The Magazine

Impeaching America

Why the Europeans embraced Clinton

Mar 12, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 25 • By STEPHEN BATES
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Behind the American press coverage, Merkl espies "a conspiracy among publishers and editors to topple the chief executive," a conspiracy aided and abetted by Ken Starr, the independent counsel, who was "quite adept at manipulating the media." (This doesn't sound like the Ken Starr I worked for.)

Merkl faults Time for a piece musing on whether Lewinsky could have had sex with Clinton while he didn't have sex with her, but fails to mention that this was Clinton's precise defense to an allegation of perjury. He declares a CNN program on Clinton's grand jury testimony, featuring Judy Woodruff and Bernard Shaw, "worthy of Joseph Goebbels." Of a Los Angeles Times cartoon depicting Clinton and Lewinsky as insects who survive nuclear war, he sniffs that "to compare the president of the United States and his paramour to cockroaches is crude."

The European press, he assures us, eschews such undignified "personal diatribes" against American political figures. Of course, a few pages later, he quotes French television commentator Nicole Bacharan's description of Starr: "A devil of a man. Round face and fleshy lips, his gray hair slicked down over his balding skull, looking like a prematurely aged baby. He wears the fine spectacles of a clergyman and affects a permanent sulking mien."

Bacharan, author of a book about the scandal, is a Merkl favorite, "a knowledgeable French observer" who "obviously knows her American law." One of her discoveries especially delights him -- "a 60 Minutes broadcast of 1987 in which an American judge had declared: 'The media must never reproduce explicit or implicit descriptions of sexual acts. Our society must be purged of perverts who furnish pornographic materials to the media. . . . ' Bacharan added: 'That judge was Kenneth Starr.'" Bacharan and Merkl have been had. That 60 Minutes tale was an Internet hoax, and it was debunked in 1998 by USA Today, the San Francisco Examiner, the Atlanta Constitution, and the Washington Post (which noted that the quotation, read aloud, sounds like Daffy Duck).

I didn't think it possible, in fact, but Merkl has managed to write a Lewinsky book that's even more error-ridden than Jeffrey Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy. Toobin at least has a law degree. Merkl mixes up affidavits and depositions, civil discovery and grand jury investigations, the role of judges and the role of prosecutors -- as well as censor and censure, Senator John Warner and movie mogul Jack Warner, and even Jeff Toobin and Jeff Rosen. He bungles the name of Richard Mellon Scaife's Pittsburgh newspaper, misquotes Clinton's famous 1969 letter on avoiding the draft, and jarringly understates the allegations of "Joan Brodderick" (Juanita Broaddrick) as "a kind of date rape."

Merkl's depiction of the Starr Report, which I had a hand in writing, is no better. Leaning on Renata Adler's dotty deconstruction in Vanity Fair, he condemns us for covering up Linda Tripp's previous role in investigations. Actually, the report's introduction, evidently overlooked by Adler and Merkl, identifies Tripp as a witness in three ongoing investigations. He faults the report for containing merely "bits of evidence -- uncorroborated by witnesses."

In truth, it corroborates the allegations lavishly, perhaps overabundantly, with White House documents, testimony of Secret Service officers, Monica Lewinsky's contemporaneous statements to friends and relatives, her scribblings, her deleted computer files, her DNA-spattered dress, etc. And he refers to the report, not including supplemental evidence, as fifty thousand pages long. (We wrote a lot in the Starr Report, but not that much.)

Maybe it's unrealistic to expect fact-checking from a scholarly press, but what about editing? In Merkl's prose, the die is always cast, someone barks up the wrong tree, people listen with bated breath, the president is in the hot seat, media sharks smell blood in the water, Framers turn over in their graves, higher and higher pile the cliches until the "steamroller that could no longer be stopped . . . seemed unstoppable." As Le Monde might say, how banal.

In 1998 the potent evidence of President Clinton's felonies got lost in a swirl of thongs, cigars, and dress stains. In this book about the scandal, fittingly, the valid insights disappear amid the author's errors, hackneyed prose, and partisan bile.

Stephen Bates, formerly a lawyer in the Office of Independent Counsel, is the literary editor of the Wilson Quarterly.