The Good ‘Uns, the Bad ‘Uns, And a Few Words for Monica

A Vast Conspiracy , by Jeffrey Toobin. Random House, 422 pages, $25.95.

Where were you when President Clinton was impeached? Or when he was acquitted? Can you believe that you’ve not only forgotten, but that the whole ugly thing ended just a year ago?

Jeffrey Toobin recalls it all, and in A Vast Conspiracy , a superlatively researched and written book, lays it out. There is only one hero in this book–Judge Susan Webber Wright, the jurist who dismissed the Paula Jones case and later held Mr. Clinton in contempt, stands alone as “an isolated beacon of sanity in the darkness.” The remainder of the dramatis personae in the impeachment saga are deliciously skewered by Mr. Toobin.

Before Lucianne Goldberg and Paula Corbin Jones become the stuff of crossword puzzle trivia, remember them as Mr. Toobin does: the former as “Norma Desmond descending the staircase at the end of Sunset Boulevard , with her heart full of murder and longing … ready for her close-up”; the latter, in the midst of an interview with Mr. Toobin, turning to him and asking, “The Republicans? Are they the good ‘uns or the bad ‘uns?”

Or think of Mr. Toobin’s Kenneth Starr, filled with rage that some of his critics in Little Rock, Ark., “were spreading the false rumor that he was having an affair on his visits there.” What really angered him, Mr. Toobin says, “was that everyone–everyone!–thought the rumor was inconceivable.” These are good one-liners, but the book is better (and only occasionally worse) than that.

Particularly powerful is Mr. Toobin’s recitation of the failure of Mr. Starr to reach an agreement with Monica Lewinsky assuring her testimony at a time when it could be most effective. Within a week of Mr. Clinton’s flatly false public statement that he had not had a sexual relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, two representatives of the Office of Independent Counsel had reached agreement with Ms. Lewinsky’s lawyer, William Ginsburg, on an immunity deal. Ms. Lewinsky promised to testify about her sexual relationship with the President. While she refused to testify (falsely) that Mr. Clinton specifically urged her to lie about the relationship in her testimony in the Paula Jones case, she was prepared to testify (truthfully) that the President had told her generally to deny a relationship, if she was ever asked about it. On that basis, Bruce Udolf and Michael Emmick, on behalf of the Office of the Independent Counsel, agreed to grant immunity to Ms. Lewinsky. The Government attorneys faxed an immunity agreement to Mr. Ginsburg on O.I.C. stationery that would “confirm the agreement reached between Monica Lewinsky and the United States” and asked Ms. Lewinsky’s lawyers to sign it.

Mr. Toobin describes in detail the next day’s argument between lawyers on Mr. Starr’s staff about whether to countermand the agreement that Mr. Emmick and Mr. Udolf had negotiated. Pressed by staff members who were angry at a number of misstatements and–just as bad from their ideologically skewed perspective–pro-Clinton statements made by Mr. Ginsburg on his weekly tour of television news programs, Mr. Starr decided not to approve the immunity agreement his lawyers had negotiated.

It was a virtually unprecedented act. An agreement forwarded by the O.I.C. on its own stationery is one any defense counsel would have every reason to rely on. Mr. Toobin quotes Mr. Udolf’s angry response in the staff meeting with Mr. Starr: “I gave my word as a man and as a lawyer.”

But it was worse than a betrayal; it was foolish. Mr. Toobin persuasively demonstrates that Mr. Starr’s decision not to grant immunity at that time effectively assured that Mr. Clinton would remain in office. By the time Mr. Starr’s office agreed to a nearly identical immunity deal half a year later (Ms. Lewinsky by that time had new counsel), the entire legal-political situation had changed in Mr. Clinton’s favor.

Mr. Toobin cannot answer some of the still intriguing questions about the events leading to Mr. Clinton’s impeachment. I have always wondered about the decision of the three-judge court in Washington to dismiss Robert Fiske as independent counsel and substitute Mr. Starr in his stead. Mr. Fiske is a lawyer of such impeccable distinction and apolitical orientation that any findings he made against Mr. Clinton would have had instant and total credibility with all but the most implacable Clinton supporters. Mr. Starr himself had a fine reputation and had been a distinguished judge as well as Solicitor General. Yet he was anything but apolitical. While he had liberal as well as conservative friends and admirers throughout Washington, Mr. Starr was a committed “movement” conservative who was deeply involved in the Washington legal world of conservative ideologues.

Why then dismiss so superb a choice as Mr. Fiske? And why choose Mr. Starr to replace him? Charges of political motivation have been voiced by pro-Clinton proponents–and just recently by Mr. Clinton himself. What about the lunch that took place shortly before Mr. Fiske’s dismissal? In attendance were Judge David Sentelle (one of the three judges who dismissed Mr. Fiske and appointed Mr. Starr), Senator Jesse Helms and Senator Lauch Faircloth, two of Mr. Clinton’s severest critics. What was the impact, if any, of the Wall Street Journal editorial campaign against Mr. Fiske (himself a Republican but far too measured for the Whitewater-obsessed Journal )?

Mr. Toobin provides more information than previously published, but far too little upon which to pass judgment. He does reveal that the three-judge panel that selected the independent counsel was divided about replacing Mr. Fiske. Two of the judges, both Republicans, contended that the fact that Attorney General Janet Reno had chosen Mr. Fiske itself fatally compromised him. The third judge, a Democrat, saw no reason to dismiss Mr. Fiske at all and only acceded to the choice of Mr. Starr when another possibility (former Federal Appeals Court Judge John Gibbons) determined that he had a conflict.

Mr. Toobin’s portrayal of Monica Lewinsky is his least persuasive effort. His one-line disposition of her is funny–”before she became obsessed with the President of the United States, her only other serious interest in life was dieting”–and his other descriptions of her before her “relationship,” as she called it, with the President, are credible. But he gives her no credit at all for refusing, at considerable personal risk, to give Mr. Starr and his legal team the testimony they demanded–testimony that could have doomed the President. Since we have no reason to doubt (and Mr. Toobin himself seems not to doubt) the truth of the testimony she did give, is it not now time to acknowledge that she behaved with a level of probity, even with dignity?

In the end, Mr. Toobin describes what was a sort of vast conspiracy against the President, involving a secret cadre of conservative lawyers who set about surreptitiously to bring the President down; a Republican leadership in the House that was so “obsessed with his humiliation, with his ouster and with his sex life” that they were incapable of even considering any offer of compromise short of removal from office; and an Office of Independent Counsel so filled with venom at the person they were supposed to be dispassionately investigating that it gave him the tools with which to discredit the prosecutorial office itself.

It has always puzzled me what it is about Mr. Clinton that drives his opponents to such distraction. He is often said to be lucky in his enemies. It is truer to say that his dominion over them is such that his every sin disables them the more from defeating him.

Mr. Toobin’s portrayal of the President is far more nuanced than what most commentators have offered. He acutely depicts a man of intelligence and ability who was guilty of engaging in a sordid affair and then lying about it; guilty of contemptibly mistreating a loyal aide such as Betty Currie by subjecting her to grave personal risk as he attempted to exculpate himself; guilty of a pervasive moral obtuseness–and nowhere near guilty of anything sufficient to warrant impeachment.

What will history say it was all about? The cover of Mr. Toobin’s book sums it up: It was, after all, a “sex scandal that nearly brought down a President.” And the book’s conclusion asks a question that history is likely to repeat: “He was impeached for what ?”