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."
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."
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.