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Beating the Yard Dog

Bill Clinton and the death of American virtue.

By From the May 2010 issue

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

On his last day in office, having survived impeachment and what should have been a horse whipping by at least one angry father, our 42nd president, as part of the deal with Kenneth Starr's successor to conclude the Whitewater investigation, acknowledged that he had lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, gave up his license to practice law for five years, and paid a $25,000 fine.

Given this appropriate conclusion, capping as it did the consistently distasteful details of his entire political and personal life, some might have expected him to slink offstage, perhaps retreating to a refuge somewhere back in the Ozarks, where he'd find a roadhouse chanteuse who'd swallow the old line, tell him he was a great man, and minister to those various quirks that might well have landed a lesser man in jail.

But this is no lesser man. There he is, a decade later, still snarling defiance during a series of interviews with Ken Gormley, interim dean and professor of law at Duquesne and author of this exhaustive study of the events leading up to Clinton's impeachment trial. Asked by Gormley to comment on Rep. Henry Hyde's observation that as only the second president to be impeached by the House, his name would carry an asterisk in the history books, his response, typically, was informed by a strong streak of self-pity. "‘Yeah, l will 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.'"

Nevertheless, animal cruelty aside, he was impeached, and that asterisk will always be there. Why? For many who lived through the Clinton years, and as this massive work documents, it was the result of the sociopathic and misogynistic urges he was unable -- or unwilling -- to bring under control throughout his political career. But that's not how he sees it. For Clinton, it was all part of "a partisan hit job run by a bitter right winger, Henry Hyde" which "pleased Tom DeLay and his right-wing masters."

The thought of Henry Hyde, described by Gormley as a "conservative Republican lion," taking marching orders from Tom DeLay may be ludicrous. But no matter. Our second asterisked president, whose various pathologies don't permit him ever to take blame for anything, has the proper scapegoat at hand -- the same sinister force (to borrow a phrase from Al Haig) that conspired against him since the earliest days, when he first discovered vulnerable girls -- the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, identified as such by his long-suffering wife in one of her finer Lady Macbeth moments.

The strains in those days were great. On July 20, 1993, just six months after Clinton took office, Vince Foster, one of the First Lady's knights-errants, had allegedly committed suicide under suspicious and never satisfactorily explained circumstances. Rumors abounded, among them one linking Foster and the First Lady romantically. The suicide -- if that's what it was -- in turn stirred memories of the Whitewater scandals in Arkansas, a shady land deal involving the Clintons and several friends, which Vince Foster, representing the Rose Law Firm, unsuccessfully tried to put to rest.

"It was the ultimate irony," writes Gormley, "that the Foster suicide helped to revive the Whitewater scandal -- since this is the last thing Vince Foster would have intended if his mind had been clear enough to assess the consequences." Then, shortly after Foster's death, "Another event jostled the dormant scandal [Whitewater] back to life. During the fall of 1993, the Los Angeles Times was busily working on a story involving rumors that then Governor Bill Clinton had engaged in various extramarital affairs facilitated by former Arkansas state troopers."

Thus, the table was set. "By the early days of 1994," writes Gormley, "allegations of scandal had burst into full bloom, like a garden suddenly flowering with a dozen dark-colored, scary, potentially poisonous species....From this cross-pollination of tainted blossoms, an unexpected political scandal that threatened the existence of the Clinton presidency would emerge."

It came in December 1993, "in the form of an article in a hot new conservative magazine, the American Spectator [hot, to be sure, but hardly new]....On the cover was featured a cartoon that depicted Bill Clinton sneaking out of the governor's mansion at night carrying his shoes, with the provocative title 'His Cheatin' Heart.' The inside headline read: ‘Bill's Arkansas bodyguards tell the story the press missed.'" Gormley goes on to summarize: exploits with dozens of women; Hillary's "wild, screaming, door-kicking tirades when she caught Bill on the prowl"; Clinton's assertion to one of the troopers that "he had researched the subject in the Bible and oral sex isn't considered adultery." (He would later share the results of this biblical research with Monica Lewinsky.)

Immediate impact aside -- and the response to the article was sensational -- what most counted were the long-term effects. It was "Troopergate" that defined and set the character of the main player, led to the lawsuit by Paula Corbin Jones that blew it all open, and like Watergate, subsumed a great assortment of perceived misdeeds under one rubric. In fact, in a very real sense, this book, like the Clinton administration itself, owes its shape and structure to Troopergate, for it was Troopergate that opened Pandora's box.

Ironically enough, it was because of an editing lapse in the Troopergate article that the lid blew totally off. In a brief description of an Arkansas hotel tryst in the article, Gormley writes, "a tiny paragraph" would "rise up from the ashes to threaten the entire Clinton presidency." A trooper approached a woman, told her the governor found her attractive, and escorted her to his suite. "The brief paragraph ended succinctly: 'After her encounter with Clinton, which lasted no more than an hour as the trooper stood by in the hall, the trooper said Paula told him she was available to be Clinton's regular girlfriend if he so desired.'"

But, as Bob Tyrrell tells Gormley, TAS "hadn't intended to include the name 'Paula' in the story; it had a policy against identifying names of alleged victims of sexual misconduct. 'It was an accident. An editorial mistake,' said Tyrrell. ‘There never would have been a lawsuit if we hadn't erroneously left her name in the piece.'"

Editorial mistake or not, the Troopergate article, among other things, enabled the national media to pick up the story they'd been sitting on. The substance of the article was to have been the basis for the story in the Los Angeles Times. But when the Times backed off, TAS ran the story, and the White House responded with a propaganda barrage against Tyrrell and his publication that, as James Warren of the Chicago Tribune observed, "seemed to be largely embraced by official Washington and its solicitous press corps."

The pundits, Tyrrell wrote in Boy Clinton, "deprecated the troopers' stories as 'unbelievable' and 'baloney' even while claiming that everyone was already well aware of Clinton's sexual improprieties and the citizens elected him president anyway. So the unbelievable was irrelevant because everyone already knew it was true."

However, that didn't prevent the mainstream media from picking up the juicier details of the president's serial transgressions, as reported in TAS -- but always with a disapproving disclaimer aimed at the original source. And that was the major media's formula for covering Clinton's ongoing scandals: deplore the source, but repeat the juicy parts.

IN DISCUSSING THE ROLE OF TAS in particular and conservatives in general, Gormley is as scrupulously fair as his inclinations allow him to be. As a former student and admirer of Archibald Cox, ordered fired by Richard Nixon during Watergate, and author of Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation, he might be expected to reflect certain biases. But he treats all the players with equal respect and objectivity, among them what he calls the "conservative elite" involved in various ways in the case -- Henry Hyde, Robert Bork, Ted Olson, Bob Tyrrell, Richard Mellon Scaife. The same is true of all the people he interviewed -- among them Monica Lewinsky, Paula Corbin Jones, Susan McDougal, Betsey Wright (an old Clinton friend and political supporter who offers an interesting analysis of the sexual pathology that seems to drive him).

If there is bias here, it's personal, not ideological. Paula Jones leaves something to be desired, while he admires Susan McDougal's loyalty and guts (and who admits here, for the first time, that she'd had an affair with Clinton). He pities Monica Lewinsky, who at a young 22 was seduced, lied to, and then tossed aside by the Leader of the Free World. He greatly admires Alice Starr, who struggled, with honesty and unfailing good cheer, to shield her family from the all-out assaults of the White House attack team, discussed in a chapter titled "The Vilification of Ken Starr."

As for Starr, Gormley faults him for adding Monica Lewinsky to his investigation (one unintended consequence: the addition of Lewinsky killed an investigation which might have resulted in an indictment of Hillary Clinton), thinks he was too slow in carrying out his investigations, and believes his lack of practical prosecutorial experience was a hindrance. But he gives him full grades for honesty, scrupulosity, and seriousness of purpose, describing a meeting at which Starr admonished his staff to refer to the president at all times with respect, and by title.

Nor does he judge Clinton, in large part letting him speak for himself. Of the women he's victimized, Clinton is either dismissive (that woman, Miss Lewinsky), or contemptuous. Of Paula Jones, he tells Gormley: "If she was worried about the lies of the American Spectator, she would have gone after the American Spectator instead of getting in bed with them." The only mistake he admits to is authorizing the renewal of the independent counsel statute, which led to the appointment of "Kenny Starr," the tool of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy: "Ken Starr was their errand boy, and he danced to their tune, just as hard as he could dance." After Starr was selected, Clinton tells Gormley, "there was no pretext about what he and all of his supporters were doing. I felt they were Wile E. Coyote in the pack and I was the Road Runner. And the chase was on."

In the end, as we all know, it was the Road Runner by a nose. (Although somehow the coyote role seems more appropriate.) And then came the victory lap. In February 1999, the Senate having failed to convict Clinton of high crimes and misdemeanors, Bill Buckley, writing of Clinton's subsequent State of the Union address, put it this way:

There is something continuingly provocative in Mr. Clinton's personal appearance. He doesn't-ever-look guilty. When he gave his State of the Union speech last week his expressions recalled the face of Winston Churchill on V-E Day....His manner was as triumphant as if he had single-handedly accomplished the rape of all the Sabine women....Clinton's face is that of the freshly minted altar boy. He is...Dorian Gray. We have looked at that face through the corrosive mists of Gennifer Flowers, draft evasion, platonic experiences with marijuana, through Vincent Foster, Webster Hubbell, the Lincoln Bedroom, through Huang, FBI files, Mrs. Willey on 60 Minutes, and what we see is something in the nature of incredulity. For that reason, a convincing apology from him is as inconceivable as a sex change. Bill Clinton couldn't bring it off.

Nor, in this exhaustive study of the legal nightmare to which Clinton subjected his country, destroying lives in the process, is there any attempt at an apology, despite the opportunities offered by Gormley in his extensive interviews. There's plenty of whining about how he was misunderstood and mistreated, complaints about his persecution by the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy, and sputtering anger whenever he mentions The American Spectator, a subject, despite the years that have passed, that never seems far from the front of his mind, right up there with the mechanism that scouts out vulnerable women.

It was The American Spectator that first brought the story of Clintonian misdeeds to wide public attention; withstood a ferocious assault by one of the best White House attack machines in political history; kept the pressure on with articles, editorials, books, and columns by Bob Tyrrell; and today occupies a place of honor at the top of the former president's enemies' list.

Not bad for a small-circulation literary/political magazine that took on Goliath and beat him like a junkyard dog. Not bad at all.

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).