The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs Starr Kenneth Gormley

Crown, pp.790, 35

For once, I felt sorry for Bill Clinton. It was January 1998, and the press reported that the President had had an intimate relationship with one Monica Lewinsky. In Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr’s office, where I worked, we had evidence that Clinton had sought to hide his dalliance through perjury and obstruction of justice. But that didn’t matter anymore. No president could survive the public revelation of sex (however defined) with a White House intern. Clinton was about to be driven from office over fellatio rather than felonies. I started thinking about a conciliatory statement Starr might release when the President resigned.

Our judgment, as Ken Gormley observes in The Death of American Virtue, was sometimes flawed.

After scads of journalists, Gormley is the first historian to chronicle the scandal that culminated in Bill Clinton’s impeachment by the House of Representatives but acquittal by the Senate. (He recounts the Whitewater land scandal too, but that chicanery lacks the piquant simplicity of sex with an intern.)

The story begins in 1994, when Paula Jones files a lawsuit claiming that Bill Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, sexually harassed her. From 1995 to 1997, President Clinton has an intermittent affair with Lewinsky. Judge Susan Webber Wright lets the Jones team investigate Clinton’s sexual relations with subordinates, a ruling that makes the Lewinsky affair legally relevant. In Starr’s office, we get involved when an informant — the duplicitous Linda Tripp — reports that Clinton, his friend Vernon Jordan, and Lewinsky are conspiring to obstruct justice in the Jones case. The evidence never fully supports Tripp’s allegations, however, and she, having presented herself to us as a pure-hearted patriot, turns out to be collaborating with the Jones lawyers and angling for a book deal. But by then it’s too late. The Clinton forces have launched a ruthless and effective PR attack on Starr.

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Gormley talked to Starr and many of us on his staff, as well as Lewinsky, Jones, Tripp, and Bill Clinton himself, though not Hillary. The result is a fine-grained, often gripping tale of one might-have-been after another. If Paula Jones had accepted any of several offers to settle her lawsuit, there wouldn’t have been a Lewinsky cover-up. If Starr had devoted all his time to the Independent Counsel job rather than continuing to represent private clients (as the law allowed), he would have finished his Whitewater investigation before 1998 and avoided the Lewinsky briar patch. If Judge Wright had held President Clinton in criminal contempt for lying under oath, as she considered doing, the Senate would have convicted and removed him.

Another key moment came with the release of the Starr Report, which I helped write. The law required us to send Congress ‘any substantial and credible information’ that might ‘constitute grounds for an impeachment.’ Gormley thinks we overdid it. In his view, we should have provided a terse guide to the evidence rather than our sexually explicit and ultimately much-maligned document. (Stevie Wonder memorably told Rolling Stone: ‘I’m glad I’m blind and can’t see it.’). Gormley may be right. But, as he notes, we expected the House to keep our work secret, as it had done with the Watergate prosecutor’s report in 1974. Instead, Congress put the Starr Report on the internet without reading it. Then we expected House members to use the report as the blueprint for their own inquiry. Instead, they called Starr as their only witness. Starr was ‘half federal prosecutor, half impeachment deputy for a politically charged Congress,’ Gormley astutely observes, and that was an untenable position.

The Death of American Virtue spotlights the miscalculations on all sides, but it doesn’t ponder the broader meanings of this dozen-year-old scandal. Who killed American virtue, Clinton or Starr? Gormley has said he wants to let the reader decide. Though perhaps a shrewd marketing move, that approach leaves a hole. With page after page of quotations from interviews, the book can seem less history than oral history.

That’s not to slight the value of Gormley’s spadework. Starr tells him, for instance, that he wishes he hadn’t taken on the Lewinsky investigation. He has ample cause for regret. When he was first appointed to investigate Whitewater in 1994, the New York Times reported that ‘Starr, consistently described as judicious, balanced and fair-minded, won accolades yesterday from those who have worked with and against him’. At the time, he was considered a cerebral conservative and a strong candidate for appointment to the Supreme Court. In 1998, by contrast, the Clinton forces likened Starr to Stalin, Himmler and Torquemada, and his public support dipped below 10 per cent.

For his part, the former President feels no one’s pain as keenly as his own, including that of Monica Lewinsky, who’s still awaiting an apology from, as she sometimes called him to friends, the Big Creep. Clinton told one interviewer about his struggle for forgiveness — not to earn it but to bestow it, a topic on which, he said, he has sought guidance from Nelson Mandela. (Clinton’s remarks about Starr in this book indicate that Mandela’s job isn’t yet done). Clinton doesn’t consider the impeachment a blot on his record. ‘I am proud of what we did there,’ he declared in 2000, ‘because I think we saved the Constitution of the United States.’

He should temper his pride. Bill Clinton and his defenders taught the nation that everybody lies under oath, that sinful felonies are best addressed by clergy, that crimes committed to hide infidelity are adequately punished by spousal frostiness, that the accuracy of allegations is secondary to the accuser’s missteps, and that law is politics and politics is law. The scandal didn’t kill American virtue. But it did leave a scar.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: America, Non-fiction, Politics, Scandal, Sex