An American Editor

March 31, 2010

On Books: The Death of American Virtue

As I have written in earlier posts, I like to read nonfiction history. As is true of many readers, I have subject area interests, some broad, some narrow. For example, I am interested in antisemitism as a broad topic and more narrowly the Alfred Dreyfus Affair that rocked late 19th century France. I am interested in World War II, mainly the European theater, but more narrowly on the Nazis and the Third Reich and its antisemitic and genocidal behavior. I am not much interested in the FDR presidency (surprising, I suppose, since I live near his presidential library) except for his failed attempt to pack the U.S. Supreme Court in 1937. I am also very interested in the history of slavery and the American Civil Rights movement.

But one thing that has fascinated me is the impeachment process. I guess my interest was first aroused listening to the Watergate hearings and Senator Sam Ervin. I was appalled by the Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon’s attempt to quash the investigation — America is not supposed to work that way — and pleased with how the independent counsels approached our constitutional crisis, displaying both a sense of fairness and justice along with a regard for history. I thought I was living in rare times, witnessing events not seen since Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and unlikely to be seen again in my lifetime. I didn’t know how wrong I was.

Twenty-five years later history was to repeat itself in the form of William Jefferson Clinton. But this time, things were different.

Today many of us are appalled at the partisanship displayed by elected officials. Even at my local county level, the partisanship is appalling — and it gets worse as each day passes. This partisanship, I think, is one of the lasting legacies of the Reagan presidency. I think Reagan gave birth to the divide and subsequently elected presidents and congressman have consciously worked at making it worse, not better.

Ken Gormley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr is an excellent telling, in neutral terms, of one of the major political divides and one of the foundational pillars of our current partisanship. I found the story and the writing compelling; I had great difficulty in putting the book down for the night.

Let me say upfront that I was one of many Americans who thought Clinton’s impeachment was wrong. My view, like that of many fellow citizens, was that lying about sex between consenting adults is simply not an impeachable offense. I saw the process simply as wasting taxpayer dollars in an attempt by the right to remove a president who was too far left for their liking. Had the president had sex with a child (i.e., someone not older than 21) or with a spy for another country, then impeachment would be proper; but sex with a 24-year-old consenting adult who was not a spy and was not promised a job was none of my business. Like many Americans, I wasn’t interested in what was to me a family problem. I had little respect for Ken Starr and the Office of Independent Counsel. All I saw was a rigid moralist who was out to get a left-leaning president any way he could.

Gormley’s book provides a more balanced and nuanced perspective. Although my overall opinion hasn’t changed, I better understand the dynamics between the parties. Gormley interviewed nearly all of the key players in the investigation and impeachment, including, Clinton, Starr, Tripp, and Lewinsky. What comes out is that the investigation was a tragic comedy of errors. Probably the most important revelation is how Ken Starr, a well-respected judge and lawyer, was such a mismatch for this investigation.

The tragedy begins with Paula Jones. What started as a minor diversion that would not have amounted to anything had the accused been anyone but the president, soon escalated with the help of “elves” — conservative lawyers who began pushing Jones, seeing her lawsuit as a vehicle to get Clinton, but pushing and aiding in the background, never coming to forefront. Jones began with high motives, but soon got sidetracked as her husband kept pushing her, making increasingly impossible demands of Clinton and finally quashing a settlement.

The investigators had their own problems. Starr was involved in the Jones case, albeit peripherally, but failed to disclose his involvement when offered the post of independent counsel. Starr also had poor management skills, preferring to manage by consensus rather than exercise his own judgement, leading the stronger-willed, more conservative attorneys to become the decision makers and pushing their own anti-Clinton agenda.

The real victim in this fiasco was Monica Lewinsky. She was abused by everyone: by her best friend, Linda Tripp, who surreptitiously tape recorded conversations with her; by Clinton, who took advantage of a woman who thought she was in love with him; by Star and his staff, who braced her repeatedly and denied her requests for a lawyer and who threatened and coerced her mother and father as a means of putting pressure on her; by one of her attorneys, whose methodology didn’t protect her; and by the judges, who should have supervised more closely and not promoted their own agendas.

American virtue began its death march in the Reagan administration (Iran Contra being but one example), but it had its full outing in the Clinton impeachment. Ken Gromley’s The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr adds perspective to the events that led to the constitutional crisis of the late 1990s. This is a book that every American should read, regardless of whether they believe Clinton should have been impeached or not, because it is the story of a system run amuck, the story of what happens when politics is more important than the American people whom the politicians ostensibly serve, and because it is a warning about our current state of partisanship — the destruction it could lead to if allowed to continue along its current path.

Well written, informative, and important are the words that describe The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, perhaps the most important book on recent American history published in recent years.

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