By Michael Grunwald
The remarkably explicit sexual details throughout independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's impeachment report astonished the nation yesterday, fueling intense criticism of the special prosecutor among some legal and cultural commentators and prompting some House members to second-guess their hasty decision to release the report over the Internet.
Starr's report had been expected to include graphic material about President Clinton's relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, but few realized that wire service stories about it would require warnings that the contents "may be OFFENSIVE to some readers." The report weaves together hundreds of sordid details about which sexual acts Clinton and Lewinsky performed, where they performed them, what they said about them and how they felt about them.
By yesterday afternoon, some of Clinton's harshest critics were regretting their votes that morning to publicize the report, wondering aloud whether they had helped release pornography over the Internet. And as congressional switchboards lit up with outraged callers, some of Clinton's defenders were predicting that the titillating details would spark an anti-Starr backlash.
"I've probably never read anything this graphic before," said Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), a staunch conservative who has called for Clinton's resignation. "I don't think anyone in this country is comfortable with such detailed probing of someone's sex life."
"These graphic details should be taken off the Internet," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), who had voted hours earlier to put the report on the Internet. "We shouldn't have it all out there for kids to read."
The report calls its inclusion of sexually explicit material as "unfortunate, but essential," contending that the precise anatomical and logistical details of the president's sexual encounters with Lewinsky were necessary to demonstrate that he lied under oath. But some legal experts said that Starr easily could have described what Clinton did without including so many lurid specifics. In a normal case, they said, some of those details might have been ruled inadmissible in court, but there is no way to strike them from the Internet.
"You don't have to show the severed head of a victim to show that a victim died, and you don't have to show all these graphic details about sex to show that sex took place," said Lawrence Fox, a Philadelphia trial lawyer and former chair of the American Bar Association's ethics committee. "It's fun to read, but it just isn't necessary."
Then again, Starr was not just trying to show that sex took place; he was trying to show that it took place in ways that Clinton has denied. The president testified in the Paula Jones case that he never engaged in "sexual relations" with Lewinsky, and then testified to Starr's grand jury that he still believed that was true under the Jones case's specific definition of "sexual relations." Clinton explained to the grand jury that while Lewinsky had performed oral sex on him, he had never performed any sex acts on her.
The Starr report goes to extreme lengths to refute that testimony, offering a day-by-day narrative of an illicit romance that goes well beyond the clinical facts. It provides a complete account of 10 sexual encounters, some of them quite unorthodox. And it portrays Clinton as an enthusiastic participant in a clandestine relationship, not as a passive recipient of sexual favors.
"The president said he never performed any sexual acts on Lewinsky, so it was important for Starr to show who touched whom and where," said Georgetown University law professor Paul Rothstein. "But it's horrible that it's come to this. The report is absolutely unprecedented in its raunchy details."
To many critics, the report included far more explicit detail than Starr needed to make a perjury case, and far more information than the American people needed to know. The narrative includes accounts of Clinton's ungentlemanly approach to seduction and Lewinsky's naive hopes for a lifelong relationship with the president, as well as an unsparing reconstruction of the mechanics of their sexual encounters. It cited 15 instances of phone sex between Clinton and Lewinsky, contending that "while phone sex may not itself constitute a 'sexual relationship,' it adds detail to Ms. Lewinsky's testimony and underscores the sexual and intimate nature of the relationship between the President and Ms. Lewinsky."
In their rebuttal to the report, Clinton's attorneys accused Starr of including those details for the sole purpose of embarrassing the president. After all, they pointed out, Clinton has already admitted that he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky.
Many members of Congress said they were deluged yesterday with calls from constituents who made similar arguments. Rep. Porter J. Goss (R-Fla.) said his grown son had called him to complain about the sexual details, and to ask what he should tell his own young sons. House Judiciary Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) had raised this issue in a GOP caucus before yesterday's vote, but the House still voted overwhelmingly to release the report immediately. At a House Commerce Committee hearing yesterday on several bills designed to protect children from smut on the Internet, civil libertarians warned that the Starr report might qualify.
"We have just made this country into a nation of voyeurs," said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), one of only 63 members to vote against releasing the report in its entirety.
Debra Haffner is president of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, an advocacy group that promotes open discussion of sexuality, but even she was appalled by the explicit nature of the report. For a while, she said, the Lewinsky matter had provided "teachable moments" for parents to talk to their children about sex, and offered opportunities for spouses to talk to each other about fidelity. But before discussing the Starr report with a reporter yesterday, she sent her 13-year-old daughter out of the room.
"I never do that, but this stuff just crosses the line," Haffner said. "The level of detail is just indefensible. There are some things about people we don't need to know."
Staff Writers Judith Havemann, Eric Pianin and Barbara Vobejda contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company