Michael Isikoff
Michael Isikoff; drawing by David Levine


On an evening late in April in Washington, some three hundred and fifty survivors of what they saw as a fight for the soul of the republic gathered at the Mayflower Hotel to honor Representative Henry J. Hyde and the twelve House managers who, under his leadership, had carried the charges of impeachment to the floor of the Senate. C-SPAN caught the distinctive, familial fervor of the event, which was organized to benefit the Independent Women’s Forum, an organization funded in part by Richard Mellon Scaife and the “women’s group” in the name of which Kenneth Starr volunteered in 1994 to file an amicus curiae brief arguing that Jones v. Clinton should go forward.

Live from the Mayflower, there onscreen were the familiar faces from the Sunday shows, working the room amid the sedate din and the tinkling of glasses. There were the pretty women in country-club dinner dresses, laughing appreciatively at the bon mots of their table partners. There was the black-tie quartet, harmonizing on “vi-ve la vi-ve la vi-ve l’amour” and “Goodbye My Coney Island Baby” as Henry Hyde doggedly continued to spoon up his dessert, chocolate meeting mouth with metronomic regularity, his perseverance undeflected even by Bob Barr, leaning in to make a point.

The word “courage” was repeatedly invoked. Midge Decter, a director of the Independent Women’s Forum, praised Henry Hyde’s “manliness,” and the way in which watching “him and his merry band” on television during the impeachment trial had caused her to recall “whole chunks” of Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” Robert L. Bartley, the editor of The Wall Street Journal, had found similar inspiration in the way in which the managers had “exposed truths to the American people, and they did this in the face of all the polls and focus groups, and they were obviously doing an unpopular thing, and I think that is why they deserve our greatest credit.” The words of Henry V before the Battle of Agincourt were recalled by Michael Novak, as they had been by Henry Hyde in his closing statement during the Senate impeachment trial, but on this occasion adapted to “our Prince Hal, our own King Henry”: “He that outlives this day, and comes safe home, will stand at tiptoe when this day is named…. Then shall our names, familiar in his mouth as household words, Henry the King, Rogan and Hutchinson, Canady, Cannon, McCollum, Lindsey Graham, Gekas, Chabot, Bryant, Buyer, Barr, and Sensenbrenner.”

This evening could have seemed, for those who still misunderstood the Reagan mandate to have been based on what are now called “social” issues, the last redoubt. Familiar themes were sounded, favorite notes struck. Even the most glancing reference to the depredations of “the Sixties” (“…according to Sean Wilentz, a scholar who exemplifies all the intellectual virtues and glories of the Sixties…”) proved a reliable crowd-pleaser. In deference to the man who had not only sponsored the Hyde Amendment (banning Medicaid payments for abortions) but who had a year before testified as a character witness for a defendant accused of illegally blockading abortion clinics (“He’s a hero to me,” Hyde said, “He has the guts I wish more of us had”), the “unborn” were characterized as “the stranger, the other, the unwanted, the inconvenient.”

Mentions of “Maxine Waters” were cues for derision. “Barney Frank” was a laugh line that required no amplification. The “loneliness” of the shared position was assumed, and proudly stressed. Yet the mood of the evening was less elegiac than triumphal, less rueful than rededicated, as if there in a ballroom at the Mayflower was the means by which the American political dialogue could be finally reconfigured: on the sacrificial altar of the failed impeachment, in the memory of the martyred managers, the message of moral rearmament that has driven the conservative movement to what had seemed no avail might at last have met its moment. “As we were coming in,” William J. Bennett told the guests that night, “I said to my friend Dan Oliver, I said ‘Good group.’ Dan said, ‘Good group? This is it, pal. This is the army. This is all of it.”‘

The notion that a failed attempt to impeach the President might nonetheless have accomplished exactly what it was meant to accomplish, that the desired phoenix might even then be rising from the ashes of acquittal, might have seemed to many, in the immediate wake of the November 1998 elections, when the disinclination of the American people to see the President impeached translated into the loss of five Republican congressional seats, wishful. “It’s pretty clear that impeachment dropped off the public’s radar screen,” Henry Hyde told a Los Angeles Times reporter on election night as he realized he was losing not only his anticipated mandate but five of his votes. The next morning, in the O’Hare Hilton, he told three aides that his Judiciary Committee inquiry, which party leaders had inexplicably construed as so in tune with public sentiment as to promise a gain of twenty seats, would have to be telescoped, and impeachment delivered out of the House while his lame ducks could still vote.


Over the next several weeks, as they contemplated the unexpected hit they had taken by feeding the greed of their conservative base for impeachment, Republicans would float many fanciful scenarios by which the party could be extricated from its own device. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania argued on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times for “abandoning impeachment,” in effect handing off this suddenly sticky wicket to the courts, where, since not many lawyers saw a makeable case for perjury, it could conveniently dematerialize. Robert Dole laid out a plan based on the distinctly improbable agreement of the President in his own censure. Even Henry Hyde saw a way for the President to save the day, by resigning: “I think he could really be heroic if he did that. He would be the savior of his party…. It would be a way of going out with honor.” By mid-December, former Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming was expressing what had become by default the last-ditch gamble of most Republicans, which was that any hemorrhaging they were suffering outside their conservative base could be contained before 2000 by the putative inability of these less ideological voters to remember that long: “The attention span of Americans,” Simpson said, “is ‘which movie is coming out next month?’ and whether the quarterly report on their stock will change.”

This casual contempt for the electorate at large was by then sufficiently general to pass largely unremarked upon. A good deal of what seemed at the time opaque in the firestorm that consumed the attention of the United States from January of 1998 until the spring of 1999 has since been illuminated, but what remains novel, and unexplained, was the increasing histrionic insistence of the political establishment that it stood apart from, and indeed above, the country that had until recently been considered its validation. Under the lights at CNN and MSNBC and the Sunday shows, it became routine to declare oneself remote from “them,” or “out there.” The rhetorical expression of outrage, or “speaking out,” became in itself a moral position, even when the reasons for having spoken out could not be recalled. “…Whether or not it happens,” Robert H. Bork said to The Washington Post in December about impeachment, which he had favored, “I will still think I was right…. I just spoke out. I think on a television show, maybe Larry King. I wish I could recall what I was concerned with, but I can’t at the moment.”

The electorate, as anyone who turned on a television set since the spring of 1998 had heard repeatedly, was “complicit” in the “corruption” of the President, or of the administration, or of the country itself, which was therefore in need of the “purging” to be effected, as in myth, by the removal of the most visible figure on the landscape. “It would be an enormous emetic—culturally, politically, morally—for us to have an impeachment,” the Reverend John Neuhaus, editor of the conservative monthly First Things, told Michael Powell of The Washington Post. “It would purge us.” The reason the public was “complicit,” and the country in need of “purging,” was that the public was “materialistic,” interested only in “the Dow,” or, later, “their pension funds.”

The reason the public was “materialistic” was that the public had, well, no morals. “My wife likes to say they must be polling people coming out of Hooters on Saturday night,” Senator Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire said at the time he was announcing his bid for the presidency. “I will not defend the public,” William J. Bennett told The New York Times in February of 1999, after Paul M. Weyrich had written to supporters of his Free Congress Foundation that since the nation was in the grip of an “alien ideology” they should abandon the idea that a moral majority existed and instead take steps to “quarantine” their families. “Absolutely not. If people want to pander to the public and say they’re right they can. But they’re not right on this one.”

“What’s popular isn’t always what’s right,” Representative J.C. Watts of Oklahoma said, arguing in the House for impeachment. “Polls would have rejected the Ten Commandments. Polls would have embraced slavery and ridiculed women’s rights.” On the weekend in January when the “favorable” rating of the Republican Party dropped to 36 percent, the lowest since Watergate, Senator Phil Gramm said on Meet the Press that the people of Texas “didn’t elect me to read those polls.” Not even when the bumper stickers of the John Birch Society were common road sightings had we been so insistently reminded that this was a republic, or a “representative form of government,” not a democracy. For the more inductive strategists in the movement, the next logical leap was obvious: since a republic depended by definition on an electorate, and since the electorate at hand had proved itself “complicit,” the republic itself would be increasingly viewed as doubtful, open for rethinking. “The Clinton affair and its aftermath will, I think, turn out to be a defining moment that exposed the rot in the institutions of American republican government,” Charles Murray wrote in The Weekly Standard in February. “Whether the response will be to shore up the structure or abandon it remains an open question.”



On the morning of February 11, 1994, Michael Isikoff, the author of Uncovering Clinton: A Reporter’s Story and at that time a reporter for The Washington Post, received, from the conservative strategist Craig Shirley, a heads-up on what would be said that afternoon at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Omni Shoreham, where a woman brought to Washington by Cliff Jackson, the Hot Springs lawyer who orchestrated Troopergate, was scheduled to give a press conference. Isikoff went over to the Shoreham, witnessed what would turn out to be the debut appearance of Paula Jones, and the next morning conducted a three-hour interview with her, in a suite at the Shoreham where she was flanked by her husband and her then lawyer, Danny Traylor. Isikoff asked Paula Jones about her eighteen-month-old son, Madison, and told her about his own baby daughter. He asked her whether her parents had been Democrats or Republicans, a point about which she was uncertain. “I guess any man probably would be more [interested in politics] than a woman,” she said. “That’s just not my interest in life.” Isikoff tells us that he questioned Traylor and Jackson independently about their initial involvement, and reports that the answers they gave “point toward an innocent explanation.” If Isikoff did indeed choose to ask Paula Jones herself why, given her lack of interest in politics, her lawyer had hooked her up with Cliff Jackson and Craig Shirley and the Conservative Political Action Conference, he chose not to share her answer, although he renders certain details from that initial interview with some avidity:

Paula Jones: “He had boxer shorts and everything and he exposed hisself [sic] with an erection… holding it…fiddling it or whatever. And he asked me to—I don’t know his exact word—give him a blow job or—I know you gotta know his exact words.”

Isikoff: “Exact words.”

Paula Jones: “He asked me to do something, I know that. I’ll tell you, I was so shocked. I think he wanted me to kiss it…. And he was saying it in a very disgusting way, just a horny-ass way….”

Isikoff: “What do you mean in a very disgusting way?”

Paula Jones: “Disgusting way, he just, it was please, I want it bad—just that type of way, like he was wanting it bad, you know….”

Over the next several years, first on the Paula Jones story for the Post and then on the Paula Jones and the Kathleen Willey and the Monica Lewinsky stories for Newsweek, Isikoff would encounter a number of such choices, moments in which a less single-minded reporter might well have let attention stray to the distinctly peculiar way the story was unfolding itself, the way in which corroborating witnesses and incriminating interviews would magically materialize, but Isikoff kept his eye on what he saw as the ball, his story, which was, exactly, “uncovering” Clinton.

There was for example the moment when Joe Cammarata, one of the lawyers chosen by those working behind the scenes on the Jones case to replace Danny Traylor, had accommodated Isikoff’s need to find “evidence that Clinton did this to other women” by recalling a “mysterious phone call” he had received from a woman who would not give her name but claimed that “a similar thing” had happened to her when she was working in the White House. “This was weird, I thought,” Isikoff recalls. “The caller had imparted a hell of a lot of detail. Cammarata, for his part, was more than happy to let me figure it out. If I could track this woman down, he reasoned, I’d probably pass it along to him. Then he could subpoena her. As he saw it, I would save him some legwork.”

Examine this. Isikoff thought the call was “weird,” but any suspicions this aroused seem not to have suggested to him that the Jones defense team, or someone working through the Jones defense team, might be planting a story. As expected, this tip led Isikoff to Kathleen Willey, at which point we enter another repertorial twilight zone. “A journalistic dance between aggressive reporter and reluctant source began,” Isikoff writes, “a dance that was to continue for months.” In the average reporting experience, reluctant sources hang up, or say no comment, then screen their calls, leave town. This “reluctant source,” however, having extracted the promise that Isikoff would not publish her story “until she gave the green light,” allowed herself to be interviewed for more than two hours, telling her story “in gripping and microscopic detail.”

Asked by the “aggressive reporter” if anyone could corroborate her story, another point at which, if she did not want the story out, she could have recouped her losses by saying no, Kathleen Willey obligingly named two women. One of the women she named was Julie Hiatt Steele, to whom, on the spot, she placed a call, arranging a meeting later that day with Isikoff. The other woman was Linda Tripp, then at the Pentagon. Dutifully, a relentless op on the case, Isikoff followed up his conveniently arranged meeting with Julie Hiatt Steele by tagging along with a Newsweek reporter who had access to the Pentagon. There, in a cubicle in the basement, Isikoff confronted Linda Tripp, who, within minutes, although “alarmed” by his visit, delivered the story’s next reveal: “‘There’s something here, but the story is not what you think it is,’ she said cryptically. ‘You’re barking up the wrong tree.”‘

Note “cryptically.” That was in March 1997. By April, Linda Tripp had delivered considerably more (“twenty-three-year-old former White House intern,” got her job through “a wealthy campaign contributor,” a “big insurance executive,” “thrown out of the White House,” “had gotten her a job at another federal agency,” “hideaway off the Oval Office,” “oral sex”), and had even let him listen in on a phone call from the former intern, “an excited and somewhat whiny young woman complaining about another woman named ‘Marsha.”‘ Marsha, Linda Tripp explained, was Marsha Scott, the President’s personnel aide. Marsha was supposed to have brought the young woman back to the White House after the 1996 election. Marsha was now giving the young woman the runaround.

No matter how many clues the remarkably patient Tripp provided, the story remained, Isikoff tells us, presenting himself as an impartial fact-gatherer to whom speculative connections were anathema, in the cryp- tic range. “I’m a reporter, not a voyeur,” he tells us, appropriating the high-road benefit, and, also, “Tripp wouldn’t give me the ex-intern’s name or the agency she worked for.” And there was something else: “Tripp was certain the relationship was entirely consensual…. That, it seemed to me, placed it outside the scope of the Paula Jones lawsuit—my main justification for proceeding down this path.”

But wait, he surely said to himself at this point, or perhaps not. You got to Tripp via Willey. You got to Willey via the Jones defense team. Who gains here? Who wants what out? Why? Four months later, Isikoff was still refusing to acknowledge the possibility of connections. In August, in a CNBC green room, he happened to be discussing legal strategy on the Jones case with Ann Coulter, one of the conservative lawyers who had become a fixture on the news comment shows. According to Isikoff, he remarked to Ann Coulter that she seemed to have inside knowledge, and she laughed. “Oh yes,” he reports her as then having said. “There are lots of us busy elves working away in Santa’s workshop.” “Busy elves?” Isikoff recalls having thought. “I remembered hearing something about George Conway in New York. Now Coulter. Who else? And what were they doing?”

Some might have seen this as a line of inquiry worth pursuing, but Isikoff, after a call to Conway’s office at Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz in New York (“Conway and Coulter were fast friends” who “bonded over their common disdain for Clinton, and they loved nothing more than to gossip late into the night about the latest developments in the Jones lawsuit”), seems to have satisfied himself that Conway and the other ardently conservative lawyers with whom Conway was in touch might be useful sources, but not themselves the story. Not un-til October, when Linda Tripp summoned him to a meeting with Lucianne Goldberg and provided him with a beer, a bowl of pistachio nuts, and the name Monica Lewinsky, did his reporter’s instincts briefly revive: “I stopped eating the nuts and started taking notes.” There were, Linda Tripp said, tapes, and she was prepared to play them, but Isikoff, who “had been invited to appear on a CNBC talk show, Hardball,” and so was “a bit pressed for time,” refused, famously, to listen:

It’s an interesting journalistic issue. My hesitation was instinctive—but rooted in principles I had drummed into me when I first started as a young reporter at the Post. We don’t tape without permission, the late Howard Simons, then the paper’s managing edi-tor, had decreed…. We reporters shouldn’t deceive our sources, any more than we should deceive the public. Or so Simons—a wise and revered editor—had taught me.

Of course, I wasn’t being asked by Tripp to tape anybody secretly. But the distinction was a bit fuzzy. Tripp’s taping of Lewinsky was ongoing. If I started to listen in on her conversations as she was taping them—as opposed to when she was finished—then I inevitably would have become part of the process…. And I was in a bit of a hurry to make it to Hardball.

“What do you do when you find yourself sucked into the story?” Isikoff asks rhetorically toward the end of Uncovering Clinton, the part in which he says mea culpa but not quite. “What happens when you become beholden to sources with an agenda? There are no easy answers here.” Much that he learned later, he tells us, “cast a somewhat different light” on events. He was, for example, “chagrined to discover” that Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg “had been talking about a book deal from the start.” But what could there have been, in that, to “discover”? If Isikoff was, as he presents himself here, “an aggressive reporter” still unaware that there was more in this than met the eye, would not “a book deal” have been his first assumption? During his first meetings with Tripp, Isikoff had read part of her proposal for a book to be called The President’s Women. He knew Lucianne Goldberg to be a literary agent. The idea of a book was nonetheless, Isikoff tells us, “well off my radar screen; indeed, it seemed a bit counterintuitive. Why were they wasting their time sharing information with me, if that was their purpose?”

If Isikoff asked himself this question, he seems to have adroitly avoided the answer, which might have led him to another aspect of the story that he was managing to keep well off his radar screen. What there was to “discover,” of course, he already knew: by the time Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg gave him Monica Lewinsky’s name, any idea of “a book deal” would have been, as Lucianne Goldberg recently noted in her review of Uncovering Clinton in Slate, “a moot point that I can say faded to the vanishing point.” The reason the point was moot was that, even by Isikoff’s own account, Lucianne Goldberg was by then operating less as a lone agent than as a kind of useful front, a cutout for those unable to reveal themselves as players running the same move: a cutout for Linda Tripp, a cutout for the ardent young conservative lawyers (the “busy elves” Ann Coulter had mentioned) who made up the shadow legal team for Jones v. Clinton, and, ultimately, a cutout for the Office of the Independent Counsel.

“I had relied on the elves for information at critical junctures,” Isikoff tells us on page 357 of Uncovering Clinton, still in his modified mea culpa mode, “even while they concealed from me their role in bringing the Lewinsky allegations to the Jones lawyers and later to Ken Starr.” Among the “elves,” whose contributions to Jones v. Clinton included writing key briefs and arranging a moot court at which the nominal Jones lawyers were prepped for their argument before the Supreme Court by Robert H. Bork, the most frequently named have been Jerome M. Marcus, an associate at Berger & Montague in Philadelphia, George T. Conway III, at Wachtell, Lipton in New York, and Richard W. Porter, a Chicago partner, as Kenneth Starr was a Washington partner, at Kirkland & Ellis. Jerome Marcus and Richard Porter had been classmates at the University of Chicago Law School, as had Paul Rosenzweig, who was approached to work on Jones v. Clinton in 1994, decided against it, and in 1997 joined the Office of the Independent Counsel.

Review Isikoff’s admission of imperfect prescience, the reporter’s dilemma for which there were “no easy answers.” Consider this one sentence, which appears on page 357 of Uncovering Clinton, a second time: “I had relied on the elves for information at critical junctures—even while they concealed from me their role in bringing the Lewinsky allegations to the Jones lawyers and later to Ken Starr.” Go back to page 182 of Uncovering Clinton, the CNBC green room: when Ann Coulter said to Isikoff that there were “lots of us busy elves working away in Santa’s workshop,” was this not said to have been a response to his remark that she seemed to have “inside knowledge” of Jones v. Clinton? Or go back to page 135, where Isikoff gives a quite detailed account of what Linda Tripp told him during their early meetings, when she was not yet telling him the name of the intern. Linda Tripp told him, he reports, that “she herself had been asked by her White House-provided lawyer not to volunteer information about a memo she had seen about the White House travel office that implicated First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.” Travel office? Travelgate? White House-provided lawyer? Did this not suggest a prior relationship with the Office of the Independent Counsel?

Given the players and the relationships already in place, would it not have been, as Isikoff said about the red herring that was the book deal, “counterintuitive” not to suspect that a certain amount of information was passing between the Jones team and the Office of the Independent Counsel and Linda Tripp? Did he not suspect it? If he suspected it, why did he not pursue it? Could it have been because he already knew it? This is an area that Uncovering Clinton was cannily designed, by virtue of the way its author chose to present himself, to leave uncharted. “As a reporter,” the author tells us, “I don’t think ideologically.” And then, about his primary sources, Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg: “I could not have cared less about their motives or their ultimate goal. My interest in them was quite simple and fairly well focused: Was the stuff they were telling me true? Could it be corroborated? Would it make a story for Newsweek?”


When Paula Jones was brought to the 1994 Conservative Political Action Conference to air her charge against the President, Ralph Reed, under whose leadership the Christian Coalition had grown from fewer than five thousand members to a potent political force and whose presence might have lent the fateful press conference at the Shoreham a degree of legitimacy, was asked to participate. For what he seems to have seen as pragmatic reasons, he declined. As he explained in his 1996 Active Faith, Reed considered it a mistake for conservatives to build their case against Clinton around Paula Jones:

When one of the nation’s leading evangelical preachers suggests that the president may be a murderer, when a pro-life leader says that to vote for Clinton is to sin against God, and when conservative talk-show hosts lampoon the sexual behavior of the leader of the free world, the manner of their speech reflects poorly on the gospel and on our faith.

This was at a time when Jerry Falwell, on his Old Time Gospel Hour, was marketing The Clinton Chronicles, the forty-dollar video asserting that Clinton had ordered the murders of Arkansas opponents and governed the state “hooked on cocaine.” A second video, Circle of Power, was suggesting that “countless people” who “had some connection to Bill Clinton” had “mysteriously died,” and that “this is going on today.” Even well in from the ideological frontiers of telemarketing, “impeachment” was the word of the hour: a contributor to The Weekly Standard, Gary Schmitt, was calling for Clinton’s impeachment on the grounds that he had told Jim Lehrer during a PBS interview that he believed that Kenneth Starr was engaged in a partisan effort and so would not rule out the possibility of presidential pardons to those convicted on the basis of the Starr investigation. Reed, in his 1996 book, recalled attending a conservative dinner where the speaker had called for Clinton’s impeachment and imprisonment on the grounds that he was “the most criminal president in our history.”

Reed saw the feeding of this particular fire as a strategy only for self-immolation. “Like an army that overwhelms its enemy but leaves the land uninhabitable, some religious conservatives have come dangerously close to defining themselves in purely anti-Clinton terms,” he wrote.

Those who are identified as followers of Christ should temper their disagreements with Clinton with civility and the grace of God, avoiding the temptation to personalize issues or demonize their opponents. This is critical to remember if our movement is to avoid the fate of its predecessors.

Some of the harshest attacks on Clinton, Reed noted, had their origins in the “Christian nation” or “Reconstructionist” movement, the more unyielding proponents of which advocated “legislating the ancient Jewish law laid out in the Old Testament: stoning adulterers, executing homosexuals, even mandating dietary laws.”

There are historical precedents for Reconstructionist ideas stretching back to the millenialistic strains of Puritan thinking, American Revolutionary ideology, and even the anti-slavery movement. But those currents did not reflect the mainstream of Christian thinking then, and they certainly do not today. Reconstructionism is an authoritarian ideology that threatens the most basic civil liberties of a free and democratic society. If the pro-family movement hopes to realize its goals of relimiting government and reinstilling traditional values in our culture and in public policy, it must unequivocally dissociate itself from Reconstructionism and other efforts to use the government to impose biblical law through direct political action. It must firmly and openly exclude the triumphalist and authoritarian elements….

That the fire had already jumped this break should have been, in retrospect, clear, since, even then, the word “authoritarian” no longer carried the exact freight it carried for Reed. The problem with rock music, Robert H. Bork told us in his 1996 Slouching Towards Gomorrah, was that it had encouraged the “subversion of authority,” which in turn was the problem with the “baby boomers,” who were already, principally because Clinton could be shoehorned into their number, a target of choice for the derision and excoriation engaged in even by many who were themselves members of the same generation. As this view took hold, the word “authority” was frequently preceded, as in William J. Bennett’s The Death of Outrage, by the word “moral,” “moral authority” being the manna allegedly possessed by all presidents before this one. The president at hand, according to David S. Broder and Richard Morin of The Washington Post, “confronts his fellow citizens with choices between deeply held moral standards and an abhorrence of judging others’ behavior, a conflict the baby boomers have stirred all their adult lives.”

These “boomers,” who had “no respect for authority,” or who “flouted established moral standards,” made increasingly frequent appearances. “The battle to dethrone Bill Clinton takes its place in the ongoing Boomer War, a three-decade struggle to define our culture and control our history and symbols,” Michael Powell wrote in The Washington Post, citing Robert Bork, who had suggested in defense of Kenneth Starr that his was a useful effort to “kill off the lax moral spirit of the Sixties.” The pollster Daniel Yankelovich, whose 1981 New Rules and later opinion surveys for the Democratic Leadership Conference inspired the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign’s Putting People First, was quoted by Broder and Morin as having said that “we are beginning to measure a shift back toward absolute as opposed to relative values.” The “shift back” was to a period before the mid-Sixties, which had been marked, according to Yankelovich, by a “radical extension of individualism.”

Reenter Robert Bork, who in Slouching Towards Gomorrah identified “radical individualism,” or “the drastic reduction of limits to personal gratification,” as one of the two “defining characteristics of modern liberalism” (the other being “radical egalitarianism”) and, as such, a root cause of “Western decline.” That Bork has tended to support his arguments with something other than an entirely full deck of facts (as evidence of “Western decline,” he asked us in 1996 to consider “the latest homicide figures for New York City, Los Angeles, or the District of Columbia,” as well as “the rising rate of illegitimate births,” both of which were dropping steadily during the 1990s) has never deflected his enthusiasm for taking positions, since facts seemed to exist for him in the same mutable state positions did, unfixed weapons to be deployed as needed in that day’s sortie against the “leftist dream world.”

Bork is worth some study, since it is to him that we owe the most forthright statements of what might be required to effect “a moral and spiritual regeneration,” the necessity for which has since entered the talk-show and Op-Ed ether. Such a regeneration could be produced, Bork speculated in Slouching Towards Gomorrah, by one of four events: “a religious revival; the revival of public discourse about morality; a cataclysmic war; or a deep economic depression.” As for the first of these options, Bork saw possibilities in “the rise of an energetic, optimistic, and politically sophisticated religious conservatism,” but not in the “mainline churches,” which no longer posited “a demanding God…who dictates how one should live and puts a great many bodily and psychological pleasures off limits.” “The carrot alone has never been a wholly adequate incentive to desired behavior,” Bork wrote. “It is not helpful that the ideas of salvation and damnation, of sin and virtue, which once played major roles in Christian belief, are now almost never heard of in the mainline churches.”

It is of course not true that ideas of salvation and damnation or sin and virtue are “now almost never heard of in the mainline churches” (anyone who repeats the responses in the Episcopal litany asks for deliverance “from all evil and wickedness, from sin, from the crafts and assaults of the devil, from thy wrath and from everlasting damnation,” and the Catholic baptismal sponsor swears in the name of the child to “reject Satan, father of sin and prince of darkness”), any more than it is true that “the intellectual classes” view religion as “primitive superstition,” or believe that “science has left atheism as the only respectable intellectual stance,” or that the question of faith was definitively answered by a still unmatched but not unfamiliar trio, “Freud, Marx, and Darwin.”

These “atheists” and “mainline churches” that had abandoned sin and virtue had nonetheless become fixed stations in the conservative canon, recognizable cues, along with “Freud” and “Marx” and “Darwin” and “the ACLU” and all the other calculated outrages, or what John J. DiIulio, Jr., referred to in The Weekly Standard as “the radical-feminist faithful, the nonjudgmental clergy, the Hollywood crowd, and the abortion-on-demand minions.” The literal “truth” or “untruth” of what Bork wrote or said was, then, beside the point, since this was metaphor, and was so understood within the movement: polemic, political litany, a rhetorical incitement to the legislation of “desired behavior,” which was to say the scourging of “immoral” behavior.

That Bork himself understood this seems clear enough, since he believes that Thomas Jefferson had some kind of similar intention—this will rouse the rabble—when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. “It was indeed stirring rhetoric,” Bork allows,

entirely appropriate for the purpose of rallying the colonists and justifying their rebellion to the world. But some caution is in order. The ringing phrases are hardly useful, indeed may be pernicious, if taken, as they commonly are, as a guide to action, governmental or private. Then the words press eventually towards extremes of liberty and the pursuit of happiness that court personal license and social disorder.

The extent to which “personal license” might be sought out for punishment was suggested by Bork in his earlier The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law: “Moral outrage is a sufficient ground for prohibitory legislation,” he wrote. “Knowledge that an activity is taking place is a harm to those who find it profoundly immoral.”


“The Republican right wing in this country doesn’t like it when we say coup d’état, so I’ll make it easier for them,” Representative Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.) said on the floor of the House the day the impeachment vote was taken. “Golpe de estado. That’s Spanish for overthrowing a government.” The word “coup,” which had begun to surface in the dialogue as the more ambiguous aspects of the Starr investigation became known, had predictably provoked impassioned objections, some of them reasoned (impeachment was a legitimate constitutional process, a conviction by the Senate on the impeachment charges brought by the House would result in the removal of the President but not of the political party holding the presidency) and others less reasoned (Hillary Rodham Clinton had said that there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” to get her husband, ergo, there was not, or, alternately, it was not “vast,” or it was not a “conspiracy”); and yet there were, in the sequence of events that culminated in impeachment, certain factors that seemed distinctly exotic to the politics of the United States.

There was, first of all, the sense of a “movement,” an unchartered sodality dedicated to the “remoralization” (William Kristol’s word) of America, that, for a variety of reasons (judicial activism, feminism, “non-judgmentalism,” what Bork called “the pernicious effects of our passion for equality”), believed itself inadequately represented in the conventional electoral process. There was the reliance, as in the more authoritarian Latin American structures, on orejas, “ears,” tale-tellers like Linda Tripp, citizens encouraged, whether directly or through the rhetoric of the movement, to obtain evidence against those perceived as enemies of the movement. There was the aid from the private sector, the dependence on such rich conservatives as Richard Mellon Scaife and John Whitehead and the Chicago investment banker Peter W. Smith. There was the way in which it was seen as possible that the electoral process could be bypassed, that the desired change in the government could be effected by a handful of unseen individuals, like George Conway and Jerome Marcus and Richard Porter, working in concert.

There was the shared conviction of urgency, of mission, of an end so crucial to the fate of the republic as to sweep away possible reservations about means. If the Office of the Independent Counsel was violating Justice Department prosecutorial guidelines by prosecuting its case in the press, this had been justified, Kenneth Starr told Steven Brill, because it was “a situation where what we are doing is countering misinformation that is being spread about our investigation in order to discredit our office and our dedicated career prosecutors.” If the treatment of Monica Lewinsky had seemed to some to violate her legal rights, this too had been justified by the imperative of the “prosecution,” the “investigation”: “When you’re asked to cooperate in an investigation of this kind it’s going to be hellish no matter how nice you are to her,” Michael Emmick of the Office of the Independent Counsel told members of the American Bar Association in February. “That’s one of the ugly truths about law enforcement. It’s very ugly at times. We tried to make it as undifficult as we could.” Since the moral necessity and therefore the absolute priority of the “investigation” were assumed, any assertion of the right of the accused to defend himself could be construed only as prima facie proof of guilt, which is what people meant when they condemned the President’s defense as “legalistic.”

In fact we had seen this willingness to sacrifice means to end before, in the late 1980s, when it had seemed equally exotic. “Sometimes you have to go above the written law,” Fawn Hall had testified on behalf of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, expressing a view shared, at that time, in that instance, by most conservatives. Representative Henry J. Hyde, for example, had argued that Fawn Hall was echoing Thomas Jefferson, who had written in an 1810 letter to John Colvin that to insist on “a strict observance of the written law” over “the laws of necessity, of self-preservation, of saving our country when in danger” would be “absurdly sacrificing the end to the means.” “All of us at some time confront conflicts between rights and duties, between choices that are evil and less evil, and one hardly exhausts moral imagination by labeling every untruth and every deception an outrage,” Hyde wrote in the “Supplemental Views” he attached to the 1987 Report of the Congressional Committees Investigating the Iran-Contra Affair.

We have had a disconcerting and distasteful whiff of moralism and institutional self-righteousness in these hearings…. It has seemed to me that the Congress is usually more eager to assert authority than to accept responsibility, more ready to criticize than to constructively propose, more comfortable in the public relations limelight than in the murkier greyness of the real world, where choices must often be made, not between relative goods, but between bad and worse….

The “less evil” choice at hand, of course, had been the covert support of the Nicaraguan contras, or “freedom fighters,” who were for the conservative movement in the Eighties what the shifting cast of starring (Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky) and day players (the Arkansas state troopers, Kathleen Willey, Dolly Kyle Browning, Juanita Broaddrick) who “proved” the moral perfidy of William Jefferson Clinton would become in the Nineties: flags around which the troops could be mobilized and to which an entire complex of “movement values” could be attached. For these symbolic purposes, the contras had proved the less fragile standard, since their support involved issues that could be sufficiently inflated to launch the entire matter into the ozone of “national security.” Unlike “covert support for the freedom fighters,” “Monica Lewinsky” remained resistant to inflation: regardless of how many mentions of “perjury” and “rule of law” and “constitutional obligation” got pumped into the noise, the possibility of dallying and lying about it continued to be understood by, and regarded as irrelevant to the survival of the nation by, a majority of the nation’s citizens.

This presented a problem. On a broad range of loosely cultural issues (the balanced budget, welfare reform, the death penalty), the positions shared by the President and the citizens in question could by no alchemy be presented as the products of “left-liberal ideology,” which had been firmly established in the litany of the movement as the root cause of the nation’s moral crisis. “For the model of cultural collapse to work,” Andrew Sullivan observed in October in his analysis of the conservative dilemma in The New York Times Magazine, “Clinton must represent its nadir.” It was the solution to this problem, the naming of the citizens themselves as co-conspirators in the nation’s moral degradation, that remains the most strikingly exotic aspect of the events that came to dominate the past year. “No analysis can absolve the people themselves of responsibility for the quandary we appear to be in,” Don Eberly, director of the Civil Society Project in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, told David S. Broder and Richard Morin of The Washington Post. “Nonjudgmentalism, the trump card of moral debate, seems to have gained strength among the people, especially in the sexual realm, and this clearly does not bode well for America.”

The citizens, it seemed, were incapable of understanding momentous events. “The objection that the American people are opposed to impeachment ignores culture lags of historical frequency, including general opposition to the liberation of the slaves,” William F. Buckley, Jr., told The New York Times. The citizens were incapable of understanding momentous events because they had succumbed to the lures of hedonism, materialism, false modernity, “radical individualism” itself. “A certain portion of the American public is cowed by popular culture,” Craig Shirley, the conservative strategist who gave Michael Isikoff the heads-up on the unveiling of Paula Jones at the 1994 Conservative Political Action Conference, told the Times. “They do not want to be thought of as not being modern or sophisticated.”

“Given their obstinate lack of interest in the subject, asking a group of average Americans about politics is like asking a group of stevedores to solve a problem in astrophysics,” a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson, had written in 1996. “Before long they’re explaining, not merely that the moon is made of cheese, but what kind of cheese it is, and whether it is properly aged, and how it would taste on a Triscuit.” Within the movement, then, this censorious approach to the electorate was not entirely recent. What was recent was the extent to which the movement crusade to save America from its citizens would come to be acquiesced in by, which is to say aided and abetted by, that small but highly visible group of people who, day by day and through administration after administration, relay Washington to the world, tell its story, agree among themselves upon and disseminate its narrative. They report the stories. They write the editorials. They edit the Op-Ed pieces. They appear on the talk shows. They consult, they advise, they swap jobs, they travel with unstamped passports between the public and the private, the West Wing and the green room. They make up the nation’s permanent professional political class, and they are for the most part people who would have said of themselves, as Michael Isikoff said of himself, that they “did not think ideologically.”

And yet this was an instance in which the narrative they agreed upon, that the President’s behavior had degraded and crippled the presidency and the government and the nation itself, worked at every point to obscure, in some cases by omission and in other cases through dismissal as “White House spin,” what we now know to have been going on. It would have been possible to read the reports from Washington in four or five daily newspapers and still not know, until it was detailed by Renata Adler in the Los Angeles Times Book Review on March 14, 1999, that by the time Linda Tripp surfaced on the national screen as Monica Lewinsky’s confidante she had already testified in four previous Office of the Independent Counsel investigations: Filegate, Travelgate, the Vincent Foster suicide, and Whitewater.

In the face of even this single piece of information, a good many of the attitudes struck during the past year might have seemed, if not deliberate obfuscation, at best perplexing digressions. “I couldn’t buy the party line that this was more about Clinton’s accusers than his own actions,” George Stephanopoulos told us in his own mea culpa but not quite, All Too Human. On the first Sunday in February, when it seemed clear that there were not enough votes for conviction in the Senate, Cokie Roberts was still on-air calling for a censure vote, “a Democratic vote saying what he did was wrong.” Otherwise, she said, “the way it will be written for history is that this was a partisan witch-hunt, that it was an illegitimate process,” and “the spinners could certainly win if you do it that way.”

These people lived in a small world. Consider again the sentence that appears on page 357 of Uncovering Clinton, particularly its second clause: “I had relied on the elves for information at critical junctures—even while they concealed from me their role in bringing the Lewinsky allegations to the Jones lawyers and later to Ken Starr.” What we now know occurred during the past year was, in other words, a covert effort to advance a particular agenda by bringing down a president. We know that this covert effort culminated in the kind of sting operation that reliably creates a crime where a crime may or may not have otherwise existed. We knew all along that the “independence” of the independent prosecutor could have been, or should have been, open to some question, since, before his appointment as independent prosecutor, as was reported but allowed to pass unremarked upon in what passed for the “dialogue” on the case, he had consulted with the Jones legal team on the projected amicus curiae brief to be filed on behalf of the Independent Women’s Forum arguing that Jones v. Clinton should go forward. The Jones lawyer with whom he consulted, Isikoff tells us, was Gil Davis, whose billing records show that the talks covered four and a half hours, for which Davis billed Paula Jones $775.

The clues were always there, as they had been for Isikoff. There was always in the tale of the foolish intern and her disloyal friend a synchronicity that did not quite convince. There was from the outset the occasional odd reference in a news story, the name here and there that did not quite belong in the story, the chronology that did not quite tally, the curiously inexorable escalation of Jones v. Clinton. At least some of this, in other words, would appear to have been knowable, but it remained unacknowledged in the narrative that was the official story. “What drives Ken Starr onward?” Michael Winerip asked in The New York Times Magazine in September 1998. “Who is this minister’s son in such relentless pursuit that he forced the president to admit his sins on national television?”

Everyone has a theory on Starr. After the Lewinsky affair broke, Hillary Clinton called Starr “a politically motivated prosecutor who is allied with the right-wing opponents of my husband.” Harold Ickes, the former Clinton aide, says he sees Starr as a dangerous moralist who views the Clintons “like Sodom and Gomorrah and is hell-bent on running them out of Washington.”

Even Starr’s best friends don’t fully know what to make of it all. They were caught off guard when he took the independent counsel’s job in 1994 and are not sure why he wanted it. “I have no idea,” says Theodore Olson, a prominent Washington lawyer. “He never asked me. I was shocked when I heard the news.”

This was the same small world. Theodore Olson was a Washington partner of the Los Angeles-based Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Gibson, Dunn had also been the firm of William French Smith, attorney general during the Reagan administration. Kenneth Starr had been William French Smith’s chief of staff at the Justice Department, and it was Smith who in 1983 arranged Starr’s appointment to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, where he served with, and often voted with, Robert H. Bork. Olson was one of the lawyers, along with Robert Bork, enlisted by George Conway to prepare the Jones lawyers for the Supreme Court arguments that led to the Court’s 9-0 decision denying a sitting president immunity from civil suits. The preparation took place at the Army-Navy Club in Washington. At a point after Christmas 1997, concerned about the ideological reliability of Linda Tripp’s lawyer and under pressure to find a replacement before the cards started falling into place, Jerome Marcus and Richard Porter approached Theodore Olson about taking on Tripp’s legal representation. Olson could not.

Ann Coulter, via George Conway, then suggested James Moody, who could, and did. James Moody was a Washington lawyer and a member, along with George Conway and Robert Bork and Kenneth Starr, of the Federalist Society, an organization of conservative legal scholars and students which became influential during the Reagan administration and has been the recipient, according to The Washington Post, of at least $1.5 million from Richard Mellon Scaife’s foundations and trusts. Moody was also an admirer of the Grateful Dead, and, with Ann Coulter, had flown to San Francisco for the memorial concert after the 1995 death of Jerry Garcia. James Moody and Ann Coulter called themselves, according to Isikoff, “the only two right-wing Deadheads in Washington.”

Even Starr’s best friends don’t fully know what to make of it all.” Nor did we, since this was the tone in which the nation’s permanent professional political class had chosen to tell us the story. To suggest that the investigation might be ideologically motivated, we were told repeatedly, was to misrepresent “Ken” Starr, whose own tendency to encourage this reading was understood in Washington as a badge of scholarly innocence, a “clumsiness,” at worst an “amateurishness” (that was the editorial page of The Washington Post), the endearing “tin ear,” not important. “What’s important,” the Post declared in a February editorial calling for a bipartisan censure, “is to leave a clear record and a clear statement of the standard of conduct—the expectations—that this president has violated by the lying to escape being held to account that is a hallmark of his career.” Otherwise, the Post warned:

The president and his people will end up portraying this sorry episode as mostly a partisan proceeding, an effort by his enemies to win through entrapment and impeachment what they could not at the polls. Mr. Clinton will be the victim in this telling, not a president who dishonored the office but one who was caught up in a politics of personal destruction.

This merits study. The word “partisan,” as in “partisan proceeding,” suggests, in the United States, a traditional process, “taking sides,” “knows how to count,” Democrats, Republicans, the ballot box. The word “partisan,” then, worked to contain the suggestion that anything outside that tradition was at work here. Both the “president who dishonored the office” and the “one who was caught up in a politics of personal destruction” further trivialized what had taken place, reducing it to the “personal,” to a parable about the “character” of either the president or his attackers. By reducing the matter to the personal as by labeling it either “partisan” or “bipartisan,” it was possible to divest the matter of its potentially disruptive gravity, possible to avoid all consideration of whether or not a move on the presidency had been covertly run, of whether or not the intent of such a move had been to legitimize a minority ideological agenda, and of whether or not—most potentially disruptive of all—such a move was ongoing.

On November 2, 1998, the day before the midterm elections, The Washington Post published a much-discussed piece by Sally Quinn, a Post writer and the wife of former Post executive editor Benjamin Bradlee. Whether or not this piece should have been published became a matter of momentary controversy within the Washington establishment, precisely because it reported so accurately the collegial, even collaborative approach the establishment was taking to the matter at hand, the unwillingness to consider the ramifications of the refusal to conjugate the verb to conspire, the way in which an institutional forgetfulness was serving to preserve the sanctity of the Washington status quo. “Privately, many in Establishment Washington would like to see Bill Clinton resign and spare the country, the presidency, and the city any more humiliation,” Quinn wrote.

In 1972, when news reached the Post that there had been a break-in at the Watergate office of the Democratic National Committee, those assigned to work the story were local reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Woodward, Benjamin Bradlee wrote in his autobiography, A Good Life, was then “one of the new kids on the staff,” and Bernstein the “Peck’s Bad Boy of the Metro staff.” At that time Woodward and Bernstein were, in other words, Washington outsiders, and it was to their status as Washington outsiders that their ability to get “the real story” was commonly attributed. Those to whom Quinn spoke, on the other hand, seemed to believe that it was precisely their status as Washington insiders that gave them unique knowledge of the “real story” behind the drive for impeachment, which came down to what they saw as the President’s betrayal, by his failure to tell the truth, of the community and the country.

Those to whom Quinn spoke also seemed to believe that, despite their best efforts to disseminate it, this unique knowledge remained unshared by and unappreciated by the rest of the country. “Clinton’s behavior is unacceptable,” the pollster Geoff Garin told her. “If they did this at the local Elks Club hall in some other community it would be a big cause for concern.” “He came in here and he trashed the place, and it’s not his place,” David Broder of the Post said. “It’s a canard to say this is a private matter,” the Wall Street Journal columnist Albert R. Hunt said. “It’s had a profound effect on governance.” “There’s no way any president going through this process can be able to focus, whether on Kosovo or the economic crisis,” the NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell said. “It’s just a tragedy for everyone.”

But not necessarily for everyone in Washington. The President would soon be, as David Broder would write in the Post, “disgraced and enfeebled.” The time would soon come for the President, as Broder would also write, to “step aside for the man he clearly believes is well qualified to be his successor, Vice President Gore.” Since the matter had been so firmly established as “personal,” there would be no need to pursue the possibility that the “process,” or the “tragedy,” or the “profound effect on governance,” had been initiated by someone other than the President. In fact such a possibility need not even enter the picture, for this was a view from inside Washington, where those who did not “think ideologically” appreciated the drift, the climate, the wheeling of the ideological seasons, and also their access to whoever turns the wheel. As Quinn explained, “Starr is a Washington insider, too.”

This Issue

June 24, 1999