it not?
MS. FEIGIN: Did Janet Reno have someone separately denominated as a press secretary?
MR. STERN: No. I was it. Chief spokesman and bottle washer.
MS. FEIGIN: I see. It sounds beyond the traditional press secretary role.
MR. STERN: No. There was nothing novel in what I did. I might mention that I came up
with a few new ways to give the press at least some evidence that we were
trying to be helpful. I told my people that in response to queries, “I want you
to amaze at least one person every day. I want you to take at least one query
that comes in every day and drop everything. Imagine it’s the Attorney
General on the phone. You get the information, and you call the reporter
right back.”
That yielded results beyond my imagination. From that small measure, we
got all sorts of wonderful letters from the working press lauding the
Department’s conscientious processing of press inquiries. So if any press
officer reads this, amaze at least one person every day.
MS. FEIGIN: Beyond just in the Justice Department, that’s good life advice.
MR. STERN: The bane of my existence, frankly, were phony stories on the Internet.
MS. FEIGIN: Even back then?
MR. STERN: These things would find their way into the papers. Reno wants to ban all
guns. She wants churches defined as cults. There was one story that
circulated all over the country and was reprinted in local newspapers, that she
wanted to require couples to obtain a government license before they could
have children. It was supposed to be something she said on 60 Minutes when
she hadn’t been on 60 Minutes. We were forever chasing around after these
I suppose my worst experience in that regard was when there was a Calvin
Klein ad in the newspapers for undergarments in which young people were
seen in their scanty underwear, and we received all sorts of complaints, many
from members of Congress, demanding that we investigate Calvin Klein’s
use of minors in these racy ads in newspapers. Well, unfortunately, it was my
assignment to get to the bottom of it [laughter]. And I can recall vividly
sitting in the Criminal Division conference room, I think it was on the second
floor, seated next to George Burgasser, the head of the Child Exploitation
and Obscenity Section of the Criminal Division. He was the section chief,
and I’m sitting across from two FBI supervisors who have been ordered to
come over and talk to me, and I’m telling them to investigate Calvin Klein
underwear ads, and they look at me and they were not buying it [laughter]. I
remember I put my arm around George, and I pointed to him, and I said
“This is not chicken liver. This is the head of the Child Exploitation
Section.” They had no sense of humor. They said, “Chicken liver? What’s
it got to do with chicken liver” [laughter]? End of story. We finally
somehow persuaded the FBI to at least check it out, and none of the young
people seen in the ads were underage. But that’s how I served a grateful
nation, I’m sure.
Nothing brings out your latent homicidal tendencies faster than working
with the FBI [laughter], which is sometimes, how should I put it, concerned
about its image and prerogatives.
MS. FEIGIN: Do you want to give any further examples?
MR. STERN: No [laughter].
MS. FEIGIN: Okay. I think you were there during the Vince Foster event. We should tell
people who he was and how you had to handle that within the Justice
MR. STERN: He was the White House legal counsel. He was the brother of Sheila Foster
who was the Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs. There came
a time when Vincent Foster’s body was discovered in a park across the river
in Virginia, and he had apparently shot himself, and there was much concern
about what had occurred, needless to say, on both a personal and security
level. Ultimately, a note was found in Vince Foster’s belongings, which
explained how he had been simply overcome by the job. There was nothing
suspicious or untoward about it. He was just overwhelmed by it all and took
his own life. We had to fight all those rumors about his death. I remember
Phil Heymann, who was at that point the Deputy Attorney General, spending
a lot of time over the White House on that. And on several occasions, the
FBI ignored our office by cooking up press statements with the White House
press office, something they should not have been doing without even telling
us. They are supposed to work through Main Justice. But these were the
daily trials and tribulations of a government agency. It can be a terribly
frustrating job.
MS. FEIGIN: Can you share some examples?
MR. STERN: I’ll give you one example. I get a phone call from Mike Wallace at 60
Minutes and they’re looking at a story about corruption inside the Drug
Enforcement Administration, that certain employees of DEA are protecting
drug shipments from Mexico that are coming in by truck. Well I don’t know
anything about it, but I checked with my people, and I discovered that the
source of the CBS information is a DEA employee who is facing grand jury
indictment in California for criminal misconduct and is clearly coming up
with stories in an effort to dissuade the Justice Department from prosecuting
him, to discourage them – that there will be a price to pay if it seeks an
indictment. Well, of course I can’t tell Mike Wallace that a grand jury is
looking into this matter. It’s grand jury secrecy. So I called Mike back, and
I say, “Mike, you don’t want to do this story.” That’s all I could tell him.
MS. FEIGIN: I assume you knew Mike Wallace from your days as a reporter.
MR. STERN: Oh sure, I knew him from way back, and I hoped that that would be enough
to get him to back off. Well he ended up doing the story anyway, and years
later the truth came out and the man was prosecuted, but 60 Minutes never
corrected the story. There are restraints that the law imposes. And you’re
stuck, knowing you can’t reveal the true story.
I can give you another example, although it’s a trifle longer. Lani Guinier,
a law professor nominated in 1993 by Bill Clinton to be Assistant Attorney
General for the Civil Rights Division. She had been head of the Voting
Rights Project of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She had served in the
Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice in the Carter
Administration. Bill and Hillary Clinton were close friends of hers. They’d
been friends and classmates at Yale Law School, Class of 1973. But she had
one problem. She was a nationally known promoter of shaping the electoral
process to ensure the creation of more Black majority districts, and for that
she was dubbed the Quota Queen. She was savaged by conservative
journalists and senators. Ron Klain, then Ms. Reno’s Chief of Staff, and I
were asked by her to read Lani’s writings, which we did. We concluded that
she was never going to make it. Nonetheless, we did send her out for off-therecord
interviews with press organizations, background interviews, in the
hope of turning things around. In those days – I don’t know if it’s still true –
we worked on the basis that the Senate Judiciary Committee was entitled to
have the first interviews with nominees from the Department, which is why
the interviews had to be off –the-record. In any event, I’m in my office. A
reporter comes in to see me, Beverly Lumpkin from ABC, and she says, “Do
you know that Lani Guinier is going to be on Nightline” – an ABC program –
“tonight with Ted Koppel?” “Not possible,” I said. “She’s not doing on-therecord
Well it turned out that in fact a Nightline producer had met her at the
airport as she was returning from background interviews with the Daily News
editorial board and The New York Times and he persuaded her to come on the
show that night. And I’m saying “No, she can’t do it.” Well, what are we
going to do? In fact, it gets worse.
What I quickly learned, but can’t tell ABC, is that the White House is
pulling the nomination the next day. Howard Paster, the White House
legislative chief and Ricki Seidman, another person from the White House,
are coming over at 5:30 to meet with Lani and tell her that her nomination is
being pulled tomorrow. Okay. Now what do I do [laughter]? Obviously by
the time the show goes on the air that night, she will have been told her
nomination is being withdrawn. If she goes on the show, what does she say?
I call Ted Koppel and tell him Lani can’t do it. He demands to know why.
All I can say is that we don’t do on-the record interviews before the Senate
hearings. But he says it’s up to Lani.
At 5:30 Lani comes over with her manager, Eddie Correa, and we sit in
the Attorney General’s office, and Howard and Ricky explain what’s going to
happen the next day, and Lani says “Look, you’ve got to at least give me a
chance to talk to the President. I deserve to have him tell me this face-toface.”
And so it is arranged to have her meet with the President at 11:00 the
following morning – although the decision is final. It’s not going to change.
After the meeting with the President, an announcement will be put out.
That’s it. News of what Lani is being told is not to leave this room today. I
turn to Lani. “You can’t go on Nightline” I say. “If you pretend you are still
the nominee, you’re lying to the world, and the show is lying to the world.
You just can’t do it.” She said “It’s my last chance to defend my reputation
and set the record straight. I’m doing it.” So that night she went on
Koppel’s show.
I made one last effort to get Ted to drop the interview because we’ve been
telling every other journalist who met with her that their interviews are
background-only. But he refused, saying that was our problem. I couldn’t
reveal the true problem. And thereafter Ted wrote a book, and it has a
passage in which he recounts the efforts by some malevolent fascist in the
Justice Department press office to keep him from having Lani Guinier on
Nightline. That terrible person, whoever he was – he doesn’t name that
person – that was me [laughter]. What was I to do? You get into impossible
situations in life, and you just have to roll with the punch.
MS. FEIGIN: As I recall, and correct me if I’m wrong, at the time a statement was made
that the President had not been aware of these views of hers. Is that correct?
MR. STERN: No. I think he was aware of her proposals for increasing minority
representation which, unfortunately, could be – and were – grossly distorted
by the President’s opponents. But it became clear her confirmation wasn’t
going to happen.
MS. FEIGIN: I don’t mean whether he in fact was aware. But I think that was the official
reason given for withdrawing the nomination.
MR. STERN: Oh, no. She was a preeminent legal scholar and civil rights fighter from way
back. No. It was almost a perfect nomination but for the fact that she had a
paper trail, these articles in which she was arguing in favor of a little extra
representation for minorities to assure that they would have voting
representation in the Congress and other elected offices, and for that she was
dubbed the Quota Queen, and she never recovered from that.
MS. FEIGIN: Any other frustrations of the job that you can share?
MR. STERN: Can I say “disappointment”? Yes, at least once. Responding to press queries
in a high-profile banking case, a high-ranking member of the Criminal
Division had our office put out information about the cooperation of one of
the subjects which was not true. It was intended to induce others to come
forward. Of course, we didn’t know it was untrue or we never would
have gone along with it. This person – I won’t say who – saw the press
office as an instrument, a tool in furthering the investigation. You can’t do
that. The press office is no better than its credibility.
MS. FEIGIN: Did you have greater credibility because you had been a reporter, and they
knew that you came from that background?
MR. STERN: I suppose so. But it didn’t help me with Mike Wallace. [laughter]
MS. FEIGIN: Were there any incidents you would regard as blunders?
MR. STERN: Not really. But there were minor incidents, which provided me with another
Golden Rule. Never tell them more than you know. I had one employee who
sometimes answered press questions without really taking the time and effort
to confirm the facts. He was a problem. It’s natural to want to be seen as inthe-
loop. It’s tempting to fill in the cracks. But harmful, unless you always
guess right. You get in trouble. The reporter gets in trouble. All you have is
your track record for getting it right when you ask reporters to kill an
incorrect story or a wayward fact – but can’t tell them why.
MS. FEIGIN: What made you leave the Justice Department?
MR. STERN: Well I just recounted a number of incidents in which I emerged black and
blue. That should add up to something. It’s not that I reached the point of
exhaustion, but a friend of mine, Stephen Trachtenberg, was the president of
George Washington University. I had actually gone to college with Steve,
and he approached me with an offer of a chair at GW in its Media and Public
Affairs program. It seemed like a wonderful sinecure [laughter], so I didn’t
say no.
I enjoyed my tenure at GW. The students were wonderful. I wish they
had read newspapers every day, but we live in an electronic age I’m afraid. I
originally intended only to stay there for perhaps three to six years; I ended
up staying for twelve. I was able to initiate some programs there, including
the advanced ethics program. My courses were open to students other than
journalism students, political science students, history students, and so on. I
also taught media law. That was a basic course of mine for many years. I
had to be on my toes. I remember on at least one occasion, one of my
students was a Harvard Law School graduate who had been a practitioner for
35 years but had come back to GW to acquire another degree and thought
media law sounded like something interesting.
MS. FEIGIN: It does.
MR. STERN: Well it is, and I think I learned more than my students. Every time I had to
prepare a lecture, I had to steep myself in the law of that topic, and it made
me learn more about the cases and principles involved. There were times
when I was not always in agreement with the textbooks, but I did learn
something along the way. And I remained active in other ventures such as
the ABA and the D.C. Court Historical Society and several FOIA
MS. FEIGIN: Did you encourage your students to become lawyers?
MR. STERN: I suppose I did. Several who became lawyers later wrote and blamed it on
me [laughter]. I used to start each class by saying, “Good morning law fans.”
The fact is many of us love the law. What makes it loveable? To this day I
keep near my desk a button that the ABA Section on Individual Rights and
Responsibilities used to distribute, which reads, “Remember why you wanted
to be a lawyer?” Not drafting contracts. Not shepardizing cases. What
makes it lovable is what it can accomplish, and that is something we felt very
strongly working with Janet Reno. At the risk of going way, way overboard
here, people sometimes ask me what it was like working for Janet Reno, and
I say it was like working for Abraham Lincoln.
MS. FEIGIN: In what way?
MR. STERN: Her modesty and humility, but also her desire to do the right thing.
MS. FEIGIN: Would you have any advice for someone who wanted a career like yours
today, to be a legal reporter?
MR. STERN: Well, legal reporting is a little bit different. You have to understand that law
is an authority-based system. It’s not just the desire to do good. What rules,
what reasoning, lead to a conclusion? It’s the kind of reporting where “why”
is more important than the “who, what, where, when.” It is an occupation
where history counts more than most, so I suppose a grounding in history is
useful. Developing a reputation for persistence and precision is vital in both
journalism and law.
MS. FEIGIN: Should you have a law degree?
MR. STERN: No, although it helps. The towering figures on the law beat in my lifetime
were Lyle Denniston of the Baltimore Sun and Anthony Lewis and Linda
Greenhouse of The New York Times. They didn’t have law degrees. But
they were brilliant, with voracious work habits. I might add that it always
struck me how much good lawyers and good journalists are alike. They are
both highly verbal and take pleasure in abstractions. The law is about
concepts, ideas, principles. Writing about the law requires that too.
MS. FEIGIN: Any advice for would-be journalists in general?
MR. STERN: Read. Read science as well as history. Monkeys are smart too, but the only
reason we’re riding around in electric cars and they’re still swinging from
trees is that we are able to write things down, and we can build on what
generations before us have come to know. But beyond that, I don’t have sage
advice to give.
You’re making me think of Conrad Hilton, the great hotelier, a man who
had been a friend and advisor to presidents and kings. On his 80th birthday,
the story goes, he was being feted at this banquet and finally after speaker
after speaker got up and spoke about this man who had been a beacon to the
world’s leaders, they turned to him and said “Mr. Hilton, surely there must be
something you learned in all those years, something you want to impart to
future generations, something you want to say,” and he said, “Yes. Yes there
is. I have a bit of advice. Always put the curtain inside the tub before taking
a shower.” [laughter]
MS. FEIGIN: [Laughter] What do you consider the greatest honor you received?
MR. STERN: Wow. That’s a tough one. It may seem like a small thing. It was two phone
calls. During the same week in 1998, I got a phone call from White House
Counsel Charles Ruff, and the principal assistant of the Independent
Prosecutor Ken Starr. These were two individuals working either side of the
same thing, which was the Monica Lewinsky matter, which involved
President Clinton and his relations with a White House intern. Both Chuck
Ruff and this person who was calling on behalf of Ken Starr were asking the
same thing, which was would I come on board as spokesman for their office
in connection with the Monica Lewinsky case? I declined both. But I cite
this story only to tell you that it’s wonderful to know that you are regarded as
fair and honest by people on either side of a hot button issue like that.
MS. FEIGIN: You have mentioned in earlier sessions your wife Joy and a bit about her
involvement with theater in Cleveland. Could you tell us more about Joy and
your children as well.
MR. STERN: Yes, we have a son who is a screen writer in Hollywood and another – they
are twins – who practices law in D.C., corporate law, lots of techie things that
I don’t understand. I wanted both of them to be lawyers but my Hollywood
son caught the show-biz bug.
MS. FEIGIN: Did he get that from you or Joy?
MR. STERN: I’d say from Joy. She was a child actor in New York doing radio dramas and
live TV commercials, and later part of the resident company at the Cleveland
Playhouse. More recently she had leading roles in two full-length feature
films and was nominated as Best Supporting Actress nationwide by the
independent film industry.
MS. FEIGIN: That’s phenomenal! But I understand that now she spends almost as much
time with lawyers as you do.
MR. STERN: That’s true [laughter]. She is a veteran actor in law firm training programs in
Washington and New York, especially those run by NITA, the National
Institute of Trial Advocacy. She has also done witness prep, in one case
helping a firm win a $400 million judgment.
MS. FEIGIN: So the law has played a role in both your lives. Our oral histories usually
have been with participants in the legal process. You worked as an observer,
watching the law at work. Yet you probably spent more time in courtrooms
than most lawyers. From that vantage point, what do you think about the
legal system overall?
MR. STERN: I can’t remember a single trial that I attended – criminal or civil – in which I
disagreed with the jury’s conclusion. It’s remarkable. I can’t recall a trial
judge’s ruling or decision that I considered unreasonable. I don’t mean I
always agreed with it, but I always thought there was at least a perceptible
reason for it. Many times I thought it was astonishing that we consistently
produce judges and lawyers of such high quality, especially at the federal
level. As a whole, in all courts that I observed, the quality moved higher
over the years. In short, the endeavor has blemishes, but it works.
MS. FEIGIN: Thank you so much. This has been a fascinating review of a wonderful