Beginning in Arkansas when Bill Clinton first decided to run for president, a cluster of the future president's die-hard opponents set about trying to derail his quest. They plied eager journalists with tales of Clinton's immoralities and illegalities. Aficionados of the Clinton scandal stories will recognize many of the names. Cliff Jackson: Clinton's contemporary and onetime friend, a fellow Rhodes scholar, and later an embittered foe who played a key role in publicizing damaging stories and helping launch the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit.
"Justice" Jim Johnson: a colorful and determined Clinton enemy who founded and led the Arkansas White Citizens' Council. The oddball duo of Larry Case and Larry Nichols: a sort of Clintonhating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who flitter in and out of the narrative, making mischief and providing comic relief, taping friends and enemies alike, plotting against Clinton one moment and his pursuers the next.
As told by Joe Conason and Gene Lyons in The Hunting of the President, the story begins to take shape as these devious characters strike up connections with an array of political operatives, conservative journalists, far-right organizations, and ultra-conservative evangelical groups. They investigate Clinton and publicize allegations for the duration of his presidency. They also accuse Clinton of the "murders" of his childhood friend Vincent Foster and Commerce Secretary Ron Brown (among others), of cocaine smuggling through a small airport in rural Arkansas, of fathering an out-of-wedlock child by a black prostitute, and of the arcane financial improprieties that go under the heading of "Whitewater."
Clinton-hating, in this outlandish form, has become part of the background noise of contemporary public life--an oddity, an amusement, but hardly part of serious political discussion. But one of the signal achievements of The Hunting of the President is the authors' ability to demonstrate how little space ever really existed between this paranoid variant of Clinton-hating and the more mainstream type one could find on talk radio, on editorial pages, and in the halls of Congress. Again and again, as the authors relate, conservative cranks, such as the notorious David Bossie, surface as investigators for congressional committees. Scurrilous accusations from the right-wing press are recycled into mainstream metropolitan dailies and national newsweeklies.
Every president has enemies, of course. And there is really no reason they shouldn't go about agitating and propagandizing on behalf of their antipathies.But so often these deeply partisan actors have been able to take hold of and, in a manner, speak through some of the most respected institutions in American society: prestigious national newspapers, congressional committees, and yes, the office of the "independent" counsel.
The detailed refutations of the charges against the Clintons in Whitewater and other scandals that Conason and Lyons provide are too lengthy and complex to describe here. But those who remain skeptical about whether papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post could really have gotten the story so wrong would do well to consider that several separate investigations failed to find any evidence of wrongdoing by the Clintons. Even Independent Counsel Ken Starr's office eventually cleared the Clintons of wrongdoing in Whitewater as well as "Filegate" and "Travelgate." And don't you think a prosecutor who pursued the Monica Lewinsky matter as doggedly as Starr did would have found something to prosecute if he could have?
Conason and Lyons have each been at the Clinton story for a long time. Lyons, an Arkansas newspaperman, published an earlier book, Fools for Scandal, which challenged the dominant press account of the Whitewater scandal. Conason is an investigative reporter who writes for The New York Observer. Their book has, in some cases, been the target of criticism that is no less questionable than the reportage the authors indict. In one egregious example, The New York Times Book Review chose as its reviewer Neil A. Lewis, a staff writer in the Times's Washington bureau, which was a primary subject of the book's critique. Predictably, Lewis panned the book.
But since Conason and Lyons are seen as being in the pro-Clinton camp, they are (unfortunately) easily dismissed by the president's critics. Jeffrey Toobin, author of A Vast Conspiracy, is a different story. Toobin is a more recent arrival to the debate. He is a legal affairs commentator and New Yorker staff writer heretofore known for The Run of His Life, a chronicle of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. Yet, though Toobin's account is more evenhanded than The Hunting of the President, it has received more vituperative attacks. (A number of people, most notably Newsweek's Michael Isikoff, have publicly claimed that Toobin's book contains inaccuracies. Isikoff, of course, led the mainstream press in sniffing out the Lewinsky scandal.)
Toobin pulls no punches when it comes to Clinton's reckless, self-indulgent, self-destructive behavior with Lewinsky. His opinion about many of Clinton's supposed assignations seems to be that they happened, but that they were consensual. But his analysis mirrors that of Conason and Lyons. In fact, as Clinton critics were quick to note, the very title Toobin chose for his bookmade it clear which side of this argument he had come down on. Maybe there's a poetic appropriateness in the fact that Toobin now has been sucked into the vortex of Clinton-hating--some of the most illuminating pas-sages of his book explore the dynamics of this political phenomenon.
He is, for instance, particularly deft in describinghow Clinton's enemies were hobbled, and ultimately defeated, by their persistent, unshakable belief in the president's deep criminality.Initial press attention to A Vast Conspiracy concentrated on Toobin's not-improbable claim that Clinton might well have been driven from office if only Starr's office had made a deal with Lewinsky during the first days of the scandal in early February 1998. This would have been, according to Toobin, substantially the same deal they made with her in late July after so much water had run under the bridge. If Starr had cut a deal with Lewinsky early, Toobin argues, he could have immediately set about proving that Clinton had an affair with the White House intern and that he had lied about it to the American people. Of course, when this all did eventually come out, the public had long since come to terms with the reality and the veracity of the charge. And the behavior of Clinton's pursuers had become, to many, equally questionable.
Whether Toobin's contention is right is difficult to gauge. What's more important--and revealing--is why Starr chose not to pursue the deal. In the early negotiations with Lewinsky and her lawyer William Ginsburg, the Office of Independent Counsel was represented by Michael Emmick and Bruce Udolf, the two members of Starr's staff with the most professional prosecutorial experience. Emmick and Udolf negotiated a deal that granted Lewinsky immunity in exchange for her testifying that she had in fact had a sexual relationship with the president but that he had not asked her to lie. But Starr, on the recommendation of a majority of his staff, rescinded the offer. Nominally, the hitch was Lewinsky's unwillingness to submit to an in-person interview prior to receiving immunity from Starr's office. The deeper issue, however, was the staff's mounting (and not so difficult to understand) antipathy toward Ginsburg and their belief that he was trying to play them. As Starr's chief deputy Jackie Bennett put it, the deal Emmick and Udolf had negotiated was "a sign of weakness."
Angered and embarrassed, Emmick and Udolf tried to persuade their colleagues to keep their eye on the ball and not get distracted by their feelings about Ginsburg's behavior. "So what if they hated Monica's lawyer?" Toobin paraphrases Udolf as telling his colleagues. "How in the world were they proposing to make a case against Clinton without Lewinsky's testimony?" Egged on by his most combative but least experienced prosecutors, Starr decided to stand tough against Ginsburg's antics. And thus the Office of Independent Counsel frittered away Clinton's moment of vulnerability in a petty battle with Lewinsky's lawyer over who could make who cry uncle first.
Beyond pugnacity and ego, Starr's staff had another problem: The hard-liners couldn't bring themselves to make a deal because they couldn't believe that sex, and lies about sex, was all there was. They were captivated by the belief that "some grander conspiracy," as Toobin puts it, "was sure to be uncovered, just over the horizon." Starr and his staff and perhaps the greater number of Clinton's pursuershad committed what must be the greatest of lapses, either in law or in politics: They had fallen for their own spin.
Toobin's book is a sprightly, quick read that carries the reader along with insightful and sometimes chatty portraits of the scandal's major and minor players. The author is a master of the hilariously well-chosen and understated aside. When first broaching the subject of Clinton's infamous cigar escapade, Toobin notes that "Lewinsky [later] told her biographer, Andrew Morton, that after the experience with the cigar, 'she realized she had fallen in love.'" The topic resurfaces later in another small, insiderish reportorial coup that is a staple of Toobin's writing. At the end of a description of Richard Gephardt, the notoriously straight-laced Democratic minority leader, Toobin quotes Gephardt asking his lead counsel Abbe Lowell, "Abbe, is the cigar thing real?" Toobin sometimes breezes over matters that deserve more attention. But what the book lacks in specifics, it makes up for in pace and verve.
Conason and Lyons's book is a different enterprise altogether. If Toobin's book feels like a fast amusement park ride, theirs is more like an expansive mansion with a multitude of rooms and passages and annexes in which the reader can sit down, get comfortable, relax, explore, and(truth be told) occasionally get lost. And yet the breadth and scope of what Conason and Lyons seek to cover is greater than that which Toobin assays. The book does a masterful job of mixing investigative revelations and political analysis with unflinching attacks on those who deserve them. Nowhere will a reader find a more detailed and instructive survey of the origins of the Clinton scandals or a more systematic refutation of the many inaccuracies that still plague the story.
What to make of it all? At the very outset of the Lewinsky scandal, Charles Lane, then the editor of The New Republic, put it this way: "People are asking how Monicagate compares with Watergate. Here's a thought: back then, a president was brought down for using scary police-state tactics--CIA cover-ups, wiretaps, secret tapes, black-bag jobs--in an effort to destroy his political enemies. This time, the roles are reversed: a president's political enemies are using scary police-state tactics to destroy him." That remains one of the most elegant and to-the-point descriptions of the turn American politics took in the 1990s.
For all the pettiness and indifference to facts that characterized so many of the president's accusers, one thing remains clear: Many, though certainly not all, of Clinton's enemies truly came to believe that if only they looked hard enough, they would find some fact sufficiently damaging to bring him down. They were certain that it was simply in Clinton's nature to have committed somekind of criminal act. Clintonhating is thus more than an endless game of dirty tricks on the part of the president's opponents or a simple reaction to the president's chicanery. It is part of some deeper cleavage in our politics and culture that defies conventional explanations. And this aspect of what took place is not addressed fully by either of these books. That's not meant as a criticism; this part of the story isn't central to the books these authors chose to write. But as the history of the 1990s and the Clinton era is written, the polarized and bitter politics that developed in a time of relative peace and prosperity is a topic that has yet to be satisfactorily explored and explained.