The Magazine

What I Saw at the Impeachment

Schmidt and Weisskopf on Clinton v. Starr

May 8, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 32 • By STEPHEN BATES
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Truth at Any Cost

Ken Starr and the Unmaking of Bill Clinton

by Susan Schmidt and Michael Weisskopf

HarperCollins, 326 pp., $ 26

If William Jefferson Clinton's advice in 1991 to Gennifer Flowers was "deny, deny, deny," the administration's approach in 1998 to Kenneth Starr's office, where I worked as an associate independent counsel, was "delay, delay, delay." Now, in Truth at Any Cost, Susan Schmidt of the Washington Post and Michael Weisskopf of Time provide a comprehensive, fine-grained, and occasionally infuriating account of what we were up against.

Clinton's lawyers, the government ones and the private ones alike, withheld everything they could. Even before the Lewinsky investigation, the authors note, our subpoenas met with what deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes approvingly called a "foot-dragging, f -- k-you attitude." "If they want it," said David Kendall, Bill and Hillary Clinton's private lawyer, "they can litigate for it." We did litigate, and we mostly won, but the court fights consumed time and resources -- giving Clinton defenders a foothold for complaining that the investigation was too lengthy and too costly.

In 1998, the White House stretched executive privilege beyond the bounds of plausibility. A privilege meant to protect discussions between the president and key advisers now was invoked to shield conversations between Sidney Blumenthal and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bruce Lindsey and Vernon Jordan, and deputy White House counsel Cheryl Mills and the private attorneys representing various witnesses. The Mills invocation was an especially brazen transformation of public attorneys into private defense counsel, but that distinction never interested the president. "In a very real and significant way, the objectives of William J. Clinton, the person, and his Administration (the Clinton White House) are one and the same," Clinton's private lawyers asserted in a court brief.

The administration also invoked a heretofore-unheard-of "protective function privilege" to keep Secret Service personnel from testifying. Justice Department officials believed that the putative privilege was a sure loser -- the deputy attorney general calculated a 5 percent chance of prevailing in court -- but they litigated it as far as they could. The Secret Service director went around town, predicting that, without such a privilege, presidents would push away their bodyguards and thereby become vulnerable to assassins.

While we fought the dubious privileges in court, White House aides and allies were spreading muck, much of it false, about Starr and his prosecutors. The attack strategy, the authors write, dates back to early 1996, when Hillary Clinton "wanted to get tough." Mrs. Clinton had been hauled before the grand jury, her former Whitewater partners were on trial in Little Rock, and she'd had enough. Ickes oversaw the initial assault. "We have to damage this a -- hole," Ickes told colleagues. "Everything is fair game."

So when the Lewinsky scandal broke, Clinton's lawyers, aides, defenders, wife, and Cajun consultant James Carville all knew instantly -- "Starr had to be demonized." In Texas, private detectives scrounged for dirt on the independent counsel's late father. Carville, according to a memo quoted in the book, already was examining Starr's "public records/voting, driving, court records, deeds, mortgages." Now, Carville recorded phone conversations (shades of Linda Tripp!) about "the sexual and personal backgrounds of investigators." Although Carville denied having circulated these tidbits, Clinton allies did spread the baseless rumor that Starr was having an affair. "KENNETH STARR HAS A HONEY right here in town," Little Rock writer Gene Lyons gleefully reported in an e-mail to Carville (Lyons told the authors he didn't believe the rumor; he was just passing it on). For his part, Sidney Blumenthal wasn't satisfied with merely sullying the independent counsel. At a dinner party, according to the book, Blumenthal declared: "We want to put Ken Starr in jail."

The demonization took its toll. In the public eye, Starr, the cerebral and esteemed former appellate judge and solicitor general, became a monomaniac, a zealot, and a fanatic intent on driving (as Carville put it) "all the sodomites and fornicators out of town." What began as a legitimate, professional criminal investigation soon was viewed as pure politics -- and, in that realm, the Clintons were unbeatable. "To many people, it began to seem as if Starr, not Clinton, should be under investigation."