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27 February 2024

Whitewater scandal is a seething read

The book seldom feels padded or tedious – in fact, it's addictive. (SUPPLIED)

By Craig Seligman

When Kenneth Starr spent four years investigating President Bill Clinton, he didn't seem overly concerned about privacy. Starr's witch hunt began with the real-estate imbroglio known as Whitewater, got tangled with Paula Jones's sexual-harassment suit against the president and culminated in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The world was treated to lewd details about cigars and a stained dress.

When it came to their own conduct, however, Starr and his prosecutors had a different standard. Readers of Ken Gormley's The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs Starr will learn that an unfavourable Justice Department report on the conduct of Starr's Office of the Independent Counsel (OIC) "remains locked in a government archive".

Why? Starr's prosecutors "aggressively fought" to keep it under wraps, because "it would disclose 'personal' information protected by the Privacy Act that might harm the professional reputation of OIC lawyers". Those would be the same lawyers, Gormley says, who "had disgorged a mountain of private information relating to scores of people whom they were investigating" – including the Starr Report, 452 pages of unprecedented salaciousness whose overreaching ambition to unseat the president, in Gormley's view, is probably what saved him.

Jo Ann Harris, the former Justice Department lawyer who wrote the hidden report, revealed serious doubts about how Starr's office handled Lewinsky, questioning her even after she repeatedly asked for a lawyer.

Gormley takes a scrupulously neutral approach – he blames everybody. This scholarly rigour convinced almost all the major players to talk to him; I noted only a few conspicuous absentees (Hillary Clinton, Vernon Jordan and Judge Susan Webber Wright) from the 160-plus interviewees in his list of sources. The bland portentousness of his prose ("Behind closed doors, the White House crisis team was preparing for nuclear warfare") may be inevitable when a writer of middling talent addresses himself to dire events. But Gormley does such a masterly job of organising his voluminous material that the momentum of events takes over. The book seldom feels padded or tedious – in fact, it's addictive.

Not many people emerge looking good, with the exception of Susan McDougal, the Whitewater defendant who spent almost two years in jail for refusing to testify about Clinton; and Lew Merletti, the head of the Secret Service. Lewinsky comes off as smart, sane and surprisingly strong. It's disappointing to learn that Clinton has never apologised to her (or contributed anything toward her $2 million, Dh7.4m, in legal fees), but this callousness doesn't extinguish the dazzle of the magnificent political animal who, badly wounded, whirls on his pursuers and mangles them. As for Starr, the unimpeachable Boy Scout who wrecks lives blandly and remorselessly, it took me a while to figure out who he reminded me of, but I finally got it: Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The Death of American Virtue is available on order at UAE bookstores from Dh110


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