Getting Beyond The Cliche

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Scarcely more than a year after its denouement, the Lewinsky scandal has already entered its revisionist phase. The inevitable histories are showing up in bookstores, and the most commercially successful of them--from Monica Lewinsky's bathetic memoir Monica's Story to the artful partisanship of Jeffrey Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy--are markedly one-sided in recounting the struggle between Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr. The accepted narrative, in brief: an insensitive but all too human Chief Executive is beset by a sex-obsessed religious zealot masquerading as an upholder of the rule of law. To judge by sales, this version of events has many adherents among book buyers, which means it's good marketing. But it's also bad history, ripe for revisionism.

Last week the literature of Lewinsky expanded considerably with the publication of Truth at Any Cost: Ken Starr and the Unmaking of Bill Clinton (HarperCollins; 326 pages), by Susan Schmidt and Michael Weisskopf. Both were reporters on the scene: Schmidt broke the Lewinsky story in the Washington Post, and Weisskopf followed its every twist for TIME. Starr is at the center of their narrative, a more complicated figure--not quite sympathetic, but more comprehensible--than the Torquemada caricature of Clintonite nightmares.

There are surprising incongruities to that caricature. His own family is not picture perfect (his brother was convicted of fraud), and according to Weisskopf and Schmidt, he "was never the hard-right ideologue later portrayed by Clinton allies." His childhood hero was John Kennedy. When Starr considered running for the Senate in Virginia, it was to derail the campaign of Oliver North, the right-wing poster boy whom he considered "a disgrace."

Experience, not ideology, deepened Starr's mistrust of the Clinton White House. The Lewinsky scandal followed years of Executive Branch stonewalling in several other investigations. Some of it, Starr's team believed, was criminal. Prosecutors closed their Whitewater grand jury inquiry in 1998, Schmidt and Weisskopf report, convinced that Hillary Clinton had lied to investigators, though they lacked sufficient evidence to indict her. Later, as the Lewinsky scandal progressed, the stonewalling included the Secret Service's "protective function privilege," a fanciful legal gambit designed by Justice Department lawyers to prevent agents from testifying. Starr had reason to believe that this was undertaken on Clinton's specific instruction, despite the President's pronouncements that he had recused himself from such decisions.

The foot dragging paid tactical benefits. In time, relations between Starr's office and the Justice Department deteriorated. Unknown to the press or public, Starr at one point came within hours of possibly losing his job--and being declared in contempt of court--because he refused to obey a secret court order to answer questions by Clinton's lawyers about grand jury leaks. Meanwhile, those lawyers had entered into "joint defense agreements" with grand jury witnesses whose attorneys had been recommended by the White House. This sharing of information gave Clinton's defenders a direct window into the supposedly secret grand jury proceedings. Most damaging for Starr was that, as the probe dragged on, the public grew impatient with the prosecutor.

Impatient--and in the end repelled, in part because of the massive p.r. assault against him and his staff. Private investigators, a customary tool of Clinton backers seeking to discourage his enemies, appeared in Starr's hometown, sniffing after the political connections of the prosecutor's dead father. A White House contact told a reporter that Starr--often cartooned as a hymn-singing Fundamentalist--was himself having an affair. Clinton friend James Carville collected tapes of phone calls made to his office discussing the sexual backgrounds of Starr's staff. (The tapes are now under seal in another lawsuit, and Carville denies circulating the material.)

Such efforts helped make Starr's name a popular watchword for prosecutorial excess. But as Schmidt and Weisskopf make plain, Starr bears blame as well. His rigidity and self-righteousness compounded his native ineptitude in public relations. He was unable to resolve quickly the intra-office battles among the factions that split his staff. Inherently overcautious, he and his team let prosecutorial opportunities slip by at key moments, most notably in their failure to gain Lewinsky's cooperation as the scandal broke.

The most unsettling of the book's revelations is in the epilogue. Weisskopf and Schmidt show that even before Starr left, his aides drafted a prosecution memo and sample indictment of Clinton and last October began practicing arguments to make their case. Starr's successor, Robert Ray, has recently said he is considering pursuing that indictment of the President after he leaves office. There will be room, no doubt, for many more revisions of the Lewinsky story.