Book review of 'The Death of American Virtue,' by Ken Gormley

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By David Greenberg
Sunday, February 21, 2010

THE DEATH OF AMERICAN VIRTUE

Clinton vs. Starr

By Ken Gormley

Crown. 789 pp. $35

Ken Gormley's new book about the Clinton impeachment saga bears the lurid and trite title "The Death of American Virtue," which sounds like a mashup of works by the conservative pundit William Bennett. Happily, though, it's nothing of the sort. It is, rather, something I didn't imagine would arrive so soon: a restrained, fair-minded, soup-to-nuts history of the largely fruitless investigations of Bill Clinton that shadowed so much of his presidency.

Despite the title, Gormley, a dean and professor at Duquesne University Law School and biographer of Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, doesn't even ask in this book whether our public morals disintegrated amid Ken Starr's probe of President Clinton's sex life. Instead, Gormley carefully traces the tortuous path that led from an ill-advised 1970s real-estate investment in Arkansas's Ozark Mountains ("a tiny blip on the radar screen of Bill and Hillary Clinton when it occurred") to a political circus that thrilled the Washington press corps, infuriated the American people, forced the resignation of the top two House Republicans and helped make the exposure of politicians' most intimate secrets a distressingly routine practice.

Soon after the crisis, several journalists published instant histories, some of them quite good, especially given their time constraints. But more than a decade later, Gormley is able to add a great deal of new material -- too much to list here -- from key documents and interviews with central players. Some disclosures reside in small but noteworthy facts that deepen the record, such as the material from Jo Ann Harris, a Justice Department official who was tasked with reviewing the Starr team's controversial interrogation of Monica Lewinsky -- and whose damning report on Starr's handling of the case was suppressed from public view until now. Others are seemingly offhand retrospective judgments that actually reveal volumes, such as Starr's admission that he never should have expanded his initial Whitewater inquiry to look into Clinton's affair with Lewinsky. Cumulatively, these details substantially enrich our understanding of the whole episode.

Besides his research, Gormley's other signal contribution is his heroic even-handedness. All but the most unregenerate partisans should deem this book fair, even if individual judgments can be challenged. (Contrary to Gormley's assessment, for example, Clinton's August 1998 speech confessing to the affair with Lewinsky satisfied most people.) Charitable toward his sources, Gormley lets every character in the drama put his best foot forward. He allows Starr to insist that he had no anti-Clinton agenda, and Clinton gets to gloat that in the end he beat Starr and the Congressional Republicans who impeached him "like a yard dog." Gormley gives us no pure heroes, and even the more unattractive players -- Jim McDougal, the mentally ill Whitewater mastermind, or Susan Carpenter-McMillan, Paula Jones's opportunistic handler -- appear as three-dimensional figures, their viewpoints sympathetically presented. Even William Ginsburg, Monica Lewinsky's smarmy attorney, is given his due -- emerging, at least from one perspective, as a solitary figure holding up under fearsome pressure as he kept Starr's brigade of lawyers from savaging his client.

What's more, when Gormley does challenge his sources' self-serving accounts, he shuns contentious language for understatement. "Tapes of . . . conversations" between Lewinsky's disloyal confidante Linda Tripp and the agent Lucianne Goldberg, he notes dryly, "seem to undermine [Tripp's] protestations" that she wasn't eyeing a lucrative book deal. It's left to the reader to detect discrepancies such as the gap between Starr's friends' portraits of him as scrupulous and the harsh details -- contained in other passages -- that he withheld information about conflicts of interest from both the judges that appointed him and from the Justice Department.

For all the new detail, Gormley glosses over some aspects of the Clinton-Starr story -- sacrificed, presumably, so as not to lengthen this already hefty tome. We see little of Bill Clinton's thoughts and private actions. The close focus on Starr shortchanges the large role played by Congressional Republicans in the mid-1990s, before the impeachment process. Missing, too, is any new analytic framework of the event's significance or consequences -- the sexual politics, the cultural dimensions, the larger context of partisan polarization in Washington.

Still, as the intensity of partisan feeling about the case cools, Gormley's thoroughness makes it possible to draw some firm conclusions beyond who was right or wrong. He makes a strong case that Starr wasn't initially motivated by Republican party loyalties, personal animus toward Clinton or even his Puritanical Christian morality -- despite his infamous comment, "You cannot defile the temple of justice." Starr, his wife (whom Gormley relies on heavily) and other supporters appear sincere in thinking that Starr believed he was just doing his job as he saw it. Like Alec Guinness's Col. Nicholson in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," he was so determined to do his job well that he lost sight of whether that job was morally justified. As often happens with prosecutors, he came to construe his goal as "getting" the president (and his associates), not as neutrally assessing the merits of the case.

This prosecutorial abandonment of perspective was unfortunate even from the standpoint of those who wanted Clinton punished, because it led Starr, his staff and other champions of the impeachment process into error. Starr's team became convinced of -- and wasted time, money and strategic opportunities pursuing -- speculative theories for which they had no credible evidence: that Vernon Jordan was buying off witnesses on Clinton's behalf or that Hillary Clinton had caused a notorious set of missing law-firm records to mysteriously reappear. Whatever their motivations, Starr's lawyers regularly let their conclusions get ahead of their facts. As Starr's assistant Jackie Bennett put it to Gormley, "I remember certainly thinking and expecting that he [Clinton] would lie . . . because he's a liar after all."

The circular reasoning and premature suspicions of guilt harmed Starr's investigation, as he and Clinton's other pursuers repeatedly pressed for maximalist positions that ultimately failed or backfired. Fatefully, Starr's office refused to give Monica Lewinsky immunity in early 1998, before Clinton could regain his standing, because they thought she was asking for too much in return. When, in the fall, Starr released a taunting and prurient report to Congress instead of a spare referral, he unwittingly mobilized public opinion against his own cause. Congressional Republicans, similarly, rejected the compromise plan of censuring the president instead of impeaching him, leading to Clinton's acquittal. As in a Greek tragedy, examples of such overreaching recur throughout Gormley's account.

If, with Gormley, we grant Starr the benefit of the doubt and accept that he was just doing his job as he saw it, a larger problem with his prosecution emerges: Starr rarely seems to have questioned how he defined his job -- seldom asking, most crucially, whether the president's sex life ever should have been deemed fair game at all. One nugget that Gormley extracts from Starr shows his frame of mind after questioning Clinton in August 1998. Exhausted, forced to miss his mother's 91st birthday in Texas, overcome with a "sense of gloom," Starr shambled into his McLean home, collapsing into bed as he asked himself, "How could a sensible and sane government come to this?" What seems to have escaped the chief government officer driving this campaign -- even as this rare glimmer of insight troubled his fitful sleep -- is that it was still, at that late moment, entirely possible to close up shop before the whole ugly business got a hell of a lot worse.

At least Col. Nicholson blew up the bridge.

David Greenberg is a professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and the author of "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image" and other books.


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