Columns » Max Brantley

Whitewater revisited

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You'd probably have to be a Clinton scandal junkie to plunge into “The Death of American Virtue,” law professor Ken Gormley's new 690-page book on Kenneth Starr's marathon pursuit of Bill Clinton.

It's massive (probably too massive, though still short on nitty gritty of the Whitewater end of the prosecution) and even-handed. All the players gave Gormley, a Pittsburgh law professor, remarkable access. No one comes off too well. Bill Clinton, by his own admission, will go down in history as someone who evaded the truth when cornered in legal questioning about sexual improprieties. He gets no comfort from the book on that score.

Kenneth Starr fares poorly, too, though Gormley is (too) kind to Starr, forgiving his many mistakes and excesses as the product of a lack of prosecutorial savvy rather than partisan or moralistic fervor.

The press doesn't come off so hot, either, and recent handling of the book gives a taste why. Despite striking revelations about dishonest dealings by Starr's office and unprecedented interviews from previously reticent principles, Politico's report on the first leaks from the book led with 1) Clinton's truthfulness about White House dallying with Monica Lewinsky (about which Starr's X-rated report had already revealed more than enough) and 2) a conclusion, unsupported in the text, that Clinton had canoodled with Susan McDougal, an alleged coupling of little current relevance.

The New York Times' Janet Maslin got closer to the crux of it in a review this week, noting several of the same things that struck me as important. My quick list:

Paula Jones got a big monetary settlement to go away, but whatever the merits of her allegations about Bill Clinton's amorous advances she didn't have a meritorious lawsuit to start with.

The Whitewater end of the investigation — Bill and Hillary Clinton's involvement in Jim McDougal's real estate and financial dealings — was an empty snipe hunt. The original prosecutor, Robert Fiske, would have come to that conclusion much earlier had not politics intervened and forced his removal. Had justice taken its speedier course, the investigation would have been over before Monica Lewinsky and a Republican-elves-baited perjury trap came along.

--Starr had a legal conflict — his effort to intervene early on in Paula Jones' case — that should have prevented him from becoming special prosecutor.

--A federal appellate judge on the selection panel revealed to Gormley that he opposed Starr's appointment from start to finish.

--Starr's people were guilty of misconduct in their entrapment of Monica Lewinsky as a participating witness and their refusal to allow her to talk with an attorney.

--Gormley reveals that an independent report detailing prosecutorial misconduct was put under seal to avoid embarrassment to prosecutors. To prosecutors!

--Starr's operation repeatedly leaked to sympathetic national media, even as the sanctimonious Javert was intoning regularly to local reporters that he was far too moral to countenance such a thing. This, too, was suppressed.

In a sense, we knew all the larger truths already. Republicans were either, like Starr, morally repulsed by Bill Clinton or acutely aware of his immense political gifts. They would stop at nothing to bring him down. They abused the justice system to do it (sexual indiscretion is neither a criminal nor impeachable offense, after all) and no cost — in taxpayer dollar or ruination of individual lives — was too great in pursuit of their ends.

Gormley doesn't draw his conclusions so sharply. But his minutely detailed record, in the end, upholds Dale Bumpers' immortal words at Clinton's trial in the Senate. “When you hear somebody say it's not about sex, it's about sex.”

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