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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Prodded by Clinton's lawyers and allies, several institutions proposed to do just that. The Justice Department repeatedly threatened to launch an inquiry, twice publicizing its intent to investigate, which further enfeebled the office at key moments. The counsel for the District of Columbia's bar association subjected Starr and staff to a stream of demoralizing and time-consuming inquiries, word of which also reached the press. The bar counsel's ethical hypersensitivity evidently didn't extend to his own conduct: While pestering us, he was, according to Schmidt and Weisskopf, applying for a high-level Justice Department job.

Meanwhile, Clinton's lawyers ran a shadow grand jury, closely tracking the investigation by debriefing White House aides and other friendly witnesses. Some witnesses wrote down each question in the grand jury room; others raced out to talk with their attorneys every few minutes. The Clinton lawyers, public and private, created informal joint-defense agreements, enabling them to share this information without breaching attorney-client privilege. Somehow the president's lawyers stayed atop the testimony and pending testimony of Secret Service witnesses, too. And, the authors assert, Lewinsky's co-counsel, Nate Speights, kept Clinton's lawyers apprised of her thinking during the early months.

While Truth at Any Cost doesn't offer much new information about Clinton himself, there is one astonishing tale. According to Schmidt and Weisskopf, Tony Campolo, the evangelical minister who ultimately became part of Clinton's highly visible spiritual troika, spent a night in the White House in early February 1998. The next day he told two friends: "He did it, the president confessed to me completely." Campolo asked for advice on how to respond. The friends urged him to emulate the Old Testament's Nathan, who persuaded King David to repent. In the book's telling: "Campolo threw up his hands. 'Every time I go in to play Nathan,' he said, 'I end up playing Barnabas' -- a New Testament figure known for encouragement and comfort."

Whomever Campolo ended up emulating, Clinton spent another six months publicly denying any sexual contact with Lewinsky, while his private detectives quietly gathered dirt on the former intern in case Clinton needed to cast her as a liar or worse. (The authors attribute this anecdote to the two friends who heard it from him, though Campolo himself denies having made the remarks.)

Schmidt and Weisskopf also recount the roller-coaster existence of the independent counsel's lawyers in 1998, based on interviews with twenty-five members of the staff (I was one of the few who declined). The authors capture the collective shock and despondency when an article by Steven Brill accused the office of unlawful leaks. They describe the major internal disputes: the six-month-long fight over whether to immunize Lewinsky or indict her, and the battle over the timing of the impeachment report. (In mid-July, still reeling from the Brill debacle, Starr and one or two others wanted to get it to Congress by the end of the month, before we had questioned Lewinsky or the president, but everyone else said the evidence was too flimsy.) Despite a few glitches -- misspelled names, erroneous dates, chronological elisions, and the like -- the authors get the big picture right.

At times, though, they seem to be captive to sources who view past events through the dual lenses of hindsight and self-regard. When decisions worked out well, in this account, we were following a careful strategy; when things went awry, we failed to heed someone's wise counsel. As Sam Dash once said to me, "Memory is a funny thing."

Though scathing in its portrayal of Dash, our ethics consultant who resigned in protest, the book paints admiring portraits of staff lawyers. Of the three Washington-based deputies, for instance, Jackie Bennett is a "fearsome interrogator," "aggressive but prudent," "charismatic," "experienced and savvy," "funny and personable, the rare sort who could cite passages from a Norwegian novel one minute and curse like a longshoreman the next." Sol Wisenberg, though "disheveled and disorganized," is "a puzzlemaster with an elephantine memory for detail." And Bob Bittman, though "brusque," is "efficient and disciplined" -- and a "first-rate golfer" to boot. No wonder internal battles were fiercely fought: The combatants were "men with egos as big as their reputations."