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updated 2/25/2010 12:17:04 PM ET 2010-02-25T17:17:04

The 1994 scene from Bill Clinton's first trip to Russia is etched in my memory. As the bedraggled White House press corps staggered into Moscow's Metropol Hotel shortly before dawn after a midnight stopover in Kiev, Clinton press aides greeted reporters with these cheery instructions: "Check-in to the left, Whitewater statements to the right."

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It seemed bizarre at the time that a domestic political scandal like Whitewater — a small-time Arkansas land deal gone bad — would dominate a presidential trip that cemented agreements with Ukraine and Belarus to relinquish the nuclear weapons they had inherited from the former Soviet Union.

But, in hindsight, that White House statement announcing that Clinton had asked Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Whitewater was the political equivalent of a thermonuclear explosion.

That fateful Clinton decision to appoint a special prosecutor (who later was replaced by Kenneth Starr) culminated nearly five years later in the House of Representatives voting for only the second time in American history to impeach a president. Without excusing Clinton's predatory sexual behavior and his willingness to shade the truth and even lie under oath, this Starr-crossed chain of events ruined lives, marred reputations, and polarized a nation in a titanic struggle over what now seems like so little. An emblematic moment of ugliness came in a Virginia hotel room as federal prosecutors and FBI agents abusively questioned (and discouraged from calling her lawyer) a frightened 24-year-old former White House intern named Monica Lewinsky, who sobbed: "My life is ruined. Who's going to marry me now?"

This march of folly (legal, political, and human) is memorably retold by law professor Ken Gormley in his densely researched and grippingly readable new book, published this week, "The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr." Gormley, the interim dean at Duquesne University Law School, is primarily interested in the legal side of the equation, especially the inside story of the Office of Independent Counsel under Starr as its mission morphed from probing the Clinton family's finances to analyzing the DNA on a semen-stained size 12 blue dress from the Gap. But Gormley, who talked on the record to virtually everyone caught up in this depressing saga with the conspicuous exception of Hillary Clinton and Vernon Jordan, is out to do more than portray the impeachment drama as Watergate for the sex-obsessed. By avoiding cardboard-character heroes-and-villains journalism, Gormley's understated narrative ends up stressing all the quirks of fate and cosmic misjudgments that produced the out-of-control Starr investigation.

When galleys of this 769-page book first circulated last December, they were strip mined for revelations, such as Monica Lewinsky's belief that Clinton had lied under oath and betrayed her: "I guess my biggest disappointment was that he just turned out not to be the person that I thought he was, that I thought I knew." Perhaps most intriguing is Gormley's assertion at the end of the book (this one not buttressed by on-the-record evidence) that "there was a romantic affair, albeit brief in duration," between Clinton and Susan McDougal, who spent two years in prison for refusing to cooperate with the Starr investigation.

But the enduring power of "The Death of American Virtue" lies not in its mini-scoops but in its implicit historical case against ever again appointing special federal prosecutors — independent counsels who operate outside the Justice Department's chain of command, unfettered by budgetary concerns or time limits. This is a major departure for Gormley, whose prior book was an admiring biography of Archibald Cox, the original Watergate special prosecutor. But it is difficult to escape the revisionist conclusion that the exemplary ethical and practical records of Cox and his eventual successor Leon Jaworski were aberrations — that the far-reaching powers of independent counsels are an invitation to prosecutorial arrogance and self-righteous certainty.

This is a lesson constantly forgotten by both left and right amid the hurly-burly of American politics. Four years after denouncing the independent counsel's Starr-chamber tactics in pursuing Clinton, liberals were loudly clamoring for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate the purportedly punitive leak of Valerie Plame's status as a covert CIA operative. (Plame's husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, had angered the Bush administration by challenging its pre-Iraq War claims that Saddam Hussein had tried to obtain uranium yellowcake in Africa.) When the dust settled after prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's brass-knuckle investigation, the initial leaker was unexpectedly revealed to be former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage (Colin Powell's ally as a work-through-the-U.N. dove on Iraq); the only conviction was for conduct after the Fitzgerald investigation began (Dick Cheney aide Scooter Libby was found guilty of perjury and obstruction of justice); and one reporter went to jail and another almost followed her because of Fitzgerald's contempt for the tradition that journalists should protect confidential sources. It is hard to make the case that Fitzgerald (a left-wing hero) came much closer to the mythical notion of impartial justice than Starr (a right-wing icon).

Gormley limits himself to the Starr vs. Clinton story — and his excessively fair-minded approach underscores the flaws of the Inspector Javert monomania of special prosecutors. The original Whitewater investigation revolved around the business antics of a beguiling and manic Arkansas political rogue named Jim McDougal who, as Gormley put it, "began coming [mentally] unglued just as Bill Clinton's career in politics began soaring." The Clintons' 1978 small-stake, no-money-down investment in McDougal's ill-fated Whitewater vacation development was a mistake that haunted them all the way to the White House. But for all of McDougal's bizarre record keeping and Hillary Clinton's unconvincing explanations of her occasional legal work for this small-town hustler (who also owned the bankrupt Madison National Bank), it is nearly unfathomable in retrospect that this unprofitable investment by the Clintons was treated by the press, the Republicans, and the special prosecutor as a major scandal. As Bill Clinton crony, Hillary law partner, former associate attorney general, and convicted felon (for bilking his law firm) Webster Hubbell said to Gormley about the Starr investigation: "I'd love to know what they were really after. It's never clear to me — what did they think the Clintons had done that they couldn't prove?"

But there remains a bigger mystery, one that Gormley fails to unravel despite his methodical interviews: "The precise impetus for Starr's switching gears in the Whitewater/Madison investigation, directly zeroing in on Bill Clinton's extramarital sexual liaisons, remains a puzzle within a puzzle." First, Starr became entangled with Paula Jones' Arkansas-based sexual harassment suit against the president, which was belatedly settled by Clinton in late 1998 for $850,000. One of Gormley's delightful little nuggets is the revelation that "evidence from confidential sources now establishes with near certainty that the alleged 'distinguishing characteristic' described by Paula Jones at the time of her encounter with then-Governor Clinton in 1991 did not exist, as an anatomical matter."

Even more problematic was Starr's justification for seizing on the tip from Linda Tripp (whose conduct has not aged well even in this non-judgmental re-telling) about Monica Lewinsky's involvement with Clinton. The key for Starr was, as he later told Gormley, the "connection between Vernon Jordan and Monica Lewinsky" in helping her find a job at Revlon in New York purportedly in exchange for her silence. There turned out to be only one problem: There is no evidence that this quid pro quo deal ever happened and Lewinsky has consistently denied it. As Gormley writes, "The concern about the Vernon Jordan connection, while valid on the surface, proved to be a colossal overstatement. OIC [Office of the Independent Counsel] had embraced the Jordan story (as told by Linda Tripp) with open arms — largely because they wanted to believe it."

Just days after Bill Clinton's latest heart scare, it is tempting to relegate his exploitive treatment of Monica Lewinsky, now in her mid-30s, to a bin marked "Ancient History." But it is also sad to read Lewinsky's final interview last year with Gormley as she admits, "I have contemplated moving to a remote country or changing my name." In a world filled with youthful misjudgments, she is unfairly fated (thank you, Mr. President) to always be equated with the punch line of a dirty joke.

As for Ken Starr, he is in the news this week after being named president of Baylor University. To his credit, he belatedly recognizes that he badly erred in seizing jurisdiction over the Lewinsky matter, telling Gormley, "It had to be investigated, but I was a poor choice to do it." Of course, that rueful acknowledgment and $3 might buy you a small Starbucks coffee on the Baylor campus.

Too bad that — thanks to Starr and Clinton — America had to squander much of the 1990s on over-hyped scandals, over-zealous prosecutions and an over-sexed president.

© 2013 PoliticsDaily.com

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