Early on in A Vast Conspiracy, Jeffrey Toobin takes us
to a May 5, 1994 conference call between Paula Jones’s attorney
Gil Davis, and President Clinton’s lawyer, Bob Bennett:
talked to the president about this for hours and hours,’ Bennett
said, ‘and this just didn’t happen. You have no case.’ The two
men sparred inconclusively for a few minutes, and then Bennett
raised the stakes. ‘Did you know there are naked photos of your
client?’... Davis said he didn’t know about any naked photos,
but he would be interested to see them if they existed. ... Then
it was Davis’s turn to spring a surprise.
client says your guy has a unique mark on his penis, and she can
followed was a considerable silence."
In this irresistable passage and several others throughout *A
Vast Conspiracy*, Toobin perfectly captures the mixture of high
drama and low farce that made the Clinton impeachment imbroglio
such a guilty pleasure. Think Inherit
the Wind meets Benny Hill. Toobin, the New Yorker
reporter who chronicled the O.J. Simpson trial in the tightly
paced bestseller The
Run of His Life, seeks to repeat his success with this
account of the Lewinsky Scandal.
Unfortunately, Toobin’s considerable skills as a narrator are
undermined by his heavy ideological investment in defending Clinton.
Time Magazine reporter Nina Burleigh famously remarked
in the New York Observer, "I would be happy to give
[Clinton] a blow job just to thank him for keeping abortion legal...
American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads
on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs."
Toobin, too, has packed his kneepads along with his reporter’s
notebook, and the results are embarrassing.
Toobin sets the stage in the book’s Prologue, when he declares
that "Clinton was, by comparison [with his enemies], the
good guy in this struggle." At every turn, Toobin casts Clinton’s
behavior in the most flattering light imaginable. Discussing Clinton’s
videotaped grand jury testimony, Toobin burbles that "In
a peculiar way, one could see the Clinton cared for Monica Lewinsky...
there was, if not gallantry, a kind of affection as well."
Of the president’s August 17, 1998 televised nonapology, the failure
of which nearly drove Clinton from office, Toobin declares, "Clinton
displayed on this evening the skills that made him the most extraordinary
politician of his generation." Remember the White House prayer
breakfast that took place shortly thereafter? At that event, Clinton,
family Bible in hand, intoned: "As you might imagine, I have
been on quite a journey these last few weeks to get to the end
of this, to the rock-bottom truth of where I am and where we all
are." Toobin weighs in on this as well:
remarks—at once passionate, earnest, and humble—demonstrated a
kind of eloquence rarely seen in American life." To the less
star-struck among us, what they demonstrated is a kind of arrogance
and self-absorption that borders on the pathological. Who the
hell cared "where" the phony bastard was, and what could
that possibly have to do with "where" the rest of us
But it gets worse. Toobin mangles the facts and the law in an
attempt to clear his man of serious wrongdoing. Of Clinton’s attempt
to get Monica Lewinsky to file a false affidavit in the Paula
Jones case, Toobin says that it was "not even close"
to obstruction of justice. He explains that Clinton could have
been urging her to file "a truthful, if limited, affidavit
that might have gotten her out of testifying in the Jones case."
For instance, writes Toobin, "she could say that she had
no evidence relating to sexual harassment." Yes, and that
would surely stop the Jones lawyers from seeking to depose her.
Does Toobin really believe this nonsense? Clearly, nothing short
of a false affidavit—one denying sexual contact altogether—could
avoid piquing the Jones lawyers’ interest and spurring a subpoena
for Lewinsky. Just as clearly, that was the kind of affidavit
Clinton encouraged her to file, and which she did file.
By the time Toobin gets to his discussion of the constitutional
standard for impeachment, the screeching of Eleanor Clift rings
in your ears. The president’s adversaries, Toobin writes, "were
willing to trample all standards of fairness—not to mention the
Constitution—in their effort to drive him from office." Toobin,
of course, argues that Congress’s impeachment power can properly
be invoked only where there is an abuse of official power. But
historical practice in England and America never drew such a line.
Nor could it. Those left-wing academics who, in an uncharacteristic
attempt to divorce the personal and the political, tried to argue
that impeachment was limited to grave abuses of political power,
soon found themselves tripping over their own logic. My personal
favorite was University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein,
who suggested in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review
that murder may not be an impeachable offense. No kidding: "a
hard case" if committed for nonpolitical reasons. (Let’s
hope that Our Bill hasn’t figured out that the Sunstein standard
immunizes him from impeachment for rape, as well.)
What is it about Clinton, and what was it about the impeachment
period, that inspired such acts of journalistic and academic self-debasement?
Reporters like Toobin and professors like Sunstein peddled their
credibility as cheaply as Monica’s virtue in an attempt to cover
for a man who little deserves it. Why?
Well, for one thing, Clinton’s left-wing defenders perceived the
entire episode as a politically driven attempt to "get"
the President. Moreover, they associated that attempt with what
they saw as moral Babbitry and conservative sexual repressiveness.
Though their view was greatly exaggerated, it wasn’t entirely
without foundation, as Toobin shows. In particular, Paula Jones’s
second set of lawyers—conservative Christian activists connected
with the Rutherford Institute-used the lawsuit as an excuse to
troll through Clinton’s sexual past and expose him as an adulterous
lecher. If Nina Burleigh’s would-be theocrats were anywhere to
be found in the scandal, it was here. Interestingly, Toobin writes
that "the Clinton team began to refer to their new adversaries...
as the Branch Davidians." Maybe Jones’s lawyers are lucky
they weren’t gassed and barbecued.
When, a year later, a significant part of the perjury article
of impeachment revolved around where Clinton kept his hands during
Monica’s ministrations, the president’s defenders were able to
construct a narrative of right-wing prudery and inquisitorial
moralism. Of course, believing in that narrative required a good
deal of cognitive dissonance. For instance, the so-called "theocracy"
wouldn’t have gotten far without legal "reforms" that
the Clintonites backed: amorphous sexual harassment law and changes
to the Federal Rules of Evidence pushed by feminists and signed
by Clinton himself.
But no matter. The obvious personal venom with which many of Clinton’s
enemies pursued him allowed the president’s defenders to feel
like they were acting in the service of principle. They insisted
that the cause was larger than the man (in this case, almost any
cause is) and declared that they were fighting to preserve the
separation of powers, to protect our Constitution from being trampled
by a G.O.P. lynch mob.
But it’s hard to treat the posturing of Clinton’s defenders with
anything other than contempt. If they really gave a toss about
the Constitution or "destructive partisanship," they’d
have switched sides when Clinton twice decided that foreign lives
might justifiably be sacrificed to save his political viability.
Clinton’s eve-of-impeachment decision to bomb Iraq came shortly
after the president learned that he did not have the votes to
prevail. In that, it was of a piece with August 1998’s "anti-terror"
attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan, which came three days after
the president’s grand jury testimony and in the midst of a media
firestorm over his televised non-apology. If Toobin, Sunstein,
et al. couldn’t find anything suspicious about that chronology,
then I’ve got a bridge to the 21st century I’d like
to sell them.
Toobin can muster only a couple of oblique references to the biggest
story of the impeachment crisis. He briefly mentions "controversy"
over the president’s decision to bomb Iraq, clears his throat
nervously, and then quickly resumes his narrative of a tragically
flawed but good man hounded by moral zealots.
Toobin is not alone in focusing on the sex-and-celebrity related
aspects of the impeachment scandal to the exclusion of Clinton’s
gravest crimes against the moral law and the Constitution. The
media as a whole has shown criminal disinterest in Clinton’s applied
version of Clauswitz’s dictum that war is politics by other means.
Since the end of impeachment, Monica’s contract with Weight Watchers
and Linda Tripp’s facelift have consumed far more column-inches
in major newspapers than the steadily accumulating evidence that
the bombing of the El-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Sudan was
utterly without justification.
The Washington Post, the paper made its mark with Watergate,
did run a comprehensive, well-researched piece on the bombing
of the El-Shifa factory. The article, which ran on July 25, 1999,
made a sober and compelling case that the administration’s stated
rationales for the missile attack could not withstand serious
scrutiny. The plant did not, despite what Clinton claimed, manufacture
nerve gas; it made painkillers and repackaged imported pharmaceuticals
for resale in Sudan. Westerners intimately familiar with the plant,
including a British engineer who served as technical manager during
the plant’s construction, emphatically denied that it was used
for the manufacture of chemical weapons. Independent tests conducted
by the chair of the chemistry department at Boston University
confirmed that no nerve-gas precursors were present in the soil
around the factory. The CIA refused to release the sample it claims
to have relied on. Nor did the plant’s owner, Salah Idris, have
any connection whatever with Osama Bin Laden. Idris’s property
had been destroyed-and his assets seized-on that pretext; however,
when Idris filed suit, the U.S. government summarily issued an
order unfreezing his assets, rather than have to come forward
with its evidence in open court. The Post article closes
with a quote from Milt Bearden, former CIA station chief in Sudan
and a vociferous critic of the attack: "There’s something
wrong here. This won’t go away."
All in all, the article was a fine piece of journalism. But it
didn’t quite make the front page, or even the "A" section.
Instead, it was relegated to the Post’s "Style"
section. Sex and scandal on the front pages, presidential war
crimes next to the funnies and the horoscopes. That’s "adversary"
journalism in the Clinton era.
So, to recap: during the impeachment "crisis," President
Clinton waged war and murdered powerless foreigners in order to
serve his private political advantage. But to Jeffrey Toobin and
his ideological compatriots in the academy and the establishment
press, the real scandal is that Henry Hyde and Tom Delay are hypocritical,
moralistic prigs. This president attracts the kind of defenders