A president and his famous nemesis

The epic Bill Clinton-Ken Starr battle created fault lines in U.S. life that still reverberate

A president and his famous nemesis

The impeachment trial of U.S. President Bill Clinton 11 years ago now seems an oh-so-last-century drama in ways more profound than the merely chronological. Before 9/11, before the financial meltdown of 2008—and the new set of American obsessions they spawned—politics in an at-peace and prosperous U.S. turned on a crisis that unfolded as political theatre. Slow moving, long running, and—for most Americans—pain-in-the-frontal-lobes-inducing, the epic battle between Clinton and his nemesis, independent counsel Ken Starr, had something to appall everyone. Key components ran the gamut from the incomprehensible (the murky Whitewater land deal), to the tragic (the suicide of White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster) to the tawdry (the semen-stained blue dress) to the farcical (the chief executive’s alleged genital peculiarity) to the bewilderingly existential: in the end, it all depended, as Clinton once desperately tried to explain, on “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”

But however ancient the story now appears, The Death of American Virtue, law professor Ken Gormley’s massive reconstruction of events, demonstrates how the impeachment saga created crucial fault lines in U.S. life that still reverberate, notably the venomously personal tone of American politics. Three separate freight trains had to smash into one another to propel Clinton to trial: Whitewater, the private lawsuit filed by Paula Jones alleging sexual harassment by Clinton when he was still Arkansas governor (it was Jones who swore his penis was “crooked”), and the president’s dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. As Gormley sets out, in almost mind-numbing detail, it required a barely credible series of coincidences and poor ad hoc decisions on both sides to permit those trains to collide.

Starr’s investigation of Whitewater was petering out by 1997, at least in terms of pinning something on a Clinton (Bill or Hillary), and he announced in February that he was stepping down. But Starr’s own staff rose in revolt, and what Hillary Clinton later called “the vast right-wing conspiracy” swung into action, as conservatives in the media lambasted the prosecutor for cowardice and lack of moral fibre. Starr retracted his resignation, and set his investigation on a new track, into a search for women who had had affairs with Clinton. Clinton and his supporters viewed the new tack as a politically motivated witch hunt into his private life, while Starr defended it as an attempt to leave no stone unturned.

The change in prosecutorial tactics brought the hitherto unrelated Jones lawsuit into play. That was a case a judge later dismissed, because Arkansas state employee Jones could not show any harm to her career from refusing the governor’s supposed advances, something needed to prove a harassment charge. (It was also, Gormley implies, possibly without any factual basis—“confidential sources,” he writes, assure him Clinton’s genitalia are perfectly regular.) Regardless of the merits of the case, launched in 1994, Clinton had an early opportunity to dispose of it merely by apologizing—as opposed to the $850,000 he later paid. But he stonewalled Jones to keep the case quiet until after his re-election in 1996, thereby allowing it to linger until Starr focused on it. And, crucially, to stay alive until after Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky—the impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice rose from denials of sexual relations with Lewinsky that he made under oath while testifying in the Jones case.

Eventually the entire country knew its president had lied to a jury, to his wife and daughter, and to them. The burning national question was what to do about it, what punishment fit this crime? Millions of Americans were revolted by the revelations and what they saw as a literal desecration of the Oval Office, but millions more saw Starr as Cotton Mather reborn, a sex-obsessed Puritan inquisitor bent on destroying a public official for his private sins. Starr’s outraged congressional supporters thought they finally had proof of Clinton’s rotten moral character, and a clear-cut case of a president perjuring himself. But throughout Clinton’s month-long trial in the Senate, senators wrestled with the stubborn fact that more than two-thirds of Americans—whatever they may have thought of Clinton’s actions—did not want to see their president thrown from office for lying about an affair.

Clinton was acquitted, but the bitterness—and the utterly divergent world views—still linger on both sides of the political divide.