In response to:

Presumed Guilty from the March 7, 2019 issue

To the Editors:

Much as I admire Sean Wilentz, I am disturbed by the disconnect with human suffering revealed by a comparison of these two statements in his review of Kenneth Starr’s book Contempt [NYR, March 7]:

The memoir affects to defend the honor of women demeaned by the contemptible Bill Clinton. But it more strikingly discloses the contempt and prosecutorial fury that Starr and members of his staff reserved for uncooperative women, above all Hillary Clinton.


Susan McDougal, the ex-wife of the eccentric progenitor of the Whitewater project, Jim McDougal, refused to testify before the grand jury, fearing that saying anything other than what she believed the independent counsel’s office wanted would lead to her indictment for perjury. She wound up serving eighteen months in prison for civil contempt of court, eight of them in solitary confinement. Then, upon her release, Starr had her indicted on criminal charges of contempt of court (which ended in a hung jury) and obstruction of justice (which ended in an acquittal).

I supported Senator Clinton, and represented her at our caucuses. If I ever felt sorry for her, it was because of her contemptible husband (for whom I voted, twice). I don’t recall she ever served a day in prison, let alone “eighteen months…for civil contempt of court, eight of them in solitary confinement.”

I share Sean Wilentz’s outrage about the Starr inquisition (and am further outraged that Starr’s opinion is now sought by news media concerning the logistics of impeachment), but he robbed an innocent woman of a year and a half of her life, and continued to harass her after she was released. How is that legal? Why is he not accountable? “Above all Hillary Clinton” indeed.

Gerald Carpenter
Port Hadlock, Washington

Sean Wilentz replies:

While he misses my point—that Kenneth Starr and his staff harbored a singular, unsurpassed contempt for Hillary Clinton—Gerald Carpenter makes an excellent point of his own, that Susan McDougal suffered in terrible ways that Clinton did not. The reason is not that Starr despised and pursued McDougal more than he did Clinton. Starr admits in his book that he wanted to lock Hillary up, or at least have her indicted for perjury, but that he lacked any credible evidence. It was different with McDougal, who went to jail for civil contempt rather than risk Starr’s bringing perjury charges against her. McDougal’s situation left her in a much more exposed and vulnerable position than Clinton’s did. The important thing is that Starr, Brett Kavanaugh, and their colleagues deliberately trampled, as much as they could, whomever they cared to in their pursuit of the president. Those trampled included McDougal; Clinton; Julie Hiatt Steele; Vince Foster’s grieving widow, Lisa; and the Fosters’ children. As for accountability: that Kavanaugh now sits on the Supreme Court while Starr, the CNN sage, earns praise on Twitter from President Trump encapsulates the impeachment struggle’s lasting destructive legacy.