Presumed Guilty

Peter van Agtmael/Magnum Photos
Hillary Clinton at New England College in Henniker, New Hampshire, before the state primary, February 2016

Twenty years after Kenneth Starr delivered to Congress his report recommending the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, the former independent counsel has delivered a second report, in the form of a memoir, condemning Clinton all over again. The new report, however, contains only a few air-brushed examples of the sex scenes that distinguished the graphic original. Starr goes out of his way this time to disparage Hillary Clinton, who went virtually unmentioned in the original report. And there is a great deal of Starr bemoaning what he calls his victimization by the press, supposedly orchestrated by a handful of hostile, unscrupulous aides to the former president.

Contempt’s real revelation, however, appears to be inadvertent: long before dissembling about sex became the ostensible subject of the investigation, Starr and his staff’s personal dislike and mistrust of the Clintons, especially of Hillary, hardened into an absolute certainty that they were guilty of lawlessness on a gargantuan scale. The book then shows how that certainty helped turn a faltering right-wing political vendetta against a Democratic president into a constitutional crisis over consensual private behavior.

Starr writes in the belief that history has at last turned in his favor, and that his book can set the record straight and end his reputation as a politically driven inquisitor.1 “The moral compass of the country,” he writes, “has shifted.” Americans—“an indulgent” people in the 1990s—are now less willing to tolerate the alleged sins that justified his investigation of the Clintons. He expects that fair-minded readers will recoil at what he calls the Clintons’ contempt for “our revered system of justice” and Bill Clinton’s “shockingly callous contempt for the women he used for his pleasure.” Whereas his first report repulsed the public, he thinks he can now vindicate what was from the start an extremist effort to hurt and finally topple a sitting president by retrying it once again as a story of mendacity and sex.

In fact all the Clinton scandals, beginning with the Whitewater probe, originated in politics. Conservative Republicans believed that Ronald Reagan’s resounding victory in 1984 had secured for the GOP a lock on the presidency and was proof of a national conservative majority. By that reckoning, despite Clinton’s election by popular plurality in 1992, his presidency was illegitimate. That Clinton was a self-made, white southern baby-boomer, a gregarious, canny Rhodes Scholar with center-left politics and a feminist wife, made the situation all the more galling—and dangerous. Desperate times required desperate measures, lest the Democrats impose their liberal agenda on the nation. (“Whitewater is about health care,” Rush Limbaugh began telling his 20 million listeners in the spring of 1994.)

Even before the Republicans, led by Newt Gingrich, captured the House majority in November 1994—to the right, further proof…


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