Starr Lite

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July/August 2000

Starr Lite

By Stephen Pomper

Truth At Any Cost: Ken Starr and the Unmaking of Bill Clinton

By Susan Schmidt & Michael Weisskopf
Harper Collins

Click on the title to buy the book
Most everybody took sides on Monicagate, and if you want to know where Susan Schmidt and Michael Weisskopf came out just look in the index of Truth at Any Cost.

Under "Clinton, William Jefferson" we've got such reference points as "'bimbo eruptions' investigators, and," "golf score shaving," "manipulative personality of," and, of course, "philandering and sexual advances to women, history of." For Ken Starr, typical examples include "reverence for the law," "perfectionism," and--just in case Clinton's entry wasn't comprehensive--"knowledge of Clinton's philandering while Governor of Arkansas."

But hey--there's nothing wrong with a book that looks at things from Ken Starr's perspective. After all, Jeffrey Toobin took Bill Clinton's side in A Vast Conspiracy, and Gene Lyons and Joe Conason rose even more passionately to his defense in The Hunting of the President. There's a lot that could be learned from a book that tilts the other way--and particularly from a book by two seasoned reporters who both covered Monicagate as it unfolded (Schmidt for The Washington Post and Weisskopf for Time). Add to that the remarkable access that Schmidt and Weisskopf had to Starr and 25 of his investigators--who sat for more than 200 hours of interviews--and you have the potential for a very revealing book.

And sure enough there is some revealing information here. There's new color on the inner workings of the Starr team--it turns out they're somewhat less Neanderthalish than the thugs and nincompoops portrayed in less sympathetic treatments. And at the very end there's an affecting portrait of Starr weeping into his hands as he draws a parallel between his own lonely battle and his father's losing fight against cancer. Starr knows his failings and suffers for them, which is part of what makes him so appealing to the authors. He was an inexperienced prosecutor, yes, and public relations bumbler, sure--but he was also a good man trying to do the right thing.

Well, maybe. Unfortunately, Truth at Any Cost doesn't give us all that's required to make that case. It buries the reader in a series of detail-driven sketches apparently intended to show how a group of basically decent guys (they were mostly guys) were driven bananas by a relentless delay and smear campaign orchestrated out of the White House. But having done what it can in that department, the book tends to punt on the big questions that tarnish the prosecutors' reputations.

The biggest question is how the prosecutors ended up in cahoots with Linda Tripp. By now it's no secret that Tripp and right-wing literary agent Lucianne Goldberg were playing the prosecutors in order to work up material for a book. They set up the president by telling the Paula Jones lawyers about his affair with Lewinsky so they could question him about it in his deposition. Then they alerted Starr's people so they could monitor Clinton while he lied under oath--which he obligingly did. If Starr had known about all of these machinations he should have mentioned the possibility that he was in fact being used when he first went to the Justice Department to request jurisdiction over the Lewinsky affair. But, the authors say, he just didn't know of any connection between Tripp and Jones' people.

Why on earth not? It's not as if Tripp dropped out of the sky. Starr's man Paul Rosenzweig learned about her from a law school friend named Jerome Marcus who had previously worked on a brief urging the Supreme Court to let Paula Jones sue the president. Marcus' involvement with the Supreme Court brief on behalf of Jones should have been a clue that he was more than casually interested in Clinton's fate: Private sector lawyers, being busy people, are not the most likely of Supreme Court amici unless they have an ax to grind. Furthermore, Marcus tipped off Rosenzweig at a midweek dinner in Philadelphia where two other out-of-town lawyers also just happened to show up. It has since emerged that all of Rosenzweig's dinner partners were volunteering their time and services to the Paula Jones legal team. But this book tells us Rosenzweig had no idea they were working for Jones at the time.

It sounds so incredibly much like a setup you can't help but wonder how Rosenzweig could have avoided suspecting that something was up. Or why he didn't ask any questions that would have helped him figure out what was going on. Or why nobody else on Starr's staff did a little legwork to find out where this great lead came from. Schmidt and Weisskopf take this deplorable lack of curiosity at face value and so the issue--which is really at the heart of the question of whether Starr or any of his people were part of a larger effort to bring down the President--comes and goes with only the most casual inspection.

The other issue that Schmidt and Weisskopf give less than insightful treatment is Starr's relationship with the press. To be sure, the authors offer us an earful about Starr's infamous interview with Steve Brill for the maiden issue of Brill's Content. In his write-up of that interview, Brill argued that Starr's office was using leaks--including illegal leaks of grand jury testimony--in order to turn journalists into "a cheering section" for "a prosecutor in search of a crime." He also suggested that Starr had admitted to these leaks in their interview. As Schmidt and Weisskopf amply report, Starr later denied this and argued that his words had been manipulated. Several journalists quoted in Brill's story--including Schmidt--also denied statements that Brill attributed to them.

But that's old news. What would be interesting to know is: What was leaked, by whom, and why? Schmidt, whose leading coverage of the Monica story reflected a strong working relationship with Starr's office, would seem to be a good source on this question, but the book dodges it. We learn only that "Starr left press contacts to his aides" and "couldn't monitor every conversation they had with reporters to know whether they leaked grand jury material."

Oh well, opportunity lost. Schmidt's colleague, Peter Baker, has his own Monicagate book coming out this fall. Maybe we'll get some of the answers then.

Stephen Pomperis an editor of The Washington Monthly. You can email him byclicking hereor read his other articles byclicking here

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