Contempt: A Memoir of the Clinton Investigation
By Ken Starr
(Sentinel, 338 pages, $28)
In Contempt, Ken Starr, former Independent Counsel, takes us back to the days when “the era of big government was over,” and the “peace dividend” was being spent, a time of peace and feckless prosperity when cans were kicked down the road. That, and the spectacle of President Clinton, who had “one thing” to say “to the American people.… I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
Depending on the meaning of the word “is,” that is. When deposed, Clinton was asked about his attorney’s statement to a federal judge that “[t]here isabsolutely no sex of any kind.” He stated, “Well, in the present tense that is an accurate statement.” That led to his famous observation, “It all depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” His assertion prompted the next question, “Do you mean today that because you were not engaging in sexual activity with Ms. Lewinsky during the deposition, that the statement of [your attorney] might literally be true?” Clinton denied trying to give a “cute answer,” but his goose was cooked.
Starr sums it up saying, “August 17, 1998, had not gone well for the president. He had sealed his fate.”
In Contempt, Starr tells the story of his involvement, from his appointment through his testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in November 1998. He answered a call from D.C. Circuit Judge David Sentelle in July 1994 asking him to be “independent counsel for the Whitewater matter,” little realizing that he would turn from being seen as a “squish” into being a “Republican pit bull.” Starr learned what he was getting into when he first talked with his predecessor, Robert Fiske, on arriving in Little Rock. The investigation was “far-reaching and well under way,” and he should expect to be in Little Rock for “a long time.”
Starr’s investigation was significantly different from the one now under way under Bob Mueller. Starr’s investigation, and that of Robert Fiske, whose work he inherited and brought to completion, proceeded under statutory law. His appointment came from a three-judge court, and his job was to report to the House of Representatives if he found “substantial and credible information” that might be “grounds for an impeachment.” What the House did with the referral was a political decision within the “unfettered discretion” of the House. Congress allowed that independent counsel law to expire in 1999.
In contrast, Mueller’s operation is entirely an appendage of the Department of Justice. Note the pressure that members of Congress have put on Attorney General Barr not to fire Mueller at his confirmation hearing. His report will also go to the Attorney General, who will decide what to do with it, just as the House of Representatives decided what to do with Starr’s report.
Starr and his team pursued the bank fraud and related wrongdoing arising out of the failure of Madison Bank & Trust, Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, and the Whitewater development project. In one trial, the team convicted Jim and Susan McDougal and Arkansas Governor Jim Guy Tucker on charges related to some $825,000 in fraudulently inflated loans that cycled their way into various pockets.
In January 1998, though, the team was tipped off about what turned out to be the Monica Lewinsky peccadillo. Paula Corbin Jones’ lawsuit against Bill Clinton was ongoing, and the tip was that Lewinsky had lied about her time with Clinton. Neither Jones nor Lewinsky was within the scope of Starr’s mandate, so the team sought authorization first from the Attorney General Janet Reno, before obtaining it from the Special Court with her approval. They were, then, off on that trail, which led to the conclusion.
Along the way, Starr reminds us of some of the reasons why we might be glad that HRC, Her Royal Clintoness, is not our President. At her 1995 deposition, unlike her avuncularly politician of a husband, she “made no effort to be cordial.” She “repeatedly” asserted lack of knowledge or memory. When her deposition continued the next day, the pattern continued with “glib” and “superficial” responses, interwoven with more than 100 claims of lack of knowledge or memory in a 3-hour session. She proved to be “a classic noncredible witness,” “smug and dismissive,” “cold and aloof, determined to make herself unlikable.”
Bill Clinton also does some star turns separate and apart from his finger-wagging and lies. According to Jim McDougal, Clinton, who was out for a jog on a hot August morning, stopped by McDougal’s Madison Guaranty office to suggest that McDougal send Madison’s work HRC’s way. That would mean cutting out the law firm of Jim Guy Tucker, but McDougal gave her a retainer and some work.
Subsequently, in April 1995, Bill Clinton and HRC were deposed at the White House, shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing. When Hickman Ewing asked Clinton about the “jogging incident,” he answered, “You know, Mr. Ewing, I’ve read that. But I just can’t remember.”
Later that day, when HRC was being questioned, a Filipino steward entered the room and spoke with her lawyer. “Hillary crossed her arms and looked down, her lips tightened in anger. The steward walked over to a closet, removed the President’s golf clubs, and walked out.” One might wonder if a lamp was thrown that evening.
There’s lots more, from a certain blue dress to Webb Hubbell’s “tell,” to the “culinary protective privilege” memo generated by a member of Starr’s team as a joke. One more anecdote from the book: David Hale testified that, when Susan McDougal came to the bank to sign the documents for a fraudulent $300,000 loan, she arrived in a tennis dress, signed the papers, and “bounced out, saying, ‘We’ll have to do this again sometime.’” The loan was made to a phantom company named Master Marketing, and the proceeds went to remodel a house, pay personal bills, and repay other loans.
Starr writes that he didn’t “angle for” the job, but he “had never said no to a call to serve the country and wasn’t going to start doing so” when asked. After cutting his ties with Baylor University and HRC’s loss in the November 2016 presidential election, Starr decided, “at long last, the time was right to talk about the Clintons’ contempt.” He explains, “President Clinton and the First Lady knowingly embarked on a continuing course of action that was contemptuous of our revered system of justice.” Starr’s book backs up that claim in a compelling and entertaining fashion.
In the end, the House voted to impeach Clinton, but he escaped conviction and ouster in the Senate. Nonetheless, he was later held in contempt for lying in his deposition, fined $96,000, and removed from the roll of attorneys empowered to appear in the U.S. Supreme Court. Starr concludes, “If the president had simply told the truth before the grand jury the prior August, and then apologized to the American people for his mendacity, all this could have been avoided. The president, and he alone, was squarely to blame for the long national ordeal.”