At 12:45 PM last January 16, Monica Lewinsky waited in the food court of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Crystal City, Virginia, for her friend and Pentagon colleague Linda Tripp. “She was late,” a distraught Lewinsky later testified to a federal grand jury. “I saw her come down the escalator. And as I—as I walked toward her, she kind of motioned behind her and Agent [redacted] and Agent [redacted] presented themselves to me and—“
A juror: “Do you want to take a minute?”
Lewinsky: “And flashed their badges at me. They told me that I was under some kind of investigation, something [that] had to do with the Paula Jones case.” Lewinsky told the FBI she would not speak to them without a lawyer. The agents said her lawyer could not help her. In her grand jury testimony, she began to cry and then continued her tale: The agents led her to a room in the hotel and one of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s deputies, Michael Emmick, invoked the name of Attorney General Janet Reno as authorizing his investigation. Emmick and the two FBI agents threatened her with prison.
“They told me…they knew that I had signed a false affidavit,” Lewinsky told the jurors, “that…they had me on tape saying I had committed perjury,…that I could go to jail for twenty-seven years, they were going to charge me with perjury and obstruction of justice and subornation of perjury and witness tampering and something else.” Although Lewinsky was free to go, she feared she would be arrested if she tried to leave the room. When she asked to call her mother, Marcia Lewis, another of Starr’s deputies, Jackie Bennett, said, “You’re twenty-four, you’re smart, you’re old enough, you don’t need to call your mommy.”
“And so then they told me I should know that they were planning to prosecute my mom for the things that I had said that she had done,” Lewinsky told the jurors, and she began to weep again. In all, Starr’s deputies and FBI agents kept Lewinsky in the hotel room, with breaks for meals and, incongruously, a window-shopping tour, for eleven hours, trying to recruit her to wear a recording device and make an immunity deal without the advice of a lawyer.
If the Starr group’s behavior does not rise to Gestapo tactics, it recalls that rascally police detachment on the island of Grenada that, until it changed its name to Volunteers for the Defense of Fundamental Human Liberties, was called the Night Ambush Squad. It is hard to believe that Starr thought he had a serious criminal case against Lewinsky, who had been carrying on an illicit sexual affair with President Clinton from November 1995 until March 1997. Rather, Starr was, by Lewinsky’s account, terrorizing her so that he could bring perjury and obstruction of justice charges against Clinton for concealing their sexual relationship from the lawyers representing Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against him.
Lewinsky’s harrowing story of how she was jumped in the Ritz-Carlton comes to us thanks to the courage of the anonymous federal grand jurors—many of them middle-aged black women, according to witnesses—who have listened to Starr’s most recent effort to bring down President Clinton for concealing a series of sexual trysts with Lewinsky. This most serious threat to the President is far afield from Starr’s original inquiry, Whitewater, and it poses a far greater threat to the President than Whitewater ever did. But while press coverage over the past nine months has concentrated on the President’s misdeeds, the most recent documents released by Starr and the Congress unveil his intrusive investigative techniques, his zeal, and his single-minded pursuit of the President at all costs. Public reaction to Starr’s conduct, including the airing of Clinton’s videotaped grand jury interrogation by Starr’s prosecutors, has to some extent turned the tide in favor of the President. As soon as the videotape was broadcast, his poll ratings rose by six to eight points.
According to the transcript contained in Part 1 of the separately published appendix to his 454-page report to Congress, even the grand jurors had misgivings about Starr’s techniques. One of the jurors initiated the inquiry into the January 16 confrontation of Lewinsky: “I guess the other thing that we wanted to ask you a little bit about is when you were first approached by Mr. Emmick and his colleagues at the OIC [Office of the Independent Counsel].” Emmick tried to deflect this line of questioning. There were many hours of activity, he said. A juror asked when Lewinsky first learned that Linda Tripp had been secretly recording their conversations. Emmick again tried to halt the proceedings. “This was a long day,” he said. But the jurors rebelled.
A juror: We want to know about that day.
A juror: That day.
A juror: The first question.
A juror: Yes.
A juror: We really want to know about that day.
Mr. Emmick: All right.
And with that, the tables turned. Starr joins Lewinsky and Clinton on the hot seat. Whereas Starr’s Referral to the House of Representatives is the equivalent of an indictment—accusatory, one-sided, damning—the appendix to his report is far more ambiguous and perhaps more damaging to Starr than to the President. The appendix poses the question: Which is more outrageous to us—Clinton’s sexual relationship with a twenty-one-year-old intern or Starr’s use of the law to hound an elected President from office?
At 3,000-odd pages, the appendix is the published version of a couple of shoeboxes full of old letters, grand jury testimony, telephone records, song lyrics, deposition transcripts, newspaper clippings, presidential schedules, photographs, and handwritten notes, all jumbled together and often repeated three or four times. Yet within this assemblage of miscellany there are moments of the greatest drama, majestic conflict, base treachery, and romantic love, and of the seamiest pornography.
Starr put his best face forward in his Referral; in the appendix you go backstage to see his bullying tactics, his fixation on trivialities like President Clinton’s neckties, his interrogators’ obsession with sexual details, his legal arguments that White House attorneys and Secret Service agents have no privilege against testifying before his grand jury, and that perjury, even in an affidavit in a dismissed civil suit, is punishable by prison or, in this case, impeachment. In the appendix, too, we see that Lewinsky told the prosecutors that the President never asked her to lie, an assertion that Starr famously fudged by inserting the word “explicitly” when he cited her testimony in his Referral. And in the appendix we find out what happened to Starr’s suspicions that the White House may have suborned perjury by preparing “talking points” for Linda Tripp: Lewinsky says she wrote them herself. If this is true, hundreds of hours of TV speculation have been for nothing.
In his legal briefs, courtroom arguments, and exchanges of letters with opposing lawyers, Starr makes it clear that he plays under no known rules. First, he effectively answers to no one. Theoretically, the President or the Attorney General can fire him; politically, they cannot. He is not bound by federal guidelines on conflict of interest because he is an outside employee and therefore can represent, say, tobacco and defense companies in their disputes with the federal government. He is not barred from using hearsay testimony or obliged to follow federal rules of evidence because he is gathering evidence for the Congress, which also needs not follow standard rules of evidence.
In approaching Lewinsky, he did not follow, and apparently does not feel bound by, the American Bar Association rules against directly approaching someone who is known to have an attorney; Starr’s argument is that he feared Lewinsky’s original lawyer, Francis Carter, might have informed Presidential crony Vernon Jordan about his investigation. Nor does Starr feel bound by the federal rules of grand jury secrecy because, as he explained to Steven Brill of the magazine Brill’s Content, he believes he has a right to correct misinformation about his investigation. He can further claim that it was the Congress, not he, that dumped the transcripts of his grand jury hearings and depositions onto the public record in violation of the usual rules about grand jury secrecy. Given this disregard of the rules that most of us, especially non-lawyers like myself, believe protect us from arbitrary government, it is chilling that Starr, in his courtroom presentations against the President, is formally known as “the United States.”
It is equally chilling to see Lewinsky stripped naked in these pages. Starr and his deputies probed literally into the deepest recesses of her mind and body. She says in testimony that Clinton inserted a cigar into her vagina. She says she loved him. We know that she wore thong bikini panties to attract the President, that she allowed him to lift her breasts out of her brassiere and kiss them. We know the half-kneeling position she was in when she said Clinton stained her dress with his semen. We can read her e-mail, recounting her casual sexual conquests and her worries about her weight.
Her second attorney, the much-mocked William Ginsburg, fought with Starr over what he called “an egregious invasion of her right to privacy and the requirement that she expose to you and to everyone working with you the most personal details of everything and anything that she did in a consensual sexual act.” But Lewinsky dropped Ginsburg, and her final set of attorneys, Plato Cacheris and Jacob Stein, sat in utter silence, according to the transcripts, as Starr’s lawyers led her through a series of sexual questions that are as merciless and detailed as a German pornographic film, photographed at f:64 so that each pubic hair is in vivid focus.
Lewinsky’s intimate secrets were made public, the Republican leaders said piously, so that American citizens could make up their minds about impeaching the president. When polls showed that citizens were overwhelmingly opposed to impeachment, the Republican leaders changed tack and just as piously said that as statesmen they are obliged not to follow opinion polls. They have given us more information than we wanted so that we can form an opinion they will ignore.
Given the amount of sexual detail Starr furnished the Congress, it is amusing to hear Clinton’s opponents solemnly insist that this case is not about sex but about perjury. Starr cites several precedents to show that perjury is a criminal offense even if committed in connection with a civil suit like Paula Jones’s sexual harassment complaint against Clinton. Failure to recall events can be perjury, he says. Inconsistent statements can be perjury. He is not bound, he says, by the usual guideline against setting perjury traps, i.e., not to put a target under oath in the hope that he will commit perjury. Quoting from previous decisions, Starr argues,
When testimony is elicited before a grand jury that is “attempting to obtain useful information in furtherance of its investigation” or “conducting a legitimate investigation into crimes which had in fact taken place within its jurisdiction,” the perjury-trap defense cannot succeed.
In his referral to the House, Starr accuses Clinton of committing perjury both in his deposition in the Paula Jones case and in his grand jury testimony, the transcript of which is in this appendix.
All the supposed perjury centers on Clinton’s refusal to admit that he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky. He denied it outright in the Jones deposition, but was somewhat more forthcoming before the grand jury, when he confessed to an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky. Here is a truncated sample of Clinton’s grand jury testimony that Starr regards as perjury:
Q: Mr. President, if there is a semen stain belonging to you on a dress of Ms. Lewinsky’s, how would you explain that?
A: Well, Mr. Bittman… That’s a question you already know the answer to. Not if, but you know whether….
Q: Is it possible or impossible that your semen is on a dress belonging to Ms. Lewinsky?
A: I have nothing to add to my statement about it, sir…. You know what the facts are. There’s no point in a hypothetical.
To the millions of Americans who watched this interrogation when it was aired on September 20, it was clear that Clinton acknowledged a sexual relationship without spelling out the physiological details. Starr interprets this reticence as perjury, worthy of impeachment.
With the release of his grand jury testimony, Clinton’s own behavior becomes a little clearer. The public has been watching this story out of order, like seeing the end of a continuous-performance movie before the beginning. Clinton left his four-hour inquisition last August 17 furious at Starr and went on television with a barely apologetic admission of his affair with Lewinsky and an angry attack on Starr. The speech was widely viewed as a disaster. Now, a month later, we see the intrusive questions, the repetitive badgering that made Clinton angry. To a younger generation watching his grand jury testimony, hearing the unseen prosecutors pose their questions, Clinton looked like the beleaguered Charlie Brown in one of his Peanuts cartoon specials, shrinking at his desk as an offstage, incomprehensible teacher’s voice drones remorselessly and accusingly.
In this inquisitorial drama, many anomalies in this case are lost from view. Starr has focused on perjury—threatening Lewinsky with twenty-seven years in prison, plus jail for her mother, and Clinton with impeachment—because after a four-year investigation and the expenditure of more than $40 million, he had nothing else. He could find no impeachable offenses in the Whitewater land deal that was his original mandate, or the mysterious FBI files in the White House, or the 1993 firings of staff in the White House travel office.
It is notable that in their first crack at Clinton in four years, none of Starr’s deputies asked—not even out of intellectual curiosity—about Whitewater, the FBI files, or the travel office. They were fixated on perjury. Let us note that Starr’s vehicle for the threats both to Lewinsky and to Clinton was the Paula Jones lawsuit, which was dismissed by federal judge Susan Webber Wright last April 1. Starr rejects the defense that Clinton’s alleged perjury was not material to the Jones case and also the defense that the Jones case was dismissed. Perjury is perjury, he says. Yet the Paula Jones case is itself based on a perjury: Jones claimed, under oath and subject to the laws on perjury, that because she denied then-Governor Clinton’s sexual advances in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991 she received neither raises nor promotions in her Arkansas state job. Payroll records immediately proved this false; in fact she received both raises and two promotions. Her claim for damages is based on a lie. No FBI agents have flashed their badges at her and taken her to a hotel room. She does not face twenty-seven years in prison.
On October 2, the House released 4,610 more pages of material, bound in three fat volumes, containing chiefly the grand jury testimony of White House staff and Secret Service agents, transcripts of Lewinsky’s telephone conversations with Tripp, and interviews with other witnesses. This evidence is most noteworthy for its sheer bulk, embodying the thousands of hours of investigative work, at a cost of $4 million, that Starr has devoted toward proving that the President lied in Paula Jones’s civil lawsuit. The effort seems wildly disproportionate to the offense, but makes sense if Starr’s goal was, in advance, to bring down the President at all costs.
Certainly no cost was spared. In addition to assembling the much publicized Tripp-Lewinsky transcripts, Starr sent investigators on such sidetracks as interviewing David Grobaine, owner of the Briarwood Bookstore in Annapolis, Maryland, in an unsuccessful attempt to determine whether a brown-haired woman who purchased an 1898 book entitled The Presidents of the United States might have been Lewinsky. One of Lewinsky’s college classmates, Catherine Davis, was located in Japan and interviewed in Washington about e-mail in which Lewinsky discussed her sexual relationship with the President. Starr’s lawyers devoted much of their grand jury examination of White House aide Sidney Blumenthal to their suspicion that he had helped to spread critical newspaper stories about Starr’s lawyers, an action they apparently regarded as intimidation and obstruction of justice, and that therefore justified sending Blumenthal a subpoena. Hilariously, these transcripts, in volumes that reveal every intimate detail about Clinton and Lewinsky, black out the names of the two Starr lawyers, Michael Emmick and Bruce Udoff, who were the subjects of the critical articles.
For all its voluminous content, Starr’s Referral is essentially his side of the story, garnished with letters from Clinton’s lawyers as they tried to shield Clinton from the investigation. There is no explanation in these two volumes for some of the major mysteries of this case. When his agents confronted Lewinsky on January 16, for example, they knew she had signed a false affidavit; the authorized Newsweek account of February 2, based on interviews with Starr’s deputies, said that the government in fact had the actual affidavit. But how? It had been filed only that day in Little Rock, Arkansas, under seal by order of Judge Wright. How did Starr obtain it so instantly that he could confront Lewinsky and threaten her with perjury? One possible answer is that Jones’s lawyers passed it to him; Starr adamantly denies any collusion, direct or indirect, with the Jones lawyers. But this is worth further scrutiny.
A similar mystery is Linda Tripp’s performance on January 16. After pointing out Lewinsky to the two FBI agents, Tripp sat in the room as they and the Independent Counsel’s prosecutors threatened her. Starr’s deputies then drove Tripp to a meeting with the Jones lawyers so that she, literally Starr’s secret agent at that point, could brief them on what she had heard. Armed with this knowledge, as well as Tripp’s prior help, the Jones lawyers then deposed Clinton under oath the next day, asking him the questions about Lewinsky that are now the basis for Starr’s perjury charge. One need not be especially conspiratorial to suspect that Jones’s lawyers, funded in part by the conservative Rutherford Institute, were cooperating with Starr in an attempt to bring down a Democratic President.
Starr’s behavior throughout these four years—his appointment by a conservative three-judge panel, his continuing ties to tobacco companies, his speeches to right-wing audiences, his obvious and admitted leaks of secret grand jury information to the press, his threats to imprison uncooperative witnesses (plus the two-year detention of Clinton’s one-time real estate partner, Susan McDougal)—deserve serious, impartial examination. It has not yet happened. His defenders, including most prominently the editorial page of The New York Times, dismiss any allegations of his misconduct as merely Starr’s political tone-deafness. As the Times wrote in a September 24 editorial: “Legal klutziness, however, does not add up to prosecutorial misconduct.” A different verdict may yet come from Michael Shaheen, former head of the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility, who is looking into Starr’s investigative techniques. And Judge Norma Holloway Johnson, in nominal charge of the Starr grand jury, has asked him to show cause why he should not be held in contempt of court for leaks from his office.
Unfortunately, instead of making a serious case against Starr, James Carville, one of Clinton’s longtime political strategists, who has famously declared war on the Independent Counsel and then on Newt Gingrich, resorts instead to ranting about him. Carville, an engaging and talented man, is so combative that as a child he would read, say, the article on barley in the World Book Encyclopedia, which his mother sold door-to-door, and fume over the pictograph showing that Saskatchewan outproduced Texas.
Carville was a participant in the famous War Room of Clinton’s 1992 campaign, and an adherent to the Clinton theory that no political charge can remain unanswered. He believes Starr’s investigation is purely a political attempt to bring down his President and, with his shaven head and drill-sergeant physique, he responds accordingly. But Carville is a casualty of the cynical wizards of modern marketing. He is no longer a person whose thoughts seem of interest; he is shtick, a marketable commodity, a label to be put on goods, perhaps a set of fishing tackle, perhaps a home video on surviving happily with his conservative wife Mary Matalin, perhaps a collection of James Carville’s Favorite Cajun Recipes.
His book smacks of being assembled rather than actually written, and, what is more, assembled by someone doing a parody of James Carville. Of Starr he writes,
I think he’s an abusive, privacy- invading, sex-obsessed, right-wing, constitutionally insensitive, boring, obsequious, and miserable little man who has risen further in this life by his willingness to suck up to power than his meager talents and pitiful judgment ever would have gotten him.
I have no doubt that such a case can be made; Starr’s own behavior provides ample evidence. But Carville is preaching to the converted. He merely touches on events as though everyone already knows the history and he need do no more than drop a few names and dates amid his tirade. Predictably, his book is written with mock-rural witticisms: “When conservatives caught wind of Whitewater, they flocked to the rumors like Newt Gingrich to a plate of hot pork chops,” Carville writes. “Make no mistake about it: When I say [federal judge] David Sentelle is an ultraconservative Helmsman, I ain’t just whistling Dixie.” Readers are constantly addressed directly as “folks” and “y’all” to the point where Ah thank Ahmo get seeyick to muh stomach.
Carville is, in fact, an intelligent man, and behind the bluster a touchingly gentle populist. He has in the past been able to articulate thoughts. He can do better than this; his tragedy is that neither he nor his publishers take him seriously. He is now celebrity merchandise, with his name on a book that is not meant to be read. It is intended only to be sold, most likely as a gift for cranky Uncle Louis who was once seen laughing at Carville’s routine on Larry King Live.
David Maraniss’s study of Clinton’s character, which Maraniss claims to see reflected in Clinton’s 540-word televised address on August 17, is also a quick hit. It is drawn in large part on the research Maraniss conducted for his First in His Class: A Biography of Bill Clinton and honed by Maraniss’s many recent appearances on television talk shows to analyze Clinton’s flaws. In his acknowledgments, Maraniss thanks Keith Olbermann, Tim Russert, Katie Couric, Matt Lauer, Chris Matthews, Brian Williams, and Tom Brokaw, all of them at various NBC television outlets, for the interviewing skills that “helped me sharpen my thinking.”
This is a far more solid work than Carville’s angry outburst, but Maraniss too shows us how far we have strayed from normal rules of evidence and good taste. At one point, he speculates that William Blythe, the happy-go-lucky, possibly bigamous traveling salesman who married Clinton’s mother and died in a car accident before Clinton was born, might not in fact be the President’s father. Maraniss notes that Blythe, whose reckless personality is often cited in explanation for Clinton’s conduct, was still a soldier in Italy nine months before Clinton’s birth. Maraniss writes that Clinton’s mother, Virginia, was flirtatious, and says an unnamed man in Louisiana claims to have dated her in 1945. “My reporting on that claim has been inconclusive,” Maraniss writes. “I remain an agnostic on the question of Clinton’s paternity; the evidence is unclear as to his biological father: Blythe, the Louisiana man, or someone else.”
Maraniss offers some desultory speculation on whether Clinton is a sex addict without coming to any conclusion. He also tries to analyze Hillary’s continuing loyalty to the President without getting anywhere near the bottom of that either. He draws an analogy between their marriage and the Clinton policy on homosexuals in the military: “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Yet Maraniss is not hostile to Clinton. He addresses the question of the deep hatred so many Americans feel for Clinton but cannot quite explain it. He offers this defense of the President: “Many people who have dismissed him as a calculating phony are far more invented creatures and less connected to their pasts than he has always been.” And later: “Many of Clinton’s lies come without evil intentions; that is, they are not aimed at doing harm to others so much as trying to present himself in a better light. This is one area where many of those who are the most self-righteous in denouncing him for lying might be more malicious than he is, spreading wild rumors about him that they do not know to be true. Spreading a false rumor is somehow not considered as dishonest as lying.”
Unhappily for Clinton and his family, the Lewinsky affair has not been a false rumor. The most squalid details—the cigar and the semen-stained dress—have proven true. Starr can certainly argue that Clinton’s denials constituted perjury, though it looks increasingly unlikely that even the Republican majority in Congress will support actual impeachment. The public has looked at the case against Clinton and has responded with what the law calls jury nullification: despite the evidence, it will not punish the crime.
But even if Clinton escapes punishment, the Lewinsky affair will prove to be a milestone in our political, legal, and cultural history. Republicans have raised the prospect of bringing down a president on a technicality; this is as close as America has come to a Putsch since the era of Andrew Johnson. The Independent Counsel has proven how thinly we are protected against an aggressive, zealous prosecutor; not even grand jury testimony is sacred anymore. And our media have found that they can broadcast and print the vilest language, the lewdest speculation, the most baseless accusations—all without penalty. On the contrary, two of the outlets that have made the most use of David Maraniss, MSNBC and CNBC cable networks, have exploited the Lewinsky affair to raise their ratings by flooding the airwaves with Lewinsky blather. We have found, from a series of talking heads and Op-Ed authors, that the law, instead of being a dispassionate set of rules, is dramatically different for the Republican and Democratic experts who appear on television nightly and write Op-Ed articles.
This national travesty is not yet over. But we can already reckon up some of the costs: Clinton’s place in history is blighted forever. Lewinsky is as close as we are likely to see to the old-fashioned notion of a “ruined woman.” Our national discourse is polluted; children wake each morning to hear radio wiseguys joke about the President having lipstick on the dipstick. Our elected representatives have begun to whirl like dervishes in their desire to please their contributors, obey their oaths of office, follow the opinion polls, and punish a popular President without hurting themselves. (At least the Independent Counsel law is likely to be repealed at the first opportunity. And rightly so.)
And even in the midst of a national crisis, our publishers are ever more willing to peddle mere celebrity, rather than actual books. Just before completing this review, I received from Simon and Schuster an addendum to the Carville book. It contains his recipe for smoked brisket.
—October 7, 1998
November 5, 1998