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Nearly a Coup


When Monica Lewinsky went before Kenneth Starr’s grand jury in August 1998, the prosecutors did not ask her an obvious, important question: Had President Clinton urged or induced her to lie about their relationship? The prosecutors knew, because they had interviewed her for days, that if asked she would answer no—and they did not want on the record an answer inconsistent with their planned charges that the President had obstructed justice.

But when the prosecutors finished their examination of Lewinsky, a grand juror asked her whether she wanted to add anything. Yes, she said: “I would just like to say that no one ever asked me to lie, and I was never promised a job for my silence.” In the hundreds of pages he sent to the House of Representatives urging impeachment of the President, Starr did not find room to mention that statement.

It seems long ago and far away now, the impeachment crusade, though it is little more than a year since the Senate ended it. But these two books tell us why we should not forget. Kenneth Starr’s attempt to drive Clinton from office was the climax of years of effort by others to destroy him, not through ordinary political means but by dubious legal action and tales of wrongdoing larded with fantastic lies. People on the political right set out to unseat a president, and they almost succeeded. In his folly, Clinton played into their hands. But that does not alter the fact that this country came close to a coup d’état.

Was it, then, as Hillary Clinton said, a “vast right-wing conspiracy”? Not as conspiracy is defined in law, Jeffrey Toobin says, because the anti-Clinton efforts were not centrally coordinated. But in a broader sense, he concludes, Mrs. Clinton’s charge has

the unmistakable ring of truth. The Paula Jones and Whitewater investigations existed only because of the efforts of Clinton’s right-wing political enemies. People who hated the Clintons initiated these projects and sustained them through many years.

It is a sprawling story, with numberless characters, plots, and subplots. The two books, though they overlap, concentrate on different aspects. Joe Conason, editor-at-large at The New York Observer, and Gene Lyons, a columnist for The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, dig into the origins of it all among the Clinton-haters in Arkansas and elsewhere. Toobin, a former federal prosecutor who is now a staff writer for The New Yorker, devotes himself to the unfolding of the two legal processes, Paula Jones’s civil suit against the President and Starr’s criminal investigations from Whitewater through Monica and impeachment. (Disclosure: Toobin was a student of mine at the Harvard Law School years ago.)

A Vast Conspiracy is a superb work of factual and legal analysis. Toobin brings clarity to complicated issues without sacrificing accuracy. He knows how to tell a story; few novels are as gripping. His judgments, legal and political, are acute.

The Conason-Lyons book told me much that I did not know about how non-events were promoted into supposed scandals by those determined to do in Bill Clinton. It is sometimes hard to follow, no doubt in part because the netherworld it explores is murky but also because the authors do not have Toobin’s talent for clarifying the obscure. Still, it is a necessary text for anyone interested in how the interwoven interests of the Clinton-haters, politicians, and the press led to impeachment.


Larry Nichols worked briefly for the state of Arkansas in 1988. Governor Clinton fired him after the Associated Press reported that Nichols had made 642 telephone calls from his state office to leaders and supporters of the Nicaraguan contras. He filed a $3 million libel suit against the governor, which got nowhere. During the 1992 presidential campaign he sold a story to The Star, the supermarket tabloid, charging Clinton with sexual straying. In 1994 he starred in an anti-Clinton video called Circle of Power, in which he told of “countless people who mysteriously died” after opposing Clinton. The video was distributed by the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Alliance. It was followed by The Clinton Chronicles, a video that accused the President of having run drugs through an airport in Mena, Arkansas, and worse. Falwell played it and promoted it on his television program. Evangelical churches showed it during services. A right-wing organization that distributed it, Citizens for Honest Government, claimed sales of 150,000 at $40 a throw. Conason and Lyons describe how The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a staunchly Republican paper, examined the allegations in the video and found them to be absurd fabrications.

Jim Johnson, an arch-segregationist who founded the White Citizens Council in Arkansas, despised Clinton because Clinton had opposed him as a racist when Johnson ran for governor. Johnson counseled David Hale, the felon who was Clinton’s main accuser in Whitewater. He helped Floyd Brown, the man who promoted the Willie Horton television ad in the 1988 presidential campaign, when Brown went to Arkansas in 1992 to find dirt for a paperback, Slick Willie: Why America Cannot Trust Bill Clinton.

As one reads about the efforts of these and other low-life characters to find the silver bullet that would eliminate Clinton, it is tempting to dismiss them as clowns. But they never stopped plotting, and they found something that gave them power: rich sponsors.

Richard Mellon Scaife gave millions to The American Spectator, a far-right journal, for what it called its Arkansas Project, an effort to find wrongdoing in President Clinton’s past. Conason and Lyons reckon that Scaife’s tax-exempt foundations paid more than $1 million to men who investigated the Mena airport tale and tried to prove that there was dirty work in the suicide of Vincent Foster.

Peter W. Smith, a Chicago investment banker, spent at least $40,000 in 1992 trying to prove, and promote, a story that Clinton had fathered a child by a black prostitute. In that connection, fatefully, he met Cliff Jackson.

Jackson ranks as the number one Clinton-hater. The two had once been friends, or seemed to be. They were at Oxford at the same time: country boys from Arkansas. Afterward they corresponded; Clinton wrote Jackson about his efforts to escape the Vietnam draft. Then, as Clinton rose in politics, Jackson turned bitterly against him. “Jackson was clearly obsessed,” Toobin says—“and his resentments often involved the subject of sex.”

In 1992 Jackson went to New Hampshire to campaign against Clinton in the primary. No one paid any attention. But when he had the idea of serving as a press source for anti-Clinton stories, he scored. Saying he had spent “sleepless nights” before doing so, he told reporters about Clinton and the draft.

In 1993 state troopers who had guarded Governor Clinton wanted to do a book charging him with debauchery. Jackson represented them. (One of the troopers, Ronnie Anderson, swore in an affidavit that at that early date Jackson told them he “wanted to see President Clinton impeached” and would “do anything to bring him down.”) Jackson asked Peter Smith to recommend a writer for the troopers’ book. Smith suggested David Brock, who had delighted the right with a book savaging Anita Hill. Smith paid Brock $5,000 for expenses as he began investigating the troopers’ story. Afterward Smith paid the troopers thousands of dollars: “on humanitarian grounds,” he explained.

The result was not a book but Brock’s Troopergate article for The American Spectator, entitled “His Cheatin’ Heart.” Brock later regretted writing it, and published an apology to the President. But the article showed no signs of a sensitive conscience. Its object was humiliation. Brock quoted the troopers on sexual behavior by Governor and Mrs. Clinton. Arkansas reporters investigated some of the claimed incidents and found that they could not have happened. For example, nothing could be seen on a TV monitor where the troopers said they had seen sex. The national press never caught up with the lies.

The significance of Brock’s article was, of course, in its mention of “Paula” as a woman with whom Governor Clinton had had a sexual encounter. Paula Jones called a Little Rock lawyer who in turn called Cliff Jackson. On February 11, 1994, Jackson produced Jones along with his troopers at a press conference in Washington. The setting was the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. The press conference went badly, but immediately afterward Jackson got Jones together with a Washington Post reporter he knew, Michael Isikoff.

Toobin says that Isikoff “helped to invent an entire new field in American journalism—sexual investigative reporting.” When A Vast Conspiracy was published, Isikoff denounced what was said about him. I agree with Toobin. In any event, Isikoff had the inside track on the Paula Jones story and rode it for all it was worth.

If Paula Jones sued the President originally to get redress for her wounded sensibilities, as she said, her motive changed. Her own lawyers, Gilbert Davis and Joseph Cammarata, told her so when she turned down a settlement they negotiated with the President’s lawyers in 1997. They wrote her: “Your focus has changed from proving you are a good person to proving Clinton is a bad person. That was never your objective in filing suit.” By then Jones had a right-wing adviser, Susan Carpenter-McMillan, who was talking about a book with a big advance. Davis and Cammarata were replaced by a Texas conservative, Donovan Campbell Jr., who had made his name defending the state’s anti-sodomy law. Campbell began by serving this interrogatory, among others, on the President:

Please state the name, address and telephone number of each and every individual (other than Hillary Rodham Clinton) with whom you had sexual relations when you held any of the following positions: a. Attorney General of the State of Arkansas; b. Governor of the State of Arkansas; c. President of the United States.

Clinton declined to answer, saying—accurately—that the question was designed “solely to harass, embarrass and humiliate the President.” But Campbell hired private investigators to look into all the Clinton womanizing rumors, and he went on until the President had to answer under oath at his deposition. The Jones lawsuit had become an instrument of the anti-Clinton forces.

Behind the scenes Paula Jones had other counsel: the elves, as they half-jokingly called themselves. Early on, Cliff Jackson asked Peter W. Smith, the Chicago investment banker, to find a lawyer for Jones. Smith found Richard Porter, who had just joined the firm of Kirkland & Ellis after working on the staff of Vice President Dan Quayle. Porter in turn called Jerome Marcus of Philadelphia, who had been a classmate at the University of Chicago Law School. They later recruited George T. Conway 3d of New York.

All the elves helped with the Jones lawsuit on condition that their role remain secret. They were not experts in the subject matter of the case, sexual harassment. Their agenda, Toobin says, was “to damage Bill Clinton’s presidency.” They “used this lawsuit like a kind of after-the-fact election, to use briefs, subpoenas, and interrogations to undo in secret what the voters had done.” Marcus made his feelings public, though not the role he and his fellow elves had played, when he wrote a commentary for the Washington Times in December 1998. Urging the impeachment of President Clinton, he said: “The cancer is deadly. It, and its cause, must be removed.” He identified himself as “a lawyer in Philadelphia.”

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