The Death of American Virtue

By Ken Gormley

Even the hardest of hardcore political junkies may feel a bit intimidated by a nearly 800-page account of the various legal battles, public and obscure, that became attached to the presidency of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Sorting out the “whole web of intrigue that has become known as Whitewater” (as one Republican senator put it in the early days, while the web of intrigue was just beginning to be spun) is even now a near impossible task. With painstaking research and extensive interviews with nearly all of the major players, including leading men Clinton and Starr, author Ken Gormley has done his best to provide a comprehensive, objective history. And if it comes up a little short on both counts we shouldn’t be surprised.

In the first place, some questions still remain and some contradictions are unresolved. We’re still not entirely sure of the nature of the distinguishing characteristic of the president’s penis, or indeed if it even had one. And the disappearance and reappearance of the Rose Law Firm billing records on Whitewater “remains one of the true mysteries of the prolonged Clinton scandals.”

Other mysteries are less cloudy than they are made out to be. In his conclusion, for example, Gormley writes that Linda Tripp’s “precise role in these events – and her motives – remained a puzzle in a story laced with unanswered riddles.” Really? As his reporting throughout the rest of the book makes all too clear, Tripp was a bitter, malicious, and deeply paranoid person with a very large axe to grind. A recently divorced, middle-aged single mom who, in a nasty moment of self-awareness, understood that others saw her as a fat, ugly, chain-smoking gossip, her outrage at Clinton’s shenanigans with a woman young enough to be his daughter seem to have been, remarkably, the product of feelings of being somehow scorned. Initially (so she believed) she had been removed from close proximity to the president so that he would not be led into temptation (in response to what we may take to be Gormley’s obvious incredulity, she explains that at the time she “looked significantly different”). From this very low point it was all downhill, as her delusions metastasized to the point where she thought that the White House had sent hit squads out to assassinate her. Such jaw-dropping paranoia was of a piece with her irresponsible speculations on the suicide of Vince Foster:

I don’t know how killed Vince Foster. I don’t know why he committed suicide. I just know that everything that happened after his death was strange and suspicious. President Clinton’s senior staff kept saying it was a straightforward suicide, an open-and-shut case. But they didn’t act that way. They acted like they had something to hide.

“Well, I’m not a gossip, excuse me.” Others may come to a different conclusion.

Such a negative reading is not meant to be piling on a highly successful campaign of media vilification. Tripp’s own handlers in the Office of the Independent Counsel found her to be “smart-alecky,” “manipulative,” and “vile.” But in this, as in so many ways, she was on the same psychological page as the OIC. While it was Hillary Clinton’s remark about a “vast, right-wing conspiracy” that got all the media attention, it was the conspiracy theories of those same right-wingers that fed the years of investigation. Time and again in these pages we see the investigators, utterly convinced of their own rectitude, absolutely sure that far more was going on than rationally seemed likely or even possible, trying to force the issue. In the face of denials or a lack of evidence their only response was to expand their investigations and tighten the screws on witnesses in an attempt to uncover the guilty secrets that they knew must be there. Again the madness of Ms. Tripp is representative (emphasis added):

Linda Tripp considered herself to be “an extremely intuitive person.” In fact, she was convinced she had a sixth sense. “Anyone who knows me well will tell you that I [have the gift] – my grandmother had it as well.” Although Lewinsky tried to hide the precise nature of her relationship with the president, “I knew. And she hadn’t even told me.”

When one knows what one knows, other considerations are pretty much irrelevant. And when one feels oneself specially appointed to fight against the forces of evil, not to mention the Dark Lord himself, anything goes. Though quick to deny their Christian jihadist reputation (“I’m not a Christian jihadist, excuse me”), the sense of moral if not religious mission among the anti-Clinton forces is encountered throughout the book. “You cannot defile the temple of justice,” is a line that comes from the pursed lips of Kenneth Starr. A draft of his opening remarks to Congress continued the same theme: “The truth is sacred. The oath, both of office and of witnesses, is sacred.” Just before the hearings an attorney friend and “brother in Christ” circulated an e-mail calling for the prayers of the faithful: “I believe that my friend and brother is in trouble with the world because he desires to represent Christ well in the task to which he has been called. . . . I know that Ken Starr needs, and would very much appreciate, our prayers as he stands up for righteousness in a world which has forgotten what the word means.” After the special session “the special prosecutor looked toward the ceiling and exhaled with evident relief: ‘To God be the glory.'”

But this was not a crusade. No, if only the president would come clean, beg absolution at the hands of the godly, the inquisitors were prepared to be so forgiving. Gormley describes one lawyer representing Paula Jones as “a devout Christian [who] believed in forgiveness”:

“My own faith requires me to love the sinner but hate the sin,” he later explained. “We worked real hard not to build up enmity at the man [Clinton]. We abhorred what he did. But I went on national TV and told people to pray for President Clinton, and I’m not saying it was easy or that I did it successfully. But I don’t think that I ever got to the point that I despised him.”

Which is awfully nice.

Henry Hyde, leading the charge against Clinton in Congress, was of much the same mind:

Hyde had hoped that Clinton would use the interrogatory answers to “apologize in a sincere way,” employing the legal device as a vehicle to show his honest remorse and to “ask forgiveness of God.” If he had done that, insisted Hyde, the evasive Clinton could have “closed the book” and spared himself the ignominy of impeachment proceedings. Hyde would contend, with an open expression on his face, “Nobody lusted after his scalp. I mean really and truly.”

Admittedly, such abasement would almost certainly require the small concession of the president leaving office. And of course Clinton would still have to face a Higher Judge and get his true reward in the next world. But that was by the way. No one could accuse Clinton’s enemies of having a political agenda. Or . . . Hyde again: “I take consolation in comments [by political experts] that George W. Bush would not have been elected if we had not impeached President Clinton.”

Enough said.

None of this made for an edifying spectacle at the time, and a decade later it’s fair to say that nothing has changed on that score. While Gormley struggles manfully to remain a neutral commentator, he clearly thinks that things went too far. Most readers, like most Americans at the time, will agree. “Whitewater,” using the term as shorthand for all that came after an initial investigation into some possibly shady real estate dealings in Arkansas, was the ultimate mountain thrown up out of a molehill. There was nothing there. The later impeachment proceedings related to testimony, irrelevant and likely inadmissible, given in a legal action that should have, and would have, been settled out of court if not for the interventions of outsiders (the Republican legal eagles were known as “elves”). The payoff, as Hyde recognized, came with the election of George W. Bush. Both Paula Jones and Linda Tripp got nose jobs. And the rest has been history.

Review first published online March 15, 2010.

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