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American Virtue?

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When I began reading The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, I had the feeling of reliving a bad dream.

The sordid and the sanctimonious, the crazy and the corrupt, the hypocrisy of those last years of the Clinton administration and, well, especially the hypocrisy were just awful to recall.

The weight of the book, too, gave me pause. How was I to get through 800 pages on that nightmare? But although Ken Gormley's book spares none of the gory details, it's a great read that reveals the core dynamics of historical events that influence (and plague) American political life to this day.

Gormley is particularly good at teasing out turning points at which apparently minor decisions resulted in momentous consequences. The first was President Clinton's appointment of an independent counsel in 1994 to investigate what he thought of as "the Whitewater bugaboo." The crazy-quilt real estate scheme had long been a magnet for rumors about corruption, but at the time the president saw little risk in getting a report on transactions that had almost no economic value.

White House Counsel Bernie Nussbaum, in an interview with the author, reflected that appointing an independent counsel was an "ill-considered decision that changed the course of history." There were no clear boundaries for an independent counsel investigation, and the Whitewater inquisition would go in myriad directions until it had found something with which to "get" the president. At the time the independent counsel office began its work, Nussbaum noted, Monica Lewinsky was still a junior in college.

Gormley paints vivid pictures of those who played significant roles in these events. Rarely stopping to editorialize, he keeps the narrative moving along, deftly interweaving sources from the time and his own interviews with the key players. Gormley, a law professor, must be an excellent interlocutor - protagonists from all aspects of the affair seem to have been comfortable and confident talking with him. Whether they were rabid anti-Clinton prosecutors who believed that any tactic was admissible if it helped them get their man, or defenders of the president who made light of his "private" transgressions, their voices come through loud and clear in Death of American Virtue. This is invariably interesting, as the reader comes to understand how this scandal appeared to those on the inside, Democrats and Republicans, lawyers and interns.

Sometimes the interviews amount to giving subjects just enough rope to hang themselves. Paula Jones, for example, talks so disingenuously about "just wanting an apology" that it's anyone's guess as to whether she has ever understood how she was adopted by the right, or whether she thinks that just by making up so many stories she has somehow dissolved any expectation for truthfulness. The odious Linda Tripp swears on the lives of her children that she never wanted to gain from her role as informant, and then Gormley notes laconically how the facts blatantly contradict this assertion. Those poor children.

Speaking of poor kids, the person who emerges most sympathetically, if sadly, from this book is Lewinsky. She's no dope, but as a young woman in Washington, she fell for its leading man, the man she now refers to as "the Big Creep." The president of the United States asked her if he could kiss her, and the train was out of the station. She really thought that the president had strong feelings for her, too, and we can grimace at her naivete. But the grimace grows tighter when we read Clinton's explanation of why he wouldn't "go all the way": "When you get to be a certain age, you realize that every action you take ... has a consequence."

The first Whitewater investigator, Robert Fiske, was restrained in his inquiry and judicious in his pursuit of the relevant facts. Not so his successor Kenneth Starr. Though Starr protests again and again that this was not a personal, political or religious vendetta, his staff's abusive treatment of the Lewinsky family, its blatant use of political tactics when they ran out of legitimate legal avenues for prosecution and its shameful exploitation of publicity for purposes of character assassination have set an example that will undermine for decades the integrity of intra-governmental investigation.

Furthermore, as the director of the Secret Service noted, the FBI was "attached at the hip" to Starr when they should have been investigating terrorism. The great resources of the federal government's law enforcement machine were focused on whether a sexual affair was being covered up. Meanwhile, terrorists in Afghanistan were making plans.

Starr admits in interviews that he should never have gotten into the Lewinsky matter, but he still feels he fought the good fight and did his duty. But Archibald Cox has it right: "Starr's investigation was carried on as an attack on the White House from beginning to end."

But the problem wasn't only Starr. The president, while being investigated for corruption and sexual harassment, was finding hiding places in the White House to have sex with a young woman his daughter's age. A man of enormous talent and ambition, a president with the potential to make a critical difference in American history, was willing to risk it all. Gormley at this point does share his own judgment: "The most powerful man in the world had been unable to resist that base, prurient attraction."

The investigation may have been crazed, but in Bill Clinton it found its perfect target. The results since then have been a revved-up politics of personal destruction and the diversion of resources from the legitimate defense of the country in favor of moralistic posturing. The book's title, The Death of American Virtue, may be overblown, but it's hard to find any evidence of virtue in these pages, unless it's the author's diligence and hard work in getting the story straight and telling it well.

Cross-posted from SFgate.com

The Death of American Virtue
Clinton vs. Starr
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By Ken Gormley
(Crown; 789 pages; $35)