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,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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 email@example.com.