David M. Shribman, the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, supervised the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Clinton era in his decade as the newspaper’s Washington bureau chief.
Whitewater. Webb Hubbell. The McDougals. Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan. Jim Guy Tucker. The Rose Law Firm. Billing records that mysteriously appeared on a table on the third floor of the White House residence. Please — please — not all that again.
But wait. It gets worse. Pizza deliveries during a government shutdown. Phone sex. Gift ties. That woman. Vast right-wing conspiracy. The meaning of “is.” Nobody’s business but ours. Please — please — spare me. Spare us.
But no, it’s all roaring back, all of it, in part because President Trump’s opponents are talking impeachment, that forbidding tool employed only 20 years ago against Bill Clinton. But the whole episode — diminishing and demeaning to all it touched, president, prosecutor and press alike — is on our lips again, and now it is on the booksellers’ shelves, too. Kenneth W. Starr, the independent counsel in the whole tawdry affair — the sexual relationship between Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky that shook Washington and shocked the country — has written a book and, like Bob Woodward with “Fear,” which deals with the incomprehensible innards of the Trump White House, its title is a single menacing word: “Contempt.”
For in these pages contempt abounds: Clinton’s contempt for normal presidential comportment, an issue of contemporary resonance. Clinton’s contempt for the truth, another casualty of our current passage. The president’s contempt for his investigator, the soundtrack of this earlier epoch and of the epochal struggle going on right now in the capital. And there is more: Starr’s contempt for Hillary Clinton, another persistent element of our politics.
And so there is something eerily contemporary about contempt, and in the pages of “Contempt.” Open this volume and you will discover that Starr, no ally of the sort of liberals panting for a presidential trial, believes that occupants of the White House should not be shielded from lawsuits, even if the matter in question occurred before the administration of the oath of office. Surely someone will run with this. Nor does he believe that a president — presumably any president — “is simply too busy to respond to lawsuits the way others have to.” Another argument likely to have new life.
And Starr takes a dim view of White House wars against independent investigators. This has a contemporary feel, too: “Clinton’s determination to win at all costs significantly compromised the Justice Department’s hallowed independence from politics,” he writes. “Just as Richard Nixon compromised the DOJ, so did Bill Clinton.” You can almost hear Attorney General Jeff Sessions adding three words in his head: and Donald Trump.
Lest you think the echoes end there, Starr’s book has cameo roles for two names in the news today. One is Rod Rosenstein, present for the White House deposition of Hillary Clinton and now the deputy attorney general who is the putative supervisor of the Russia investigation being undertaken by Robert S. Mueller III. (Rosenstein was, in Starr’s estimation, “an up-and-coming courtroom litigator . . . extremely well prepared and precise.”) Another is Brett Kavanaugh, the “chief wordsmith,” as Starr characterizes him, of the searing independent-counsel report that became a soft-porn sensation and then the basis for Clinton’s impeachment in the House, followed by acquittal in the Senate.
But this is not a book about the Trump years but about the Clinton era, though it is no roman a clef. We know it ends — badly, for the president, for the presidency and for the prosecutor, who no doubt was prompted to produce this memoir a clef to exonerate himself from the belief that he was a Peeping Tom to a tomcat, that he went too far, that he took too long, that he wrote too much. His argument (and this is the premise of the entire volume) is that he believed too deeply in the rule of law, in the sanctity of the truth and in the notion that nobody, including the president, is above the law.
That’s the conflict at the heart of this book, written by a man cursed — like so many on both sides of this titanic struggle — by his association with this episode but otherwise blessed with a charmed career, with stops at Duke Law, a clerkship with Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, postings as chief of staff to Attorney General William French Smith and as solicitor general, and an appointment to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where he sat with, among others, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Later he became dean of the Pepperdine law school and then president and chancellor of Baylor University, leaving after questions about the handling of sexual assault accusations at the Waco, Tex., campus.)
Starr takes us on a tour of Whitewater, and though it once was the principal point of his inquiry, it now is largely beside the point. But its enduring importance may be the insight Clinton’s testimony provided when he said he didn’t remember jogging from the governor’s mansion in Little Rock to Jim McDougal’s office to ask him to send a little legal work to his wife. “It defied credulity that the president would not remember such an unusual episode,” Starr writes. It was then that the Starr team determined that Clinton was, in the words Starr attributes to former U.S. attorney Hickman Ewing Jr., “a lying dog.”
A page later Starr asserts, “We were convinced there was a lot Hillary was holding back.”
Indeed, Starr has special contempt for the onetime first lady and two-time presidential hopeful, and he basically employs a Trumpism (Crooked Hillary) when he writes: “No matter the subject, Hillary was a classic noncredible witness. For starters, she was smug and dismissive. Her brittle personality was evident in all our interactions. . . . There were two Hillarys. The supersmart, articulate policy-wonk Hillary; and the private, mean-streak, vulgar Hillary.”
Starr has a few regrets, though one of them seems especially significant: “I deeply regret that I took on the Lewinsky phase of the investigation. But at the same time, as I still see it twenty years later, there was no practical alternative to my doing so.”
His defense, referring to an earlier case where Clinton was accused of sexual advances on a state employee: “The President’s premeditated perjury in the [Paula] Jones federal civil rights case cried out for investigation.”
Along the way Starr shares his views of many of the principals in this classic struggle over principles: Lewinsky attorney William Ginsburg (“appallingly unprofessional and wildly ineffective”). Attorney General Janet Reno (guilty of “moral cowardice”). Rose Law partner Webb Hubbell (“at heart a decent person”). And of course Clinton himself (“a life brimming with talent, but fatally infected by self-indulgent exploitation of the vulnerable”).
The final verdict from Judge Starr, as he often was called, comes in the final paragraph. “In her fierce but misguided loyalty, Monica [Lewinsky] allowed herself to become a tragic figure of late twentieth-century America,” he writes. “She carries with her forever the living reality of the Clintons’ victim-strewn path to power, the most visible casualty of the Clintons’ contempt.”
A century and a half from now, history may remember this episode the way Starr does, or, more likely, it may choose to forget it, the way the impeachment of Andrew Johnson exactly 150 years ago has been largely forgotten. The question of presidential veracity and responsibility will remain a vital issue, but, as we have seen in our own time, it reappears with frightening frequency, and the Clinton affair, and Clinton’s affairs, may in the future be little more than supporting footnotes. And consider this: Less than three years after the country was consumed with talk about DNA on blue dresses and tortured definitions of sex, the United States was attacked by terrorists in an episode that tested American values in new and in vastly more profound, more significant and more enduring ways.
By Ken Starr
Sentinel. 338 pp. $28