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The Death of American Virtue

More than a decade later, an in-depth look at the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

By Justin Moyer / March 4, 2010

The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr By Ken Gormley Crown Publishers 789 pp., $35

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Ask any historian: Nothing beats metaphors born of presidential scandal. When our highest elected officials transgress, their sins become symbols. Teapot Dome wasn’t just a crooked oil deal perpetrated by Warren G. Harding’s underlings, but Corruption in the Halls of Government; Watergate wasn’t just a break-in/coverup, but the End of the Public’s Trust in Elected Officials; Iran-contra wasn’t just the Reagan administration’s nutty attempt to fund opposition to socialist Sandanistas in Nicaragua with money from illegal arms sales, but the Final Flowering of America’s Cold-War Mentality. These great ethical lapses define 20th-century presidential politics, just as President Bill Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky’s illicit White House canoodling defined... or, at least, defined... uh... something or other... wait... what were we supposed to learn from that whole Lewinsky thing again?

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Even Ken Gormley, who spent nine years writing a new 789-page review of the Lewinsky affair called The Death of American Virtue, isn’t sure what Monica means. “It would remain unclear to many of those who participated in the drama, on both sides of the political aisle, exactly what it had accomplished,” Gormley writes of Clinton’s impeachment of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s recommendation and subsequent acquittal.

Gormley’s book, based on original interviews with Clinton v. Starr all-stars – including the president, the prosecutor, Lewinsky, Clinton harassee Paula Jones, FBI informant Linda Tripp, Whitewater conspirator Susan McDougal, and Republican Sen. Henry Hyde – is exhaustive and exhausting, but packs enough narrative punch to transport a reader back to a time when the economy was booming, “Friends” was on the air, and a chief executive’s semen ended up on his intern’s dress even though (according to Clinton’s untruthful testimony) they had never been alone together. (“Even Monica Lewinsky,” who perjured herself trying to protect the president, “concluded that Bill Clinton had lied under oath,” Gormley writes.)

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