- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2000

In the future, when some historian compiles a multi volume chronicle of the Age of Clinton, it is likely that the eight years leading up to the new millennium will be remembered as a moment in time when the affluent got far more affluent and oral sex became a topic of conversation at dinner tables across America. And Americans, it seemed, were reasonably happy with the result.

If the future historian is a serious craftsman, he or she will consult "Truth at Any Cost," easily the best book yet to appear on the unpleasantness surrounding President Bill Clinton's relationship with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Authors Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post and Michael Weisskopf of Time magazine were in the front lines of journalistic efforts to get at the truth hidden behind the evasions and distortions of the Clinton White House.

In a tale rife with rumor, innuendo and quickly minted mythology, the authors cut through the self-serving verbiage which emerged from the Lewinsky scandal to provide a clear, balanced look at Kenneth Starr's Office of the Independent Counsel and its case against the president.

For those who care about what might have been, the pending Senate career of Hillary Rodham Clinton might have been stopped in its tracks if Arkansas paid more attention to the health problems of inhabitants of its prison system. The death of Jim McDougal, Mr. Clinton's freewheeling former business partner, deprived Mr. Starr of a key witness against the first lady. A month following McDougal's 1998 death, Mr. Starr's staff decided that without McDougal, the evidence was not strong enough to indict Mrs. Clinton for her Whitewater involvement or grand jury testimony.

Villains, and not just the obvious ones, emerge in the book. Stephen Brill, soi-disant press critic, almost managed to derail the entire investigation when his interview with Mr. Starr seemingly implied that the independent counsel had been leaking to the press. Monica Lewinsky comes across as less the not-too-bright victim than as a hard-boiled practitioner of self-preservation who managed to turn the tables on the prosecutors without compromising her president.

Both Mr. Starr and Mr. Clinton were lawyers from Southern backgrounds; after that, virtually nothing united the two men. Mr. Starr had "a nearly religious reverence for the rule of law." Mr. Clinton obviously did not. The president, particularly with his back against the wall, had an almost feral instinct for political survival. Mr. Starr, even after nearly four years in the independent counsel's office, was capable of believing, naively, that his graphic report on the Lewinsky matter would not be leaked by the Senate.

The portrait of Mr. Starr painted by the authors is at odds with the picture painted by his enemies. However, it seems to meld well the independent counsel's actions during the investigation. The Ken Starr of the book is a man with little appetite for political warfare despite his own Washington experience.

For much of the public, Mr. Starr became a latter-day Javert, from Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," obsessed with Mr. Clinton. A lot of this, the authors show, was due to Mr. Starr's tunnel-vision devotion to the law as an entity separate from political realities. And a lot can also be attributed to fumbling, misreading and hypocrisy on the part of the maladroit Republican opposition. However, the authors also demonstrate that a not inconsequential part of the public perception, or misperception as the case may be, was derived from a frenzied, sometimes vicious campaign by the White House and the president's private lawyers against his opponents.

Clinton consultant/celebrity James Carville, the authors report, made tape recordings of calls that purportedly contained discussions about the sexual and personal backgrounds of Mr. Starr's team. When Mr. Starr was preparing to testify before Congress, Attorney General Janet Reno informed him she had a duty to investigate charges of prosecutorial misconduct against him. Two weeks earlier, days before the 1998 election, a confident Sidney Blumenthal, the authors report, "was savoring the prospect of settling scores."

That did not happen, but whatever wind which might have filled Republican party sails was long gone by the time the Senate acquitted the president the following year. As for Mr. Starr, the authors are blunt: "A man once considered a likely future Supreme Court justice was now the subject of a D.C. Bar Association ethics probe." Clearly, Mr. Starr had made better personal decisions than when he agreed to take on the job of independent counsel. Eventually, the authors report, he came to believe that he should never have taken on the Lewinsky investigation. Of course, after-the-fact revisionism is far easier as the frenzied events of that fateful January fade into the fact.

If the Clintons emerge from their White House sojourn relatively unscathed, it will be less a reflection on the reporters covering them than a comment on the state of the country and its culture. But that is a subject for another book.

Michael Rust is a writer for Insight magazine.

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