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?
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.)
How did an inquiry into Clinton associate James McDougal’s shady Arkansas real estate ventures turn into a wince-inducing investigation of Slick Willie’s love life? Clinton and Starr, “two unusually talented Southerners who grew up in modest circumstances, each with ambitions to rise to great heights in public service, were born of the same time and place in American history,” Gormley writes. “The story of how their paths collided so forcefully,... is the story of how politics and law combined and exploded like gasoline touched by a torch.” Gormley, a former student of Nixon special prosecutor Archibald Cox who wrote a book about Watergate, offers a procedural not unlike Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter,” setting aside tabloid gossip to focus on legal process – in this case, the unprecedented constitutional crisis that threatened Clinton’s second term and handed George W. Bush the presidency.
Did Starr, hired to investigate a criminal land investment scheme, rightly expand his inquiry to charge Clinton for lying about sex, or was he a conservative Christian on a witch hunt? Had Clinton and Lewinsky, hiding behind a very limited definition of “sex,” perjured themselves by denying their dalliance under oath? These questions have no clear answers and, in the absence of Pentagon Paper-level wrongdoing and a decade removed from late ’90s partisan rancor, it’s to Gormley’s credit that he can sustain a long narrative, leisurely mediate on constitutional arcana at length, and remain neutral.
Well, mostly neutral. Gormley admits in an afterword that he “came to disagree with the course taken by [Republican] Chairman Hyde during the failed impeachment effort.” It’s an explicit, if last-minute, admission of a pro-Clinton bias lurking in the condescending way Gormley quotes anti-Clinton sources in dialect or turns them into caricatures. “He’d embarrassed hisself [sic] by doing what he did,” says Paula Jones, portrayed as an Arkansan hick who “sipped Diet Coke” and “munch[ed] on fried provolone sticks dipped in ranch dressing” during an interview with Gormley, “a compromise lunch that was unhealthy but sufficiently small.” The paranoid, megalomaniacal Linda Tripp is forever “husky-voiced” and “sneaking in puffs of a cigarette.” Gormley is kinder to Lewinsky, but frequent, unsympathetic references to White House “females” remind readers that Clinton, impeached for lies he told about women on the strength of women’s testimony, still emerged from his trial as nothing less than presidential. Gormley’s muted sexism reflects the disturbing reality of Clinton’s eight years in the White House: A likely sex addict became president and, whether or not he committed high crimes and misdemeanors, treated women poorly with no regard for the consequences.
This makes Gormley’s title a bit of a head scratcher. “The Death of American Virtue” makes one expect an indictment where none is forthcoming. Gormley doesn’t imply that Clinton’s sleazy behavior signaled the end of public morality, and never concludes that Starr’s prosecutorial overreach amounted to a triumph of power over principles. So when did American virtue die, and did someone kill it?
Gormley doesn’t know, but maybe it’s our very inability to take lessons from the Lewinsky scandal that signals a wavering of our moral compass. For, during that dark time in American history, whether in the Oval Office, in the Office of the Independent Counsel, in the media, or in the halls of Congress, there were no real good guys, and no real bad guys. There were just human beings making mistakes.
Justin Moyer is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.