The Indomitable Clintons

Pretty much wherever you look this summer, Hillary, Bill, and even Chelsea Clinton are in the news. The former first lady, senator from New York, presidential candidate, and now Secretary of State grows in stature, acknowledged across the political spectrum for her professional skills and toughness when it counts. Virtually alone among Obama insiders, she was spared opprobrium from General Stanley McChrystal and his aides in their self-destructive Rolling Stone rant. The former president looks trim and elegant on the cover of this month's Esquire. The piece is about Haiti. Pundits are hailing Clinton's revived political mojo in places such as Arkansas, where he stepped up on behalf of embattled Senator Blanche Lincoln, and Colorado, where he has endorsed an opposition Democrat for senator. Writing in The Daily Beast, Mark McKinnon asserted "the former president's favorables are now at 51 percent, higher than Obama's."

As for Chelsea Clinton, her wedding is imminent. Speculation focuses on an estate in Rhinebeck, New York. Considering how much of her life took place in the limelight, she seems remarkably cool and poised. For all any outsider is entitled to judge, Chelsea is among her parents' greatest successes.

With so much going for the Clintons, it seemed perverse somehow to find myself drawn this June to a nearly 800-page book, The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr (Crown) by Ken Gormley, a professor at Duquesne University Law School. He has exhaustively recreated the entire saga, beginning with the Whitewater land deals and ending years later with the impeachment trial of the president for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. But the book's early reviews were intriguing. My favorite line was from Janet Maslin, writing in The New York Times that reading the book "seems akin to climbing Mount Everest in house slippers; impressive but not entirely necessary." What finally hooked me was Gormley's fascinating interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air.

The accumulation of extensive interviews and impeccably researched detail, much of it largely forgotten or never before disclosed, amounts to a portrait of what was surely one of the strangest periods in American history—nearly a full decade in which the nation's politics gradually became ensnared in low-level real estate and tax shenanigans that morphed into the tawdriest array of sexual peccadilloes ever to require the attention of the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court, abetted by a breathless media in the midst of a transformation to Internet omnipresence and twenty-four-hour cable news. The stain of cheesiness that remains is indelible. I started reading The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr on a Kindle, but switched to the printed book because I found myself making so many exclamatory marginal notes. Here are just a few of the book's more astonishing facts:

  • The "Indictment" of Hillary: In April, 1998, Kenneth Starr's Office of Independent Council (OIC) drafted a formal indictment of Hilary Clinton that charged she had perjured herself in describing work for Madison Guaranty, the bank at the heart of the Whitewater case. OIC prosecutor Hickman Ewing was "unshakable in his belief that Hillary Clinton had perjured herself" Gormley writes. "Never before had a First Lady of the United States been indicted. That was no reason in Ewing's mind to resist taking this historic plunge." But other prosecutors, including Starr, prevailed, with the mantra "Forget about [Hillary]. We have the president in [our] sights."

  • The "Brace" of Monica Lewinsky: This was the entrapment of the intern in a Ritz Carlton hotel room in which prosecutors and the FBI effectively cut her off from her lawyer and terrified her with the intention of gaining undercover cooperation in pursuit of the president. When finally allowed to talk to her mother, "Monica choked out the words: 'the FBI has me. . . .' She later admitted, 'I was hysterical.'" Gormley's meticulous recreation of this episode is chilling for its cruelty, considering how clueless she seems to have been about the risks of Oval Office infatuation.

  • The outing of adulterers: First, Representative Henry Hyde, Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who led the case against Clinton in the House, acknowledged an affair in 1965, and then Representative Bob Livingston, about to be the new Speaker of the House, was brought down by Hustler magazine's revelation of a "host of extramarital liaisons" leading to his resignation. "As his final declamation in the well of Congress," Gormley wrote, "the dishonored representative declared, 'God Bless America.'"

  • The prospective indictment of Bill Clinton after he left office: Robert Ray, Starr's successor at OIC, intended to empanel a new grand jury and bring a criminal case against the ex-president. But what amounted to a plea deal ended the case. Clinton's law license was suspended for five years; he paid a $25,000 fine to the Arkansas Supreme Court's Committee on Professional Conduct, and was required to admit that he "knowingly gave evasive and misleading answers" in the case brought by Paula Jones, which had veered the nation into the whole sordid mess.

On nearly every page, some character is shown to be pitiful or tawdry: Vince Foster, the White House lawyer who committed suicide; Jim McDougal, a con man who died in a Texas prison in solitary confinement because he was unwilling or unable to produce a urine sample; and Susan McDougal, who languished in jail for refusing to testify at Starr's grand juries for reasons never made clear. One thought was that she was protecting a romance with Clinton; according to Gormley, she now concedes there was one, "albeit brief in duration."

The book is also replete with codas. Ken Starr now believes it was a mistake for him to extend his Whitewater probe into the Lewinsky saga. "If he could replay this decision that wreaked havoc on his life and his professional career," Gormley writes, Starr would declare, the case had to be investigated, "but I was a poor choice to do it." As for President Clinton, his rage is still palpable. Of the House prosecutors, he said, "They ran a partisan hit job run by a bitter right-winger, Henry Hyde who turned out to be a hypocrite on the personal issues. . . . Yeah, I'll always have an asterisk after my name, but I hope I'll have two asterisks: One is: They impeached him and the other is 'He stood up to them and beat them. And he beat them like a yard dog.'"

And so, years after the debacle, the former president and the secretary of state continue to play important and constructive roles in American life. They are truly indomitable. But what a blot there is on history.

Presented by

Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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