A Coup Attempt in Washington?
A European Mirror on the 1998-1999 Constitutional Crisis
by Peter H. Merkl
Palgrave, 288 pp., $ 35
"Where's the outrage?" Republicans wailed during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Well, don't look for it overseas. To news outlets abroad, President Clinton's misdeeds were trivial, and the political response to them, culminating in the first presidential impeachment in over a century, was sheer lunacy.
Peter H. Merkl, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, thinks that the foreign journalists got it right. In A Coup Attempt in Washington?: A European Mirror on the 1998-1999 Constitutional Crisis, he argues that they provided "a more objective view" than excitable American reporters. What's more, this European view closely matched the easygoing compartmentalizing of Middle America: The American counterparts to Parisian cosmopolitans reside in the hinterland, while the bluenoses are assembled in America's metropolitan newsrooms. Further, the overblown scandal cost the United States a good deal of international prestige. "It was not so long ago that Europeans and the rest of the world deeply admired American democracy and its venerable Constitution." No longer.
Merkl offers several explanations for the foreign press's incredulity about the impeachment. Europeans sometimes forget that the United States doesn't have a parliamentary government, in which a legislative majority can easily oust a disfavored leader. Further, they find struggles between major national institutions "rather archaic and disturbing." In addition -- a provocative point that merits more attention than he gives it -- there's a pattern here: Europeans likewise pooh-poohed Watergate, deeming President Nixon's misdeeds "no worse than some actions of their own political leaders."
And, of course, foreign journalists judged the Lewinsky matter a mere sex scandal and therefore insignificant. Merkl quotes the editor of Le Monde: "We have a very French way of looking at things. We think a president who has affairs is charming." In print, Le Monde faulted Republicans for "banalizing the use of the impeachment procedure." Another French newspaper, Le Figaro, sounded out demoiselles on the street, one of whom said: "Clinton has bad taste in women, a weakness for inflatable dolls. But as a gentleman he must lie." "What," wondered the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, "is all this unseemly fuss about a routine extramarital gobble?" The foreign journalists, like many Americans, were never persuaded that it was about obstruction of justice rather than gobbles.
When the foreign press did condemn Clinton, it wasn't for the liaison and the lying, but for the apologies. The expressions of regret that many Americans deemed a belated mea minima culpa struck Europeans as excruciatingly florid. Le Figaro faulted Clinton's "pathetic contrition," and the British Guardian scoffed at his "serial groveling." "The European ethos of masculinity," Merkl explains, "is simply not inclined toward apologizing in matters of sex, least of all publicly."
All fairly interesting. Unfortunately, Merkl can't stick to a cool-headed assessment of the differences between American coverage and foreign coverage. Instead, he rants. Forget the title's question mark; Merkl should have used an exclamation point.
He considers it likely that "enlightened future historians" will use the "anti-Clinton conspiracy as a textbook example of how unrestrained hatred and partisanship nearly ruined the Constitution." But wasn't it the peaceful exercise of a constitutional provision for redressing presidential wrongdoing? Don't be fooled: "The takeovers of Mussolini, Hitler, and of the Vichy government of France typically began with at least some nonviolent steps that were perfectly legal and in partial accord with the constitutions of those nations." And, while the Republicans involved in the impeachment were not "neofascists or neo-Nazis" -- whew! -- "some telling analogies still remain."
Later Merkl devotes three pages to comparing Clinton's impeachment to a lynching. Once again, the similarities overwhelm him. "Typical lynchings . . . frequently included horrible tortures, sexual mutilations for souvenirs, and the showing off of the (often burnt) body of the victim. Is it really such a stretch to compare the ordeal imposed on the president by the media circus of 1998, the salacious Starr Report, the DNA sample, the grand jury videotape, and worldwide humiliations to the lynchings of the past?"
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.