The shot heard round the Capitol

A VAST CONSPIRACY By Jeffrey Toobin Random House 422 pp., $25.95

It's been a year since the Senate voted down articles of impeachment forwarded by the House, allowing President Clinton to stay in office by the skin of his gritted teeth. For most of us, it might seem a bit early to wade through a 400-page post-mortem of the scandal that led to that historic day. After all, America was force-fed the sordid details in every corner of the media, from the nightly news to the greasiest scandal sheets.

Jeffrey Toobin's "A Vast Conspiracy," a soup-to-nuts examination of the scandal, takes the disparate characters, facts, and disjointed timelines and reassembles them smartly for the historic record. It will appeal particularly to those news rats who hit the feeder bar for updates each day. Even for those of us who reported the story as it unfolded, the book Windexes the filmy glaze caked on by daily spinning and leaking.

Toobin's legal background gives his analysis authority and believability. His writing, like his commentary for ABC News, is accurate and fearless. He's unafraid to voice an opinion on the swirling undercurrents that swept tawdry accusations up to the terminal velocity of the Starr investigation and subsequent impeachment. It does not feel like a stretch when Toobin asserts his central point: Partisans are using the courts in this country to subvert the political process.

Right away, Toobin sticks it out there, unafraid to agree to some extent with Hillary Clinton's Jan. 27, 1998, declaration on NBC's Today Show that a "vast right-wing conspiracy" was at work against her husband and her. "Much evidence supports this view; the president's personal enemies devoted enormous energy to bringing him down," Toobin writes. "At the same time, however, the first lady's explanation neglected the president's own very considerable culpability in the matter," he continues. Throughout the book, he heaps blame on Mr. Clinton's personal reckless behavior.

Far more than just picking sides or re-creating a two-dimensional timeline, Toobin repeatedly bolsters his compelling case that legal activism brought to bear against the democratic process is corrosive. Especially in the case of the Clinton White House, where the whole shebang amounted to tawdry details.

Even for those who disagree with his assessment, the book is still hugely entertaining. There are plenty of scandal pellets to be found scattered throughout the analysis. There is a recounting, for example, that Lucianne Goldberg, the woman who urged Linda Tripp to secretly tape phone calls with Monica Lewinsky, used to brag about liaisons with President Lyndon Johnson. (Toobin's recounting of the braggadocio resulted in threats of legal action from Ms. Goldberg when the book neared publication. Those threats have recently fallen from the newspapers.)

Toobin also points to the serendipity that turned a single phone call to a no-name lawyer from a friend of Paula Jones into a presidential impeachment. That phone call made to virtually anyone else would have led nowhere.

Without Paula Jones, there would have been no sexual-behavior investigation by Kenneth Starr, no effort to corner Mr. Clinton on the perjury charges during the Aug. 17, 1998, videotaped deposition in the Monica Lewinsky case during which Mr. Clinton sipped Diet Coke.

Toobin also provides clarifying background and detail to the cast of characters, clarification that would have been useful during the scandal. The book's foreword includes five single-spaced pages of names and 11 pages of key dates. Like knowing the cleanliness of the pipelines that bring your drinking water, the advantages of understanding the conduits of personality through which the facts of this story traveled are unmistakable.

From Susan Carpenter-McMillan, Paula Jones's personal adviser; to John Whitehead, the one-time hippie-turned-conservative; to power broker, presidential confidant, and impeccable dresser Vernon Jordan, an unbelievable mosaic of faces takes shape. It begins to resemble the unsavory cartoon nemeses of the "Legion of Doom" that battled Batman and the Boy Wonder. But as Toobin makes clear in this fascinating story, there's nothing comic about it.

*James N. Thurman is a Monitor correspondent in Washington, D.C.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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