The Boston Phoenix
September 17 - 24, 1998

[Features]

Starr in our eyes

We didn't need to know it. But now that we do, we can hardly ignore it.

by Dan Kennedy

It would be legally accurate for me to tell you I was shocked and appalled when I realized that Ken Starr's 445-page report really was about nothing other than sex. But if I stopped there -- that is, if I chose not to volunteer information -- I could be accused of misleading people. So lest I be charged with leaving false impressions, let me stipulate for the record that I also found the Starr report to be immensely entertaining. Even better, I could call it work. To the best of my recollection at this point in time, it was the only occasion when I've ever asked my kids to leave the room so I could continue reading pornography. Without feeling guilty about it, anyway.

They deserve each other

by Harvey Silverglate

The Starr report proves just one thing: both Ken Starr and Bill Clinton are loathsome creatures who have misused the authority entrusted to them.

Clinton should have treated Starr's intrusive investigation as an opportunity to refuse, on principle, to answer questions about his and others' sex lives. And he should have followed up by introducing legislation so that future prosecutors would not be allowed to embark on similar witch hunts. Instead, Clinton chose to lie, to cover up, to involve others in the cover-up, to trick friends and aides into vouching for his nonexistent credibility, and to destroy the lives of former friends and associates (Jim and Susan McDougal, Webster Hubbell, and Vincent Foster, to name a few) who were foolish enough to believe he would place loyalty above personal ambition.

Clinton's plight is, in part, a product of the craziness of sexual-harassment law, which regularly allows for outrageous violations of privacy. Because Paula Jones chose to sue Clinton for crudely propositioning her, her lawyers were allowed to interrogate Clinton and Monica Lewinsky -- who, after all, was not suing him-- about the most intimate details of their sexual affair. Clinton richly deserves that fate because he has long supported such laws in return for the political support of establishment feminist outposts such as the National Organization for Women. But what about the women, such as Lewinsky, whom he exploited? Do they deserve such treatment? Conversely, how many lives was Starr willing to wreck in order to pursue his Great White Whale?

Starr has pushed the envelope at every stage of his investigation, always opting for the most intrusive and oppressive interpretation of some very dangerous laws and court rulings. He is a maggot, as is Clinton. They deserve to be together for eternity in the room that Sartre envisioned in No Exit. Oh, that Sartre were alive to write this story. Or Shakespeare, for that matter.

Clinton, having learned from public-opinion polls that his combative four-minute speech after his grand-jury appearance was not sufficiently contrite, now offers extra-sincere contrition daily. But there was no forgiveness in his own heart when he flew to Arkansas during the 1992 presidential election in order to preside personally over the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, a prisoner who was so brain-damaged and mentally incompetent that he set aside the dessert from his last meal so that he could enjoy it later. That "tough" action helped Clinton win a primary -- and helped cement his reputation as a politician who is cynical even by Washington standards. Nor was there forgiveness, or redemption, or justice, in his support of legislation that has destroyed the ancient right to habeas corpus, often the last chance for prisoners to show that they are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. He swore to support the Constitution, but all he has done is defile it, just as he has defiled his office.

The American people elected this lout and hypocrite twice, even though they knew much about his sordid personal life. I am not sure that decision should be undone just because a fanatic such as Ken Starr has given us details we have no right to know -- or that, if we have the right, we should not, as a matter of discretion, have been told. If Starr and then the House were to come up with credible evidence that Clinton knew about the FBI files the White House kept on prominent Republicans or the politically inspired pillaging of the nonpartisan Travel Office, then I'd be in favor of impeachment. Without such evidence, I'm not sure I'd vote for impeachment merely on the basis of Starr's outrageous, 445-page violation of the norms of human decency -- though I must add that Starr has found sufficient legal grounds if the House is inclined to go along. All I'm certain of is that I loathe both men for good and sufficient reason. Somehow, our political system has spawned the two of them and entrusted great power to each. There are grounds for societal self-examination here.

This case provided some great opportunities to demonstrate good old American backbone and adherence to principle. Linda Tripp should have been indicted for secretly taping her "friend" and confidante; such betrayal is both unlawful and nauseating. Monica Lewinsky's mother, Marcia Lewis, should have refused to testify about her daughter's sex life, and she should have dared Starr and Judge Norma Holloway Johnson to throw her in jail for contempt. Lewinsky herself should have refused to testify and dared Starr to lock her up. (Admittedly a high-risk move, given what Starr did to Susan McDougal.) The Secret Service agents, if they truly believed that testifying would endanger presidential security, should also have refused to do so. A little civil disobedience in the name of liberty and decency would have been refreshing.

It seems to me that the only person who has acted honorably in this whole sordid affair has been James Hamilton, the late Vincent Foster's lawyer, who refused to betray his deceased client and who won the day by a unanimous vote of the Supreme Court. Had he lost the case, he should have burned his notes, refused to testify, and resigned from the bar. Let Starr have then proceeded against him on obstruction-of-justice charges. Would a jury of 12 Americans have been unanimously persuaded to convict? I have my doubts, just as I have my doubts that Lewinsky or her mother would have lost such a confrontation with Starr. The country, as measured by the character of the average citizen, has not yet fallen into such depravity, notwithstanding the depravity of the president or the independent counsel.

This entire depressing episode leaves me happy about just one thing: in both 1992 and 1996 I voted Libertarian. So don't blame me.

David Kendall was right. In its out-of-control, gratuitous "pornographic specificity," the Starr report reads not so much like a legal brief as like a soft-porn novel. This is good stuff -- almost as good as Art Levine's pre-release parody of it in Slate last week, in which he slobbered over Lewinsky's "voluptuous curves thrusting against the tight fabric of a low-cut white dress . . . a come-hither look in her flashing, dark eyes." Starr's $40 million blockbuster leaves so little to the imagination that you have to wonder what's going to happen to the $6 million book deal Lewinsky is rumored to have waiting for her. It's going to be mighty difficult for her to top the lurid descriptions contained in the Report of the Independent Counsel to Congress.

The Starr report has already accomplished many things. It has shown us that Bill Clinton is a certifiably bad person, even if he's not an impeachable president. It has demonstrated that Starr himself, the son of an evangelical Texas preacher, is a sexually repressed bluenose who in the absence of a congressional mandate would probably wind up getting caught peeking into his neighbors' bedroom windows. And it has probably killed off the misbegotten independent-counsel law once and for all. The law comes up for renewal next year, and it's hard to believe that any member of Congress would be irresponsible enough to want to unleash another Ken Starr on the White House. Not when most of the 535 senators and representatives see themselves as potential presidents.

Indeed, Starr's handiwork is so misbegotten and grossly off the point that only the most hard-core of the Clinton crazies seem ready to move ahead with impeachment -- such as the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which intoned on Monday that " `only sex,' as detailed in the Starr report as opposed to some truly private matter, is quite sufficient grounds for removing a president." Or House Judiciary Committee member Bill McCollum (R-Florida), an unctuous moralist who's been making the rounds of the talking-head shows, and who would not look a bit out of place in pantyhose and pumps. Compared to the prissy McCollum, Orrin Hatch sounds like Bluto Blutarsky.

The mainstream media, on the other hand, after eagerly passing along Starr's every leak for the past eight months, feel as used as Madeleine Albright or Erskine Bowles, sent out to front for a man who turned out to be a fraud. The New York Times, which has done so much to legitimize Starr's investigation, is already leading the counterattack. Op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd -- perhaps journalism's preeminent Clinton-basher, along with Michael Kelly of the National Journal and the Washington Post -- was beside herself Sunday at the Starr report's failure to deal with Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, and all the rest of the so-called Clinton scandals. "Kenneth Starr, all these years and all these millions later, has not delivered impeachable offenses. He has delivered a 445-page Harold Robbins novel," she fumed. "These are not grounds for impeachment. These are grounds for divorce." The Times' editorial pages, run by implacable Clinton foe Howell Raines, led with a whimper on Sunday, issuing a bland call for the House to handle Starr's report in a fair and bipartisan manner. (Granted, the matter that truly outrages Raines -- the campaign-finance scandal -- was not the subject of Starr's investigation, and still looms.) Times reporter Michael Winerip, in a lengthy profile of Starr in the Times Magazine on September 6 and in a shorter follow-up piece this past Sunday, made a solid, disturbing case that a more experienced, less zealously religious prosecutor than Starr would never have investigated the Lewinsky affair in the first place.

An unexpected consequence of the Starr report may be that the public changes its view of the media's role in all this. To listen to Clinton's toadies, you'd think the entire story was an invention of the sex-and-sensation-obsessed press. In fact, this story has been Starr-driven, not media-driven. Yes, there have been journalistic excesses, although the examples that were supposedly the most telling -- such as the semen-stained dress and the Secret Service agents who knew Clinton and Lewinsky were alone -- turned out to be true after all. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Boston Globe's Mark Jurkowitz argued against the media's reporting anything as salacious and bizarre as what might be called the cigar rumor. Yet even that turned out to be based on information coming out of Starr's office, as we all now know. And though Yasir Arafat somehow managed to disappear from this particular anecdote as it made its way from the Drudge Report to the Starr report, Starr compensated with something even better: the president's popping the stogy in his mouth and proclaiming, "It tastes good."

And if the public were as disgusted with the media's pushing this story as the conventional wisdom would have it, then why -- according to a piece in Monday's Wall Street Journal -- did the release of the Starr report do for the Internet what the Gulf War did for CNN, with hundreds of thousands of people downloading the report almost as soon as it became available? Clinton's defenders, as well as those who are just plain horrified by sex, were reduced to criticizing Congress for releasing the report before the president's lawyers could draft a response (never mind that the public paid $40 million for it) and, even more ludicrous, criticizing the Globe and other newspapers for publishing it in its full, unexpurgated glory. If reprinting such an important official document is now held up as evidence of "media excess," then the term has lost all meaning.

Indeed, it's pretty obvious that Starr fell well short of his goal of proving that Clinton had committed impeachable offenses. By Monday, a consensus was already emerging among the media and political elite -- supported by insta-polls conducted over the weekend -- that Clinton's sexual escapades, even though they were compounded by lying under oath and subornation of perjury, fell well short of the "high crimes and misdemeanors" required for impeachment. The buzz this week is of some alternative form of punishment, with Clinton's detractors pushing for resignation and his supporters (or at least those who remain neutral toward him) talking about a congressional censure. Even those who harshly criticized Clinton were unstinting in their condemnation of Starr's peephole-gazing. The Washington Post's William Raspberry put it this way on Monday: "We may feel strongly that the questions about sex between consenting adults should never have been asked. But when the sex is owned up to, and when it turns out (in Starr's allegation, at least) to be particularly gross, we can't pretend it's not there."

It's not entirely Starr's fault that the Lewinsky affair is no longer seen as grounds for impeachment. The earth keeps moving beneath him. Shortly after the story broke last January 21, the conventional wisdom was that presidential perjury and subornation of perjury would be more than adequate grounds for removal from office. The Starr report contains reams of evidence that Clinton lied under oath at his deposition in the Paula Jones case, and that he exerted heavy pressure on Lewinsky and others to do the same. Starr even anticipates the now-prevailing attitude that Clinton's false testimony in a suit that was later dismissed doesn't count for diddly: he points out that the suit was ordered to move forward by no less than the Supreme Court, and that the questions Clinton was asked about workplace womanizing are routine in sexual-harassment cases. But most observers are giving Clinton a pass.

The 60 percent nation

by Mark Zanger

The good news is that the constitutional crisis has already passed. The bad news is that the crisis wasn't about the Independent Counsel Act, the separation of powers, or what constitutes "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Rather, the constitutional crisis of 1998 was about how decisions will be made in our vast government. The resolution is that neither the president, nor Congress, nor the Supreme Court has the final say anymore. A new and unwritten constitutional amendment holds that no decision will be made until it is supported by 60 percent of voters polled (with a 5 percent margin of error).

The new amendment was ratified by the president in his August 17 speech, in which he surprised observers by failing to truly apologize. He had in the past apologized for such things as slavery, so why not apologize for a more modest, albeit individual, sin such as whatever it was he admitted he did wrong? The answer, my friend, was showing in the polls. The president admitted only as much as he needed to, given his 60 percent approval rating.

The Office of the Special Prosecutor, too, tacitly ratified the unwritten amendment of 1998 with its decision to publish basically everything Monica Lewinsky ever said. This may be contrary to prosecutorial practice, but it was absolutely the most poll-popular act of the year. Who will complain about Congress subsidizing a dirty book with a $40 million advance if we all get to read it for the price of a morning newspaper? Who needs the National Endowment for the Arts when several evenings' worth of racy entertainment go thump right on the front porch?

The third and most crucial ratification vote was cast by Congress, in releasing the Starr report to the public before any members had read it themselves. Now Congress is waiting for feedback from 60 percent of those polled before indicating its next move.

It is widely held that our political system changed crucially when the congressional Army-McCarthy hearings were broadcast on live television in 1954, and the rant had to yield to the sound bite. Sidney Blumenthal's brilliant 1980 book, The Permanent Campaign, identified the 1976 presidential campaign as another such moment. In pollster Pat Caddell's ongoing relationship with Jimmy Carter, Blumenthal -- now prominent in Starr's cast of characters -- saw the passing of the party system and the political bosses, and the rise of a new power elite of political consultants. He argued that consultants were more lasting and influential than elected leaders, and that the permanent campaign "remakes government into an instrument designed to sustain an elected official's public popularity."

Indeed, what's happening in 1998 with tracking polls completes what began 45 years ago with live television and 20 years ago with the first desktop computers. Today's networked computers and 24/7 phone banks exponentially speed up the opinion loops over what television and direct mail can accomplish. The consultant/pollster can spawn the spin, stage the event, fire off the sound bites and ads, monitor the evening news, and harvest the poll-predicted results within one day. Probably some of this year's elections will be won by consultants who work that cycle two or three times in a day.

Just think of the democratic control this could mean -- statistically predicted majorities participating in daily elections, obviating the need for most people ever to enter a voting booth. The American people would adjust, and the answers given to pollsters would grow more thoughtful once it became generally realized that being called at home during dinner is actually one's only moment of influence on history.

But what will happen as pollsters become the new Fourth Estate, more powerful and independent than any news medium has ever been? Party bosses had to share some of the material rewards of power with the voters. Newspaper and television reporters have to satisfy the readers and viewers. Yet pollster/consultants are responsible only to those who pay them. And the more they provide the keys to gaining and holding power, the more they will be independent even of them.

The pollsters already have the wherewithal to slant the questions, filter the results, and sell control over public opinion to the highest or most congenial bidder.

So who will win? Judge Starr, the most popular entertainment figure of the year, outstripping Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark McGwire, and all of Oprah's book-club selections combined? Or President Clinton, who has been winning popularity contests since the fourth grade? In the end, it is the system that will be vindicated -- and then, perhaps, we will all notice that the system has changed.

Next, the pundits opined that if Clinton perjured himself at his grand-jury hearing on August 17, well, that would surely be grounds for impeachment. Starr argues that Clinton did perjure himself before the grand jury, although much of his argument revolves around Clinton's otherworldly definition of sex. But even granted the technical nature of Clinton's possible perjury, the degree to which elite opinion has shifted in just the past month is striking. In a particularly pungent passage, Starr notes the irony of Clinton's contending that he didn't have to admit to sex with Lewinsky because oral sex doesn't count -- even though the entire Jones case was based on Jones's contention that Clinton had propositioned her for precisely that. In other words, Clinton would have us believe that blowjobs weren't relevant in a case about blowjobs.

Starr's undoing was that he focused exclusively on Clinton and Lewinsky's sexual affair, forgetting about the more important issues that affair was supposed to illustrate. The salacious details contained in the Starr report are truly amazing. We learn that Clinton wasn't attracted to Kathleen Willey because she has small breasts. We learn that Lewinsky may have missed out on her big chance for presidential cunnilingus because she had her period on the one occasion when Clinton offered to go down on her. We learn that Clinton alternately threatened and cajoled Lewinsky like a 17-year-old football star who's been boinking a 14-year-old cheerleader and will do anything he can to shut her up so that his prom-queen girlfriend won't find out.

But the president would be in far deeper trouble if Starr had discovered parallels between Clinton pal Vernon Jordan's employment efforts on Lewinsky's behalf and the earlier financial help Jordan gave Whitewater felon Webster Hubbell. That coincided with Hubbell's decision to stop cooperating with Starr's office. The Lewinsky affair was supposed to be the key to understanding how Hubbell and other Clinton associates may have been paid off in return for their silence. Instead, the Hubbell matter is simply stuck into the report, in one paragraph, almost as an afterthought.

Likewise, the report barely mentions the highly legalistic "talking points" Lewinsky gave to Linda Tripp. That document purported to instruct Tripp on how to lie under oath if asked about an alleged presidential groping incident involving the underendowed Willey. Starr appears to accept Lewinsky's contention that she wrote them up herself, which seems nonsensical given footnoted evidence that Lewinsky can barely spell or write a syntactically correct sentence. Maybe if Starr had pressed her harder on that point rather than on how many times Clinton had "touched her bare breasts with his hands and his mouth," to quote from an oft-recurring passage, he would have learned something truly significant.

The problem now is that Starr, despite failing to prove impeachable offenses, has nevertheless destroyed Clinton's reputation. The cleanest solution -- resignation -- isn't in sight for a variety of reasons. In a commentary on National Public Radio last Thursday, Daniel Schorr noted that Clinton would probably be indicted by Starr's grand jury the moment he stepped down unless the new president, Al Gore, were to pardon him. And Gore, mindful of what happened to Gerald Ford after he pardoned Richard Nixon, wouldn't do that. Then, too, unlike a parliamentary democracy, the US system does not provide for an honorable resignation. If Clinton were to quit, he would be disgraced, his modestly progressive record all but forgotten.

The most likely outcome: censure, followed by two years of paralysis. It is something that should fill every liberal with dread. In calling for Clinton's resignation in the Globe on Sunday, American Prospect coeditor Robert Kuttner wrote: "The remainder of his presidency will be a slow bleed. His pathetic weakness will bring out all his worst tendencies to pander to his political enemies, to ingratiate himself with the Republican right."

Four years and $40 million for this? Ken Starr did his job -- thoroughly and badly. We didn't need to know this stuff. Now that we do, we can hardly ignore it. But this should never happen again.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy@phx.com.

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