“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.