Nearly a Coup

Bill Clinton
Bill Clinton; drawing by David Levine


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.

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