The Education of Alexandra Polier
Falsely accused of having an affair with John Kerry, the “intern” sifts through the mud and the people who threw it.
By Alexandra Polier
On the evening of Thursday, February 12, as John Kerry had just chalked up his twelfth state-primary win in his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, I was at a dinner party in Nairobi, hosted by my friend Matthew Rosenberg, an Associated Press reporter based in East Africa. The male guests were discussing a recent poker game, while the women sat around trading recipes to give to their cooks. It promised to be your typical Nairobi night.
Five months earlier, I had quit my job at the AP in New York and moved to Kenya with my fiancé, Yaron Schwartzman, who’d grown up there. He had been offered a film-production job, and I wanted to try some foreign corresponding. That night the group included aid workers, diplomats, photographers, and the feisty AP bureau chief, Susan Linnee.
As we started dinner, I was dimly aware of Susan’s cell phone’s ringing. I didn’t know her well but was excited to talk to her in case a job in the bureau came up. She went outside to answer it, then came back and beckoned me to join her in the garden. “The New York office wants to talk to you,” she said, and then she dialed the number and passed me the phone.
“Hello, Alex,” said the familiar voice of my old boss, Tom Kent, one of AP’s deputy managing editors. He sounded brusque. “I hate to tell you this, but you’re on the Drudge Report,” he said, and then proceeded to read me Matt Drudge’s latest “world exclusive.”
“A frantic behind-the-scenes drama is unfolding around Sen. John Kerry and his quest to lockup the Democratic nomination for President, the drudge report can reveal.
“Intrigue surrounds a woman who recently fled the country, reportedly at the prodding of Kerry, the DRUDGE REPORT has learned.
“A serious investigation of the woman and the nature of her relationship with Sen. John Kerry has been underway at TIME magazine, ABC NEWS, the WASHINGTON POST, THE HILL and the ASSOCIATED PRESS, where the woman in question once worked.
“A close friend of the woman first approached a reporter late last year claiming fantastic stories—stories that now threaten to turn the race for the presidency on its head!
“In an off-the-record conversation with a dozen reporters earlier this week General Wesley Clark plainly stated: ‘Kerry will implode over an intern issue.’ [Three reporters in attendance confirm Clark made the startling comments.]
“The Kerry commotion is why Howard Dean has turned increasingly aggressive against Kerry in recent days, and is the key reason why Dean reversed his decision to drop out of the race after Wisconsin, top campaign sources tell the DRUDGE REPORT.”
I wasn’t named, but Kent explained everyone knew whom Drudge was talking about. I was stunned into silence. “You have to make a statement, Alex,” Kent was saying. “I have no comment,” I managed to say as tears began to well. He sounded desperate to keep me on the line. “I’m not going to talk to the media,” I said. I was too overwhelmed and confused to know what had happened. I had never had an affair with John Kerry. Who was trying to make me the next Monica Lewinsky?
I met John Kerry for the first time in January 2001, in Davos, Switzerland. I was living in Manhattan, stopgapping at a public-relations firm and wondering if my application to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism was going to be accepted. At heart, I was a politics junkie. I would scour The Economist, cutting out articles for my “current affairs” scrapbook. As an undergrad at Clark University, in Worcester, Massachusetts, I had double-majored in philosophy and international relations. I’d also spent several months distributing emergency supplies in Kosovo and a year working as a researcher in the British House of Commons. (In an ironic nod to Monica Lewinsky, my boss, Nick Harvey, a Liberal M.P., cheerfully referred to me as “the American intern.”) I recall one Wednesday afternoon stumbling across Tony Blair and a minister chatting quietly down an obscure corridor. “Hello,” Blair said, smiling. It was more exciting than meeting Brad Pitt.
To me, politicians were the ultimate celebrities, so in January 2001, when I cadged a ticket to the World Economic Forum in Davos, I was intrigued by the proximity to the powerful. The first person I saw was South African president Thabo Mbeki, and then, across from him, Mexican president Vicente Fox. Although it presents itself as a serious policy machine, Davos’s real point is, of course, networking, so I got up the courage to introduce myself. “Hello, I’m Alex Polier,” I said. “Hello, Alex,” Fox replied. But I was uncertain what to say next, and fortunately for both of us, one of his aides whisked him away.
The third day of the conference was my birthday. It was also the evening of the Davos gala, the big social event of the weekend. It was surreal. I hung at the bar next to Naomi Campbell and drank champagne with eBay chairman Pierre Omidyar as a dozen synchronized swimmers glittered in the pool behind us. I was wandering around the main complex when I spotted Kerry at the bar. It was not long after President George W. Bush’s inauguration, and I, like many other Americans, was distressed by the outcome of the election. I had just read an article about potential Democratic candidates for 2004 that concluded that Kerry stood a chance of beating Bush. Having already practiced on Vicente Fox, I walked over and introduced myself.
“Hello, I’m Alexandra Polier. I’m one of your constituents.” I’d grown up outside Boston, and he looked pleased to hear a familiar accent. “What are you doing here?” he asked cheerily, and ordered me a drink. We moved swiftly through American foreign policy to his political ambitions. “I think you’re going to be the next president of the United States,” I said with a confidence that probably seemed very forward. “Oh, you do, do you?” he replied, looking slightly amused. He asked if I had any desire to work on a political campaign, so I ran through my résumé. He seemed impressed, and after sharing Davos gossip for fifteen minutes, he shook my hand and said, “Get in touch with my office. Maybe there’s something you can do for the campaign.”
I called the senator’s office the week I got back and was invited to a fund-raiser in New York later that month. His assistant assured me that the $2,000 ticket would be comped. When Kerry eventually arrived, everything seemed glamorous. At first I was afraid that he wouldn’t recognize me. “Alexandra, so glad you could make it,” he said when he reached me. Beckoning to a handsome aide who’d walked in with him, he introduced me to his finance director, Peter Maroney. We were the youngest people in the room by fifteen years, and after discovering the coincidence of growing up in the same hometown, we hit it off. I found him charming, smart, and charismatic—a cuter version of his boss.
As the last guests were heading out, Kerry came back and suggested we all go to dinner at Churrascaria Plataforma, a Brazilian restaurant nearby. I was surprised to be invited, and flattered when I was seated between Peter and the senator. I hoped it was my wit and enthusiasm, not my blonde hair and long legs, that got me a seat at the table. I felt like a serious player. Four mojitos later, the conversation was animated. Plans for a Kerry presidency were punctuated by platters of skirt steak and roasted salmon. The senator was flirtatious and funny. I felt I held my own with the other dinner guests, and Kerry announced to them that he hoped I would be coming onboard the campaign soon. And after dinner, as Peter put me into a cab, I knew I would be hearing from the senator’s finance director again.
A phone friendship with Peter followed, and we started dating that spring. I contemplated moving to Washington and spoke a few times on the phone with Kerry, who indulged me by offering advice about my career. The presidential race was still three years away, and by then I’d been accepted at Columbia. Peter was a little nervous about dating a fledgling reporter, but our relationship was fun. As Kerry’s chief fund-raiser, he would spend his weeks flying around the country raising millions of dollars, and I would join him for long weekends in D.C. or on his jaunts up to Boston. Peter was ferociously private, and kept his personal and professional lives separate, so much so that I would often stay with him in the same hotel as Kerry and never see the senator. On the rare occasions I did, at the World Economic Forum in New York the next year where we grabbed a coffee, or at a political event with Peter in D.C., we discussed my career or his campaign. And when I ran into Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, at a function in Worcester, she was very sweet and asked me about Peter.
Peter Maroney used to tell me I’d make the perfect political wife. By that he meant pretty, polite, informed, and inoffensive, but I was much too ambitious for that. While finishing at Columbia, I got an editorial-assistant job at the AP. As Kerry’s campaign switched into high gear, Peter had little time or energy left for me. Eventually the relationship fizzled out, but we remained friends, talking often.
When I left the States last fall, we stayed in touch via e-mail, and Peter would send me links to articles mentioning his successes. His name popped up in my in-box on the morning of Matt’s dinner party, and I clicked it open. “Al,” it read, “there’s a rumor going around the office that you slept with my boss.”
Though my name wasn’t mentioned in the initial Drudge “exclusive,” it made its first appearance in the British tabloid The Sun on Friday, February 13. The article, by one Brian Flynn, referred to Kerry as a SLEAZEBALL in the headline and said I was 24 (didn’t I wish). It purported to quote my father at home in Pennsylvania discussing the senator, saying, “I think he’s a sleazeball.” The article also claimed to quote my mother as saying Kerry had once chased after me to be on his campaign. My mother was not even home when Flynn called, and Flynn didn’t tell my father—who at this stage was unaware of the Drudge allegations—that he was interviewing him. Instead, he presented himself as a friend trying to get hold of me to talk about John Kerry. My father, a Republican, who believed Kerry had flip-flopped on various issues, said, ‘Oh, that sleazeball.’ ” Here’s how it reappeared in Flynn’s piece: “There is no evidence the pair had an affair, but her father, Terry, 56, said: ‘I think he’s a sleazeball.’ ” Drudge quickly linked to The Sun’s interview.
I was out shopping with Hannah, my future mother-in-law, in downtown Nairobi when I got an inkling of just how big the story was going to be. My cell phone rang. “Hello, is that Alex Polier?” said a British voice. “Who’s this?” I asked. “I’m a British journalist,” he began, before I cut him off, only to have the phone ring again. “I need to talk to Alex Polier,” a different voice said. I hung up. Moments later. Hannah’s cell phone rang, with yet another British voice. “You have the wrong number,” she said. Then Yaron called to say that he’d just received several phone calls. This was followed by his father calling to say there was a CNN reporter outside his office.
Earlier that morning, Yaron and I had sat his parents down for a chat. Looking back, I’m sure they must have thought I was pregnant. What a relief it must have been to hear that I was merely at the center of a political sex scandal. The next task was to tell my own parents, the toughest phone call I’d ever had to make. My father, a sales trainer, had been at work when he got the news of Brian Flynn’s story. By the time I reached him, he was sitting in a room filled with corporate PR execs advising him on what to do. I could hear his panic that he had unwittingly started everything by talking to Flynn. “It’s not true, Dad, and it’s not your fault,” I said, feeling guilty for not warning him sooner.
“I know it isn’t true, honey,” he said in such a tender voice that I wanted to cry. I told him no one believes The Sun. My parents left work that Friday and couldn’t return home for four days. Dozens of local, national, and international reporters were camped outside in the 32-degree weather, waiting for them.
The “exclusive” in The Sun had left the paper’s British-tabloid competitors smarting, and by the time Hannah and I got home, there was already a scattering of reporters parked outside the house. I knew I needed to call Peter Maroney and find out what was going on. As soon as I got through to him, I started freaking out. Why couldn’t he clear the whole thing up? He told me Kerry had been forced into issuing an official denial on “Imus in the Morning” that day, and was reassured that this would all blow over soon. But as I stared out the window, more reporters were arriving.
Peter recommended I talk with Kerry’s spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter. Several hours later, the two of them called me back, telling me they also had a lawyer in the room. Cutter sounded young and hard, and I imagined her like Lara Flynn Boyle on The Practice. She peppered me with questions. When had I first met the senator?
Were there any pictures of us together?
“No,” I said.
“Think back, Alex, think hard,” she said, both stern and unsympathetic. I thought, Wait a minute, I’m the victim here.
“Have you ever been alone with the senator?” she continued.
“Are you sure?” she drilled.
“Yes. I’m sure,” I said, trying to joke a bit. “I think I would remember!” No response.
Had I spoken with anyone in the press?
“Okay,” she said, pausing, sounding slightly relieved.
What I thought she wanted to ask, but stopped short of saying, was, was I sane? Was I going to seek out the limelight? Had I started this to bring Kerry down? Perhaps she also wondered whether her own boss was telling her the truth. God knows, everybody else had the same worry. I heard Peter reassure her that I was rational and cooperative. “What do you want to do, Alex?” Stephanie asked. “I don’t want to do anything,” I said. I figured my silence would make it harder to write about me. “Fine,” said Stephanie, and we both hung up. In retrospect, I wonder whether I should have denied the rumor sooner or if I should have asked more clearly for advice.
I continued to get phone calls throughout the night. I couldn’t cry; I was in shock. Some hours later, Hannah woke me up. “I can’t get out,” she cried. We were trapped. Reporters were standing on cars and ladders to see into the house. Camera lenses were poking through the hedge.
The media needed a photo of me, and I wasn’t going to give it to them, though an enterprising soul from the New York Post persuaded my old high school he was doing a story on a “small-town girl who makes it big” and snatched my yearbook photo.
I was 17, with bangs and a blue turtleneck.
Having discovered that I’d worked for an M.P., a British TV station interviewed Nick Harvey, who declared I “was very attractive and was at the center of much interest among young male researchers,” sending the British press into a further frenzy.
One reporter had a little girl call up, assuming I wouldn’t hang up on a child. They even made her say, “Can I talk to Alex?” And when I said, “Yes, it’s me,” a reporter jumped on the line. CNN’s Zain Verjee wrote beseeching notes, slipping them under the front gate. It was like a horror movie where the zombies are on the other side of the door and then an arm comes through the window. Stuck with Kerry’s denial, each of the American networks had hired a local fixer to approach me for a big sit-down. “Tell me it’s true and we’re on the next plane to Nairobi!” ABC’s Chris Vlasto e-mailed hopefully. Good Morning America, the Today show, CNN, and 60 Minutes all offered me airtime to tell my story. Editors whom I’d been begging for work were now clamoring for my attention.
Unfortunately, my silence only fueled the intrigue, and as I refused to emerge for a photo, the price got higher. One British tabloid offered an ex-boyfriend $50,000 for a recent picture. He declined. So, to his credit, did a local photographer friend, whose agent said he could make two years’ salary selling one photo of me that he’d taken at a Thanksgiving party. For that kind of money, I was tempted to send in a photo myself.
More alarmingly, my Hotmail account had been broken into, and I couldn’t access my e-mail. Random people in my in-box whom I hadn’t spoken to in months suddenly started getting calls from reporters. My father called to tell me someone had tried the same thing with his account, but that his security software had intercepted them and tracked them back to a rogue computer address in Washington, D.C. When I finally got back into my account, assuming the hacker was a Republican, I changed my password to “Bushsucksdick.”
That weekend, if you typed my name into Google, “Alex Polier” retrieved 1,020 hits, and “Alexandra Polier” 434. My AP stories were the last things to come up. The Internet was an open forum for news junkies and thousands of conspiracy theorists who wanted to put in their two cents. It was awful reading strangers discussing my life. One site, screwthegovernment.com, had a photo page set up with a naked picture supposed to be of me. There was nothing I could do to take it back; it was all out there forever.
By Monday, I was going stir-crazy. I hadn’t slept, and Yaron and I were arguing constantly. I decided to make a statement. I called Stephanie Cutter to alert her. By now we had spoken a few times, and she had softened in her approach. She agreed that it was time for me to print my denial, knowing it would be tomorrow’s headlines. My parents, who’d also received advice from the Kerry campaign, were ready to issue theirs, which I’d helped craft. I released mine to the AP, and then Yaron and I waited until dark before sneaking over to a friend’s house to watch my face and quotes flash across the TV screen. My father, in spite of his Republican leanings, suspected a right-wing conspiracy, so at my suggestion he concluded his statement: “We appreciate the way Senator Kerry has handled the situation and intend on voting for him for President of the United States.”
Our denials made the front pages from New York to Calcutta; The Sun splashed a new photo of me, this one ripped from the J-school face book, and the Daily News ran the headline I’M NO MONICA, even though I hadn’t said that. By the end of the week, the reporters had gone, empty-handed. But millions of people around the world still thought it was true. My name would be forever associated with a sex scandal.
I’ve never been someone who suffers from depression, but the month that followed was the worst of my life. The Kenyan press, incredulous at its own role in an American political story, had run my photo prominently, and I was stared at wherever I went. At a friend’s luncheon, I was ringingly introduced to the others guests as “Nairobi’s most notorious resident.” “We should make you wear a scarlet A!” she said gaily. At a business dinner with the president of Rwanda, Yaron’s father was asked by an aide if he was the same Mr. Schwartzman who was sheltering the “Kerry girl.”
I knew I had to get past this, but how? A friend recommended a shrink, but I couldn’t see how talking about this more was going to help. Valium, maybe. I’d kept a journal, and after reading it back, I decided that one way I might feel better was to try to understand where the story had come from and face down the reporters who’d initiated these lies. I was still a journalist, after all.
When I returned to the U.S. at the end of March, I realized just how disconnected I’d been in Kenya. The slow Internet connections and astronomical phone rates to the U.S. meant I had failed to appreciate the story’s full impact.
I began by calling political reporters and strategists, who told me that as early as the New Hampshire primary, on January 27, two weeks before the story appeared on Drudge, there had been rumors swirling that Kerry had an intern problem. “We shook the tree,” says one reporter, who spent three weeks reporting it for The Hill only to come up empty-handed. “A bunch of names fell out, and yours had the most flesh to it.”
I had assumed that the story, like much of the initial reporting, was part of a Republican dirty-tricks campaign to break Kerry’s momentum. The attacks on Bill Clinton had worked (but of course, those had been true). So why not take Kerry down the same way? By the time Drudge broke the story, Kerry had won twelve of fourteen states, conceding only South Carolina to John Edwards and Oklahoma to Wesley Clark. As the press started to report the rumor, Kerry also seemed to be under the impression that he was a victim of the right. Speaking in Nevada at a Democratic function on February 14, he declared, “I promise you that when the Republican smear machine trots out the same old attacks in this election, this is one Democrat who will fight back. I fought for my country my entire life and I’m not about to back down now.”
The military analogy was apt. In early February, Bush was taking a major battering over stories that he had never reported for National Guard duty. The media needed distracting, and courtesy of Drudge, they found me. Rush Limbaugh spent the first hour of his program discussing Kerry’s “affair” with his 10 million listeners. Dozens of conservative commentators followed suit. “The John Kerry campaign has just been rocked by the scandal that people who knew John Kerry have been quietly predicting for months,” opined David Frum, a former Bush speechwriter, on The National Review’s Website. “Now we know why Teresa Heinz was reluctant to bankroll her husband’s campaign.”
Damning stuff, except that Frum was merely working with the rumors that everyone else was spreading around. That’s how opinion culture has evolved, and it’s been enabled by the Internet. Who cares if you’re wrong? As it happens, Frum says he does.
“I regret it,” he says now. “I read it in the paper, I heard it gossiped about, but I didn’t do anything like reporting. I joked about it on the Internet in a way I would at dinner. Then I learned the Net is like print, not like dinner.”
As I began to trace the rumor, I learned that the vaguer it was, the easier it was to spread. Without a specific intern’s name attached, the story was initially impossible to disprove, something Rick Davis, the manager of Senator John McCain’s 2000 campaign, remembers well from his time fielding rumors that McCain had fathered a black child out of wedlock. In fact, McCain had adopted a Bangladeshi baby. In an episode that presaged the Kerry story, a professor at Bob Jones University had sent out an e-mail to thousands of people claiming McCain had “chosen to sire children without marriage.”
“When the media asked what evidence the professor had,” says Davis, “he said McCain had to prove that he didn’t. Wow! How do you deal with that?”
Politics was like a scary game of telephone. During the last election, people had discussed rumors that Bush had taken cocaine, a not entirely illogical jump from his wild days with alcohol. This time, Kerry’s dating record between marriages might have led people to assume he’d be up for an affair.
As I continued to dig, it occurred to me that Bush wasn’t the only one with a motive. Clark, Dean, and Edwards all stood to gain if Kerry imploded. “This story played into so many agendas, everyone wanted it to be true,” says one reporter who covered the Clark campaign.
“The story immediately changed the mood of the race,” says USA Today’s political columnist, Walter Shapiro. “In both the Dean and Edwards campaigns, there was a hope and an intense curiosity: Could this be true? Is there something out there that will save us?” The night after the Drudge posting, a reporter on MSNBC’s Hardball said that, even after his spectacular losses, Dean was staying in the race in case the Kerry campaign “implodes.”
I started calling around the campaigns to see what role they might have had in spreading the lie. “We didn’t know anything,” Sarah Leonard, Dean’s campaign spokeswoman, recalls. “We’d heard the rumors since New Hampshire, but we were just as surprised to see it on Drudge as you were. By Wisconsin, it was all over the local radio stations, it was all anyone could talk about. We were all rushing to Drudge every fifteen minutes for the update.”
One of Dean’s pollsters, Ben Tulchin, says, “We were passive participants. The only way we could benefit is, ‘Okay, if Kerry gets taken out, how could we pick up the pieces?’ Our discussions at the time were, ‘Stand back, don’t touch it, don’t get near it, and if we benefited, great.’ ” In fact, Dean didn’t benefit from the rumors; neither did Kerry. Still, though Kerry carried Wisconsin on February 17, his numbers were much lower than expected. On Hardball, Chris Matthews told viewers, “Blame Drudge.”
As I continued to try to understand what had happened, I found that shortly after his first story, Drudge had posted a leaked private e-mail from Craig Crawford, a political columnist at The Congressional Quarterly, to some colleagues at MSNBC: “Drudge item on Kerry intern issue is something Chris Lehane has shopped around for a long time.” Drudge quickly dropped the posting, and Lehane complained to Crawford that it wasn’t true, but Lehane’s name was familiar to me. I knew he was feared by rival campaigns as a master of the black art of leaking political-opposition research. A former spokesman for the Kerry campaign, he had quit amid some acrimony and gone to work as a strategist for Clark.
He was a sufficiently controversial figure to have earned his own recent profile in the New York Times, in which he was described by some as a “devious communications strategist.” The piece quoted rival politicos complaining that it was one thing to attack Republicans but quite another to attack rival Democrats, “spilling blood in our house.” I wondered if Lehane had been the source, especially since he had switched horses mid-race. As Steve McMahon, a Dean media consultant, put it to me: “To work for someone and then walk across the street and work against them is beneath contempt. The one person who should hope John Kerry doesn’t become president is Chris Lehane.”
Joe Trippi, Howard Dean’s former campaign manager, told me he’d also heard Lehane had been shopping the rumor—presumably on Clark’s behalf.
Drudge claimed Clark himself had told reporters on his campaign bus that Kerry was going to “implode” over a scandal, but when I called Wesley Clark Jr., a screenwriter in L.A., who had helped out on his father’s campaign, he told me Drudge had ignored the context of his father’s quote. “He was reacting to the latest issue of The National Enquirer, which had just run a front-page story about Kerry and possible scandals, when he said that.”
Writing about Clinton recently in Vanity Fair, Robert Sam Anson added to my suspicion by suggesting that “Clinton types” in the Clark campaign had been vigorously pushing similar rumors.
I called Lehane himself, who, having backed the wrong team, is now running his own political PR firm in San Francisco. I asked him where he’d first heard the rumors about Kerry and me. He blamed political reporters. I asked him if he had used the rumors to try to help Clark. He denied it. “There are just so many media outlets out there now, Alex, that these kind of baseless rumors can easily get turned into stories,” he said smoothly, and then the phone went dead.
I called him right back, but he didn’t answer. I called again less than an hour later, and this time his outgoing message had been changed to, “Hi, you’ve reached Chris. I’m traveling and won’t be able to retrieve my voice mail.” I wondered how he was able to run a PR company without retrieving voice mail.
Our conversation was unsettling, but it was hardly conclusive. I tried to understand the chronology of events, and then discovered that Drudge’s “exclusive” wasn’t even an exclusive. On February 6, six days before Drudge, an obscure political Website called Watchblog.com ran a commentary by someone calling himself Son of Liberty. “Rumor has it that John Kerry is going to be outed by Time magazine next week for having an affair with a 20-year-old woman who remains unknown,” Son had confidently predicted.
Watchblog was the creation of Cameron Barrett, who—as it happened—went on to work for the Clark campaign. I enlisted some reporting help from Robert Kolker, a more seasoned political journalist who works for this magazine. He reached Barrett by instant message.
Without even being asked, Barrett declared that Son’s story had nothing to do with himself, Lehane, or Clark. A day later, Son himself e-mailed, saying that he was willing to be unmasked as Stephen VanDyke, a 25-year-old computer programmer in Atlanta. Claiming to be inspired by James Thomson Callender, the original American muckraker who chronicled the scandals of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, VanDyke says now that he was merely trying to make a name for himself by posting the rumor. “What I tried to break,” he explains, “was that the rumor did exist. I didn’t know whether it was true or not.
I know now it’s not.
“It looks as though someone may have been just passing out disinformation,” he continued. “And I may have become part of that cycle.” Kolker asked him if he knew why I had been named. “She may have just been convenient,” VanDyke suggested. “Someone who ran off to, where did she go, Kenya? It made an excellent opportunity for someone to finger-point at her.”
It was becoming clearer: No single person had to have engineered this. First came a rumor about Kerry, then a small-time blogger wrote about it, and his posting was read by journalists. They started looking into it, a detail that was picked up by Drudge—who, post-Monica, is taken seriously by other sites like Wonkette, which no political reporter can ignore. I was getting a better education in 21st-century reporting than I had gotten at Columbia J-school.
Drudge’s initial posting on February 12 claimed that ABC News, Time, The Hill, and the Washington Post were all working on stories about a Kerry intern. “It had been looked into,” confirms George Stephanopoulos, who now works for ABC News and who, as a Clinton aide, had to handle the brouhaha over Clinton’s affair with Gennifer Flowers. “But according to our investigative people, there was nothing behind it.”
And what about Time? “I thought it was absurd,” says political columnist Joe Klein. “There are a whole bunch of things we’re looking into all the time. And there’s an important word here: Drudge. The world really has changed since September 11; the time is past when we’d waste two years on late-night pizza deliveries.”
Still, Drudge had been right about Monica, and no news outlet wanted to be caught without the story if it turned out to be true. I discovered they all had teams assembling background on me to run if the story stood up.
Of course, I still remained unsure how it was that I got dragged into this thing. My relationship with Peter had put me close to the senator, and I certainly hadn’t kept it a secret that I had been excited to meet and talk to Kerry. The more people I talked to, the more one supposed source kept coming up, a woman whom Drudge had called my “close friend.” I won’t mention her name here, but she had worked for a Republican lobbyist—Bill Jarrell, who runs a firm called Washington Strategies, gives money to Bush, and had been a top aide to Tom DeLay. I called her immediately to ask her if she had been telling people I’d had an affair with Kerry. “I may have said you knew him,” she said, sounding as if she were choosing her words with great care. “I may have said you had dinner with him. But I never said you had an affair!”
Then another reporter also said she’d told him I had slept with Kerry. I couldn’t believe one of my closest friends would tell such a thing—we went all the way back to tenth grade. I had even asked her to be a bridesmaid. She denied it again, then softened her position. “I may have told Bill that you knew Kerry. Look, I was once with you when you phoned Kerry’s office and then he called you right back. And I thought, How amazing, and I got excited and I told friends about it.” She started to cry. “I’m very, very sorry,” she sobbed. “If all this leads back to me, it wasn’t intentional.”
I called Jarrell and asked him what he thought. “Come on Alex,” he said. “Who else could it be?”
Oddly, of all the stories written, the one that upset me most appeared in the New York Observer by Alexandra Wolfe, daughter of the novelist Tom Wolfe. Cobbling together information from the Web, she said I looked like Monica and had poor taste in movies, and compared me to Paris Hilton. I wept.
We agreed to meet at Coffee Shop in Union Square. When she walked in, the first thing she said was, “You look nothing like Monica. You’re much prettier!” I mentioned how I’d been hurt by her story. She looked stricken. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I just didn’t think of you as a person. I thought of you as this Google creation, this Lara Croft character.”
In the end, I liked her; she’d had the courage to meet me—more than I can say for The Sun’s Brian Flynn, who had first named me. Afraid I would lose my temper, I asked my editor to call him first.
“I was calling to ask you who your source was for your story which named Alex Polier as the intern in the Kerry story,” she said.
“Ah, many people have asked me; it was a fantastic source,” he said. “I broke that story to the world, you know,” he added proudly. “But your source was wrong,” she pointed out. He paused, startled. “You’ve just ambushed me,” he cried. “You’ve ambushed me!”
“I think you should speak to Alex,” she said and passed me the phone.
“Hello,” he said, sounding nervous.
“I’d like to talk to you. I’m writing a piece and have some questions.”
“It’s not a good time right now,” he said. “Let’s meet up next week.”
“Why did you quote my mother when she wasn’t even home?” I persisted.
“I really can’t talk about this right now, Alex,” he said.
When I finally tracked him down the following week, he was brusque and told me to go through The Sun’s PR office. I asked him about my mother again, but he kept saying, “Sorry, Alex, proper channels.” Reached in London, Lorna Carmichael, The Sun’s PR manager, refused to comment. I went to Flynn’s apartment, and spoke to his wife through the intercom. “Go away and leave us alone!” she cried. “He’s not going to come down or speak to you.”
My final call, inevitably, had to be to Matt Drudge, who said he couldn’t talk for long as his father had just arrived for the weekend. In fact, we spoke for nearly 40 minutes. “In retrospect, I should have had a sentence saying, ‘There is no evidence to tie Alex to John Kerry.’ I should have put that,” he told me. Then he added, “If Clark had not gone out there and said, ‘Kerry is going to bomb,’ I never, ever, would have gone anywhere near this.” Once he’d posted his initial story, he was then encouraged and gratified by the prompt coverage in the UK press. “When the London Times made it a banner headline, like we’re going to war, I realized this must be true. Murdoch is going all the way with this! For me to do media coverage was one thing, for them to jump from media coverage to say this is actually an affair between her and him and all the rest was something else!”
And so my education had taken me pretty much as far as it could. I started out as an ambitious young woman inspired by politics and the media. I’ve ended up disenchanted with both. If I had been an ambitious young man, this story would not have happened. I’m never going to know exactly what happened, but that matters less to me now. I lost a good friend and learned a few lessons. I am struck by the pitiful state of political reporting, which is dominated by the unholy alliance of opposition research and its latest tool, the Internet. Even the Wall Street Journal’s Website ran Drudge’s story, with only a brief disclaimer that his stories weren’t always accurate.
It was important for me to set the record straight. I don’t mean to dredge up old news by writing this, and I’m not trying to create any now, though I’m not unaware of the irony that I am adding to the ink spilled on this story. I don’t intend to discuss it again in public either. But for me, this painful experience will be hard to forget. It may be only a minor footnote to the campaign, but it has changed my life completely.