From the VG Bookshelf: Ken Starr’s “Contempt,” Part 1
From the VG Bookshelf: Ken Starr’s “Contempt,” Part 1
Ken Starr has finally written his memoir about the Clinton Investigation, and the book, titled “Contempt,” evoked two strong reactions in me as I read it. The first reaction was disgust. The second reaction was relief.
As Starr writes in his introduction, he was not particularly eager to write a book on his time as independent counsel, investigating the Clintons and the many webs that they wove before and during the 1990’s. He starts off with:
Much of the drama was tragically unnecessary, a self-inflicted wound by a talented but deeply flawed president who believed he was above the law. In the long and painful saga, he showed contempt not only for the law, but for the American people, whom he willfully misled for his political self-preservation. He also demonstrated a shockingly callous contempt for the women he had used for his pleasure.
Yet ultimately, the president was lucky. An indulgent and prosperous nation readily forgave Bill Clinton and instead blamed the prosecutor.
That would be me. (Introduction, pages xi-xii)
But in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential election defeat, Starr felt that it was time to write his personal account of his time in the Office of the Independent Counsel (OIC). And it reads like a true crime novel – except that these events are all ones that anyone over the age of 40 are going to most likely vividly remember.
Starr meticulously lays out the case that the independent counsel – and the sheer number of legal minds, clerks, staff, and advisors, not to mention FBI agents and IRS agents – was handed within a year of Bill Clinton being elected in 1992. That case was the land deal called “Whitewater.” Eventually, people would spend time in prison because of the financial shenanigans tied to Whitewater, but not Bill and Hillary Clinton. Famously, they maintained just enough amnesia while testifying to deny their own involvement and admit to nothing. The independent counsel team were shocked by their outright prevarication, especially Hillary’s.
Her responses were so glib, so superficial, they were almost “in your face,” alternating on the theme of profound memory loss. In the space of three hours, she claimed, by our count, over a hundred times that she “did not recall” or “did not remember.” This suggested outright mendacity. To be sure, human memory is notoriously fallible, but her strained performance struck us as preposterous. (Chapter Nine, “White House Depositions,” pages 100-101)
We had a two-hour briefing on the depositions over steak and baked potatoes. Hillary’s extraordinary lapses of memory – especially for a lawyer and self-described policy wonk – were not credible. Back at our office, we all agreed that we were unimpressed with Hillary’s performance. One staff member described her as “affirmatively dislikable.” (Ibid, page 101)
Of course, this would not be the last time that the so-called “smartest woman in the world” would not be able to remember who did what and when, or what “wiping a server” meant.
With each rock that got overturned, Starr faithfully records the next domino that popped up. Vince Foster’s suicide, which led to the drama that surrounded the firing of the entire White House travel office (now known as “Travelgate”). Foster’s suicide also led to the search for the missing Rose Law Firm records – which miraculously appeared in the Book Room of the White House, four years after they had been subpoenaed. Then-Attorney General Janet Reno handed “Filegate” – the discovery of FBI background-check files within the White House – to Starr’s team when then-FBI Director Louis Freeh pointed out that the FBI could not investigate due to “conflict of interest.”
While all of these investigations, criminal cases, and depositions were happening, Paula Jones was suing Bill Clinton in civil court. The Jones case was not under Starr’s purview, and as he points out, Bill Clinton could have made the whole thing go away by simply settling out of court with Paula Jones. But a settlement would have been the equivalent of admitting that Clinton had done something wrong – and Bill simply could not admit that. And then the OIC got a phone call from Linda Tripp – who was the last person in the White House to see Vince Foster alive – about how a certain young woman named Monica Lewinsky was trying to get Tripp to lie under oath in the Jones case. And as we all know now, that was simply the start of all hell breaking loose.
The only reason that Ken Starr and the OIC even began investigating Linda Tripp’s tip about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky’s relationship, and the following suborning of perjury, is because they went straight to the Justice Department to get the authorization to do so. This was not just a rogue prosecution regarding sex, as Clinton’s lawyers would claim later. Starr and his team went straight to the then-Deputy Attorney General, Eric Holder (yes, THAT Eric Holder) with the information. Holder went to Reno, and Reno got an “expansion of jurisdiction” approved by the Special Division judges that appointed the independent counsel. Starr and the OIC offered to let the DOJ handle investigating Linda Tripp’s story. Instead, Reno gave the case to Starr.
Reading through Starr’s perspective of the sheer upheaval that followed is riveting, and it displays the true nature of Bill Clinton in a manner that is indelible. When Starr named the book “Contempt,” he didn’t just mean one of the final legal judgments on Bill Clinton (he was found in contempt of court by Judge Susan Webber Wright in an Arkansas court on April 12, 1999, imposing sanctions and fines in the Paula Jones case, before he was stripped of his law license by both Arkansas Supreme Court and by the United States Supreme Court). He meant how Bill and Hillary flouted the rule of law, carefully wrapped themselves in legalese for protection, and still, Bill Clinton could not keep his pants on, got caught, and got Monica Lewinsky to lie in an affidavit, all to save his political career.
After finishing the book, my initial impressions of disgust and relief remained. Disgust at how the Clintons were allowed to re-invent themselves – even after all of this!- because they had willing spin doctors, friends with money, a media so eager to call what happened “just about sex,” and entire organizations dedicated to get the public to “move on” and just forget what despicable characters they had revealed. Disgust that Hillary Clinton continued to build her own political career, even though she got caught AGAIN, on her own arrogance and paranoia, and got people to lie or plead the Fifth to cover for her. Disgust at how the media protected both of them.
And the relief. Sheer, unabated relief that the Clinton era of politics is indeed over. Relief that Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump, that she will never, ever, be president of the United States. And relief that neither Bill nor Hillary hold the political power or clout to continue to damage people’s lives.
Read “Contempt” for yourself, and I think you will come away with the same feelings.
Part 2 of this review will be published next week.
Featured image: Book cover by Sentinel, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, and original artwork by Darleen Click