- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 9, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE DEATH OF AMERICAN VIRTUE: CLINTON V. STARR

By Ken Gormley Crown Publishers, $35, 789 pages

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden

At the outset: a cautionary note about publicity afforded this book in advance of publication. Heavy-breathing press accounts in the New York Post and elsewhere could lead one to expect a spate of revelations concerning Bill Clinton and the tawdry scandals that engulfed his tenure. For instance, the author was said to reveal that Mr. Clinton, while Arkansas governor, in fact had sex with his flashy Whitewater associate Susan McDougal (hey, big surprise). Further, that special counsel Kenneth Starr prepared a draft indictment of first lady Hillary Clinton for perjury and other misdeeds pertaining to Whitewater financial deals but chose not to put it before juries in the Clinton-friendly jurisdictions of Washington or Little Rock.

Those subjects are covered, of course, in this toe-buster of a book by Ken Gormley, who is an interim dean and law professor at Du-quesne University. But the bulk of his work is a sustained assault on Mr. Starr and his staff, who are given the benefit of few - if any - of the legal calls they made during the protracted wrangle. The clear message is that the Clintons did not deserve such unseemly treatment and that Mr. Starr should not have meddled in their lives, especially in the Lewinsky sex scandal.

To be sure, Mr. Starr and minions can be faulted on many counts. Mr. Gormley is correct when he states that the special counsel should have abandoned his private law practice and devoted full time to the Clinton matter, which had the country in a constitutional crisis for months. He erred in attempting to resign midcourse to become dean of a California law school. And his subordinates’ treatment of Monica Lewinsky after her “detainment” at a Virginia hotel for hours, without permission to contact a lawyer, was likely a clear case of prosecutorial misconduct.

But what Mr. Gormley never seems to grasp is the depth of public disgust toward Mr. Clinton once nigh-unprintable details of his White House trysts with Miss Lewinsky came to light. Did conservative cheerleading by such figures as the lawyer-columnist Ann Coulter incite the animosity toward the president? I think not. Mr. Clinton made his own mess, and the public needed no outside urging to form its own opinion.

Further, Mr. Gormley echoes the contention of Clintonistas that his revelation of the specifics of the sexual acts to which Miss Lewinsky and Mr. Clinton treated each other in the White should not have been made public; he accuses Mr. Starr of “sensationalizing” these admissions to tarnish the president.

I demur. Once Mr. Clinton faced TV cameras - and through them, the American public - and wagged his finger and declared firmly, “I did not have sex with that woman,” he was fair game. Mr. Starr did not have to call the president a liar; he simply cited the sworn testimony and let the public decide.

But forget these quibbles. Even at this late date, few Americans are without opinions on the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, and Mr. Gormley, in a work that consumed a decade, did a masterful job of seeking out the principals in interviews that add much to the story. Mr. Clinton sat for him, as did Miss Lewinsky and Mr. Starr and his key aides. (Mr. Clinton, understandably, remains bitter.) Even those of us who tried to follow the Whitewater tangle found ourselves wandering off into puzzling cul-de-sacs; I credit Mr. Gormley for shedding much light on some … well, dangedly confusing financial shenanigans engineered by Mrs. McDougal’s mentally confused husband, Jim.

Foremost among the criticisms of Mr. Starr is the charge that the president’s trysts with Miss Lewinsky were private - if contemptible - and not worthy of investigation. Mr. Starr makes plain to Mr. Gormley, as he did at the time, that he had a legitimate reason for following the Lewinsky trail. Evidence existed suggesting that Mr. Clinton, through Washington lawyer and friend Vernon Jordan, arranged a New York job in return for her friendly testimony in the Paula Jones sexual-harassment action. Mr. Jordan earlier was instrumental in obtaining a six-digit contract for Webb Hubbell, the disgraced deputy attorney general, who had been a law partner of Mrs. Clinton’s. Was there a pattern? This connection, in Mr. Starr’s view, warranted bringing Miss Lewinsky into the investigation.

Mr. Gormley sprinkles his long - but readable all the way - account with tidbits of immediate currency. For instance, we find Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, ever watchful for a fence to straddle, informing Senate Parliamentarian Robert B. Dove that he intended to cast a “Scottish verdict” on the impeachment motion - that is, guilty but not proven. Mr. Dove said such a vote was not permitted by Senate rules. Mr. Specter cast it anyway, and it was counted as “not guilty.”

Eric H. Holder Jr., deputy attorney general at the time (and now, of course, attorney general) is pictured in an unflattering light. Designated as the “point man” at the Justice Department for the investigation, he is depicted by staff associates as someone who eagerly reported developments in the case to the Clinton team of defense lawyers, to the extent that the associates decided he could not be trusted. Mr. Holder comes across, in Mr. Gormley’s account, as a man with more loyalty to his political masters than to a supposedly independent Justice Department.

The person who suffered most from the scandal, perhaps, was Miss Lewinsky. Mr. Gormley interviewed her in New York, where she then lived. In what he called “a spontaneous moment of reflection during an interview,” she posed the question, “I wonder, did he feel any responsibility to make sure that I was okay? He certainly hasn’t [taken any steps to do that.]” According to Mr. Gormley, “She took a deep breath and continued, ‘As I’ve gotten older, I think about that.’ ”

Miss Lewinsky, alas, apparently still does not understand the true character of William Jefferson Clinton.

Joseph C. Goulden is finishing a book on Cold War intelligence.


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