A Vast Conspiracy

By Jeffrey Toobin

Only a year later, it’s hard to remember what the fuss was all about. The media noise over the Clinton sex scandals, the Starr investigation, and the impeachment hearings has long dissolved like another clump of dirt in history’s stream. Was it all just an entertaining farce? Or was there something more important going on?

Jeffrey Toobin’s narrative account of the scandal’s history helps to provide an answer. His chronicle lets us re-live the days of anger on Capitol Hill in all of their inflated glory, and takes us behind the scenes for a look at what really happened and why.

The presentation is excellent, and did a lot to help me forget the incoherent mess Bob Woodward made out of the same material in last year’s Shadow. A Vast Conspiracy is a fast, compulsive read that handles complex legal and political issues as well as a large supporting cast in a way that manages to be both opinionated and fair-minded. And while most of what is described is a now familiar tale (how could we ever forget as odious a character as Linda Tripp?), the book also introduces a lot that is new. In particular, Toobin’s account of the feverish maneuvering over book deals comes as a significant revelation.

There are, of course, some things that get left out. The pace picks up near the end, and forces Toobin to omit interesting details like Arlin Spector’s curious invocation of Scottish law in the Senate vote on impeachment. But most readers will still find more than enough information to satisfy their curiosity about the President’s public, and intimate, misbehaviour (and yes, that includes the thong and the cigar).

As an aside, it should also be pointed out that Toobin’s shadowy thesis – that there has been a “vast conspiracy” in America since the middle of the twentieth century to hijack the judicial process for political ends – is ridiculous. Partisan political battles have always been fought in the U. S. Supreme Court, from Jefferson’s struggles with the first Chief Justice, through Dred Scott, down to the present day. Such a conspiracy, even at the highest levels, is just business as usual.

Luckily, Toobin doesn’t try to make too much out of this. Instead, his focus is on personalities and tactics. One of the more interesting characters he introduces is Cliff Jackson, the Arkansas lawyer who played a key role in initiating the investigations of Clinton’s sex life. Jackson, for whatever personal reasons, was one of the first to make it his mission to destroy the president, and even arranged for Paula Jones to sue Clinton because of the publication of her alleged sexual assault – despite being the one who retailed her story to the media in the first place!

Such cynical manipulation only highlights how the real story in all of this was the story itself, its manufactured significance. It was a situation tailor-made for the meta-journalism of the Drudge Report – not news, but news about news was the important thing. The reason the scandal played so well in the media was because that was what it had been designed for. The most disturbing parts of A Vast Conspiracy are when it shows how easily the major news agencies were manipulated by the various actors in the drama.

The real vast conspiracy, if we can call it that, is an unconscious one: The way the media caters to our desire to be diverted and entertained rather than informed and enlightened by the news. A Vast Conspiracy may be as much a part of that disease as its cure, but it has to be recommended all the same.

Review first published March 11, 2000. Newsweek reporter Michael Isikoff complained, apparently with some justification, about the accuracy of Toobin’s reporting and got Random House to delete some material from subsequent editions. Ten years later, Ken Gormley attempted to provide the definitive account of these events in The Death of American Virtue.


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