Starr’s Boswells Owe Ex-Judge an Apology

In journalistic circles, much has been made of alleged errors in A Vast Conspiracy , Jeffrey Toobin’s excellent account of the Clinton impeachment follies. Certain people rejoiced after Newsweek ‘s Michael Isikoff recently demanded and won a few corrections in future editions of the Toobin book.

Next came Susan Schmidt of The Washington Post , who was quite peeved by Mr. Toobin’s criticism of her and her leak-driven reporting during the Monica Lewinsky crisis. She, too, dispatched a letter seeking revisions, but her complaints were rejected by Random House. As co-author with Time reporter Michael Weisskopf of a new book more sympathetic to former independent counsel Kenneth Starr than was Mr. Toobin’s, she has powerful motives to discredit A Vast Conspiracy .

Authors make errors. Unlike many, Mr. Toobin was quite good-natured about correcting his mistakes, minor and arguable as they mostly appear to be. We are about to discover whether Ms. Schmidt and Mr. Weisskopf will behave with similar grace in confronting a very serious and damaging inaccuracy in their own book, Truth At Any Cost .

That title implies some deep purity of purpose in Mr. Starr’s appallingly partisan conduct as independent counsel, and the authors seem to identify with him in some respects. Rather pompously, they promote themselves as “objective” reporters who-unlike Mr. Starr’s “polemical” critics-are qualified to assess the events leading up to impeachment without bias. Actually, they are somewhat less impartial toward the former independent counsel and his aides than Charlie McCarthy would be in writing a biography of Edgar Bergen.

Consistently faithful to the Starr agenda, Truth At Any Cost slants heavily against the Clintons. Still worse, however, is the authors’ cavalier trashing of William Watt, a relatively obscure victim of their hero’s inquisition.

On page 10, they refer obliquely to a Starr witness who “met with the Clintons’ Washington lawyer, David Kendall, who was offering legal assistance and informal advice to witnesses interested in resisting Starr’s probe.” The explanatory footnote goes on to identify this witness as Mr. Watt, who, despite this supposed intervention by the President’s attorney, “ultimately pled guilty and cooperated with Starr’s investigation.”

That sentence is inexcusably inaccurate. As Mr. Watt himself says, it is “a complete and total falsehood. That is a lie. I didn’t plead guilty to anything because I wasn’t charged with anything.” Although the former Little Rock judge was a target of Mr. Starr’s investigation, he was never indicted by the independent counsel or anyone else.

Moreover, neither he nor his attorney ever colluded in any way with Mr. Kendall, since they have had not the slightest contact with him. “That too is inaccurate,” said Mr. Watt. “I’ve never met David Kendall. Mark Hampton, my lawyer, has never met David Kendall.” The Clintons’ counsel agreed. “That’s simply false. I never met or spoke with William Watt or his lawyer.”

The real story of Mr. Watt’s harsh encounter with the Office of the Independent Counsel is complicated and revealing. When Mr. Starr’s deputies found him unwilling to bolster the testimony of David Hale, their chief Whitewater witness against the President, they threatened indictment. “They tried to intimidate me, bankrupt me,” he recalled. As the Starr prosecutors knew, however, he was innocent of wrongdoing despite his dealings with Mr. Hale. Indeed, he had tried to expose Mr. Hale’s $2 million fraud against the federal government several years before the crooked businessman was finally indicted in 1993. Unable to indict Mr. Watt, the O.I.C. eventually immunized him.

But later the prosecutors found him recalcitrant on the witness stand, and smeared him in open court as an “unindicted co-conspirator.” That ridiculous accusation appears nowhere in court papers filed by the O.I.C., says Mr. Watt, but it was sufficiently damaging to force his resignation from the bench and the forfeiture of his pension. Today he suffers the fresh indignity of being depicted as a conniving felon, in a book widely hailed by conservative commentators as the honest corrective to White House spin.

No doubt the O.I.C. would have liked to convict Mr. Watt of some offense. Like so much of Truth At Any Cost , the passage about him may merely reflect the wishful thinking of Mr. Starr and his deputies.

Mr. Watt, who is now practicing law in Little Rock, Ark. is quite angry that the authors didn’t bother to contact him or his attorney. He intends to demand a retraction and apology from Ms. Schmidt, Mr. Weisskopf and their publisher, HarperCollins. “We will pursue it,” he said.

So before they point to the alleged errors in anybody else’s journalism, Ms. Schmidt and Mr. Weisskopf should sit down and compose a suitably abject public apology to Bill Watt. He’s got it coming, and so do they.