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How the Starr Report became a literary bodice ripper — and bestseller

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr holds a copy of his report while testifying on Capitol Hill on Nov. 19, 1998, before the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearing. Starr, whose criminal investigation of Bill Clinton led to the president’s impeachment, died Sept. 13, 2022. He was 76. (Doug Mills/AP)

On Jan. 26, 1998, President Bill Clinton stood at a White House lectern and told the world, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” The fact check of Clinton’s statement took place over a period of months, in both media leaks and legal depositions, culminating in the fall of 1998 with the publication of a bodice ripper with an unusually long title.

The title was:

Communication from the Office of the Independent Counsel, Kenneth W. Starr, transmitting appendices to the referral to the United States House of Representatives pursuant to Title 28, United States Code, section 595(c)

When publishers in New York rushed out copies to America’s bookstores (which still widely existed), they shortened the title to “The Starr Report,” which was easier to market. And that was exactly the point — to turn a prosecutorial document into a Danielle Steele novel.

Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel who investigated Clinton for years, died Tuesday, leaving behind a long and complicated legacy. But nothing he did would leave a mark quite like his report.

Kenneth Starr, a former U.S. solicitor general who led the Whitewater investigation, testified at President Bill Clinton's impeachment hearing on Nov. 19, 1998. (Video: AP)

Kenneth Starr, who led Whitewater probes into Clinton administration, dies at 76

Starr expressed surprise when his report shot up bestseller lists around the world. But historians, political analysts and literary critics were hardly bewildered by the book’s success, for two main reasons.

First, the writers he chose.

Starr turned to two experienced lawyers/authors on his staff to write the bulk of the report, including Stephen Bates, who already had written several books and contributed to magazines such as the New Republic and Playboy before penning the ultimate Penthouse Letter.

Which leads to the second reason — the writing itself.

Readers, including professional readers like book critics and actual authors, immediately noticed the report had an unusual tone and structure. “The prose, far from a dry, factual recitation, contained rich, erotic details of the sort we expect from a book-club romance,” wrote Daniel M. Filler, a prominent law professor, in a California Law Review article.

Here is but one example:

En route to the restroom at about 8 p.m., she passed George Stephanopoulos’s office. The President was inside alone, and he beckoned her to enter. She told him that she had a crush on him. He laughed, then asked if she would like to see his private office. Through a connecting door in Mr. Stephanopoulos’s office, they went through the President’s private dining room toward the study off the Oval Office. Ms. Lewinsky testified: “We talked briefly and sort of acknowledged that there had been a chemistry that was there before and that we were both attracted to each other and then he asked me if he could kiss me.” Ms. Lewinsky said yes. In the windowless hallway adjacent to the study, they kissed. Before returning to her desk, Ms. Lewinsky wrote down her name and telephone number for the President. At about 10 p.m., in Ms. Lewinsky’s recollection, she was alone in the Chief of Staff’s office and the President approached. He invited her to rendezvous again in Mr. Stephanopoulos’s office in a few minutes, and she agreed. (Asked if she knew why the President wanted to meet with her, Ms. Lewinsky testified: “I had an idea.”) They met in Mr. Stephanopoulos’s office and went again to the area of the private study. This time the lights in the study were off.

This time.

This time!

You might be wondering what happened next. Not to worry — the writers do not leave their audience hanging: “She and the President kissed. She unbuttoned her jacket; either she unhooked her bra or he lifted her bra up; and he touched her breasts with his hands and mouth.”

There was, ahem, more to that little moment.

In addition to the clumsy, awkward sex, there were also clear attempts by the authors to establish Clinton and Lewinsky as literary characters, with hopes and dreams and even favorite books. (Clinton gave Lewinsky a copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” which immediately also shot up the bestseller lists.) The writers even employed the old show-don’t-tell rule, meaning they used precise details to establish tension and character.

An example:

“Both before and after their sexual contact during that encounter, Ms. Lewinsky and the President talked. At one point during the conversation, the President tugged on the pink intern pass hanging from her neck and said that it might be a problem.”

Classic narrative understatement. A problem. Um, yeah. But what kind of problem? Boss sleeping with intern? President sleeping with intern? Intern doesn’t have the proper pass to be with the president, clothed or unclothed? Readers would have to use their imaginations.

And keep reading.

Critics were not impressed.

“Every time we see Clinton he’s unzipped, and every time we see Monica she’s got her mouth open,” the esteemed writer Cynthia Ozick told the Los Angeles Times. “The narrator is dark, but there’s no introspection, as there would be in a Hawthorne novel. If you want to view this as a literary tale, there’s no search for meaning or a higher truth.”

The novelist Pam Houston read it differently. This wasn’t really about sex at all. It was deeper.

“These are people in real pain, like millions of other people in this country, and they need our compassion,” Houston said. “If you read carefully, this is the tale of two slightly overweight people who desperately need to be validated.”

While members on opposite sides of the aisle in Congress did not agree about nearly anything in the report, it seems safe to assume that neither party was sympathetic to the validation interpretation. (We can’t say for sure because the minutes of congressional book clubs are not a matter of public record.)

One armchair reviewer piped up to bemoan a review that compared Starr’s report to work by the late novelist Harold Robbins.

“Contrary to what your biased review indicates, this is not a book at all,” the Amazon reviewer wrote. “It is a comprehensive report to Congress.”

Maybe, but it had a pretty gripping epilogue: Less than a month later, the president was impeached.

A version of this story originally ran on Jan. 26, 2018.