- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2000

First things first: "Truth at Any Cost," an outstanding new book tracking the complex legal and personal maneuvers of the ultimate phase of the Starr investigation, couldn't originate farther from Hillary Rodham Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy" if it came from Pluto. Not only have the authors no affiliation with the Federalist Society, they have never been married to conservative Theodore Olson, or even written after-dinner remarks for Ronald Reagan. In their generous acknowledgments at a guess, not a Republican on the list they tip their caps not to the "elves" of the activist right, but to the magnates of the media mainstream (Ben and Sally plugged them into agent Joni). And why not? The mainstream is their habitat. In fact, this book's authors, reporters Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post and Michael Weisskopf of Time magazine, are press card-carrying members of the media elite.

This is significant. Throughout the unprecedented campaign of propaganda and tactical stonewalling orchestrated by the Clinton White House in its war with the Office of the Independent Counsel (OIC), the administration's battle cry has always been that investigations of Clintonian malfeasance are the evil machinations of the president's political enemies, and thus illegitimate attempts to undermine the republic. As much as anything else, the reverberations of this charge have distorted, if not drowned out, the facts. What Ms. Schmidt and Mr. Weisskopf have done with "Truth at Any Cost" is to eliminate the noise. Their clear-eyed and eye-opening explication of behind-the-scenes events at the OIC, the Justice Department, and the White House is no manifesto, but it nonetheless amounts to the most formidable indictment of Bill Clinton since the Starr report.

There is just one particularly astonishing difference. "Truth at Any Cost" goes far to restore the public image of Kenneth W. Starr and his deputies, all of whom have gone through White House-generated fire and brimstone in the execution of their appointed duties. Far from being the band of horned toads and Torquemadists that the ever-delightful Paul Begala and Co. would have the American public believe, the legal eagles and flatfeet of the OIC come to life in this book as dedicated citizens even likable and admirable human beings who sought guidance in the law and strove to play by the rules.

That, of course, was just the beginning of their problems. It's not easy to play fair against Mr. and Mrs. Clinton, who, in the words of the authors, "operated like a crime family, expecting friends and aides to protect them even against their own best interests." What's amazing, of course, is that's exactly what Clinton friends and aides have always done, from Susan McDougal to Webster Hubbell to flocks of nameless White House special assistants. Even Jim McDougal died just in time to deprive the independent counsel of a key witness against Mrs. Clinton, thus derailing what the authors report to have been her likely indictment for perjury and obstruction related to the Whitewater investigation.

Given the crime-family values of Clintonism, some of Mr. Starr's tactical blunders have been difficult for many to fathom ever since he first let himself be snookered into a plea bargain with Webster Hubbell before securing Hubbell's cooperation in the Whitewater investigation. That episode, of course, came early in Mr. Starr's tenure. But what explains Mr. Starr's unilateral decision in the summer of 1998, as first reported by the authors, "to throw Clinton a lifeline" by tipping the president off to the existence of the semen-stained dress before his grand jury appearance? In exploring the ethos of Mr. Starr, gleaned through lengthy interviews, the authors of "Truth at Any Cost" help a reader, still shaking his head no doubt, make some sense of such decisions.

Reading the tumultuous events of the Lewinsky probe in a comprehensive narrative is unlike attempting to make sense of it in daily doses. Something different comes through the heavy accumulation of detail of, for example, the duplicity of the Justice Department, or the sharklike behavior of the White House. One begins to get a choking sense of the atmosphere of corruption and ruthlessness the Clintons inhabit and, worse, have forced the rest of us to inhabit. Taken in one piece, the habitual, even casual abuse of power on display begins to resemble conditions one normally associates with a state of totalitarianism, where such concepts as truth and justice are only paid lip service. In the end, then, it makes you wonder when there will be fresh air again.

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