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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Schmidt and Weisskopf also interviewed Starr ("ten sessions of several hours each") as well as his wife, relatives, friends, associates, and one of his high school teachers, and they weave a good deal of his biographical background through their account. Their portrait is fairly critical. They deem him self-disciplined, brainy, "a formidable litigator," but also self-righteous ("believed in his own rectitude"), gullible ("suckered" by Webster Hubbell), and stubborn ("his perfectionism became an occupational hazard"), inclined to pedantry, hubris, and "self-destructive choices."

While more nuanced than the cartoonish depictions given in recent books by Bob Woodward, Jeffrey Toobin, and the team of Joe Conason and Gene Lyons, Schmidt and Weisskopf's view of Starr strikes me as inequitable, especially when contrasted with the upbeat depictions of his staff. As the book compellingly attests, the independent counsel's actions were the product of group decision-making.

That group had its frailties and blind spots, especially when it came to anticipating how the public would construe our actions. Some advice to Starr (including, at times, my own) was woefully wrongheaded. But the authors seem reluctant to blame the underlings.

Did our various missteps affect the ultimate outcome? I doubt it. Bill Clinton didn't just have an affair with a subordinate; he assigned Betty Currie to choreograph it. He didn't just lie under oath; he tried to get Currie and Lewinsky to lie. He didn't just get rid of subpoenaed evidence; he dispatched Currie to take a box from Lewinsky and hide it. When he told Dick Morris not to hold a news conference attacking Lewinsky, it wasn't because he cared for her; it was because "there's some slight chance that she may not be cooperating with Starr and we don't want to alienate her."

Clinton told Lewinsky that she could have any White House job she wanted after the 1996 election. He told Currie that he and Lewinsky were never alone, that he never touched her, and that he rebuffed her sexual advance -- remarks that he later characterized, under oath, as an effort "to quickly refresh my memory."

He told Blumenthal that Lewinsky had made a "sexual demand," which he had rebuffed, during what he suggested was a "ministering" session. (Blumenthal urged him to quit ministering to troubled individuals, but the president replied, "It's very difficult for me to do that, given how I am. I want to help people.")

When reporters asked about executive privilege, Clinton said he was out of the loop ("I haven't discussed that with the lawyers. I don't know. You should ask someone who knows"), though the White House counsel, in a sealed affidavit filed a week earlier, swore that the president had directed him to invoke it.

In his battle against Ken Starr as in so much else, Bill Clinton was willing to do and say whatever it took. "When this thing is over," he told friends in 1998, according to the New Yorker, "there's going to be only one of us left standing. And it's going to be me." He was right. The best politician won, and the best man lost.

Stephen Bates, formerly on the staff of the Whitewater independent counsel, is literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly.