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'Clinton Vs. Starr': A 'Definitive' Account

Feb 16, 2010 (Fresh Air)

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For the past nine years, Duquesne law professor Ken Gormley has worked on what he calls the "definitive neutral historical piece" about President Clinton's impeachment. His new 800-page book The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr analyzes the events leading up to Clinton's impeachment, while offering new revelations about many of the key players.

Gormley recounts the scandal on Fresh Air, outlining the motivations of Ken Starr, Linda Tripp and Paula Jones, among others — and tracing exactly what happened more than a decade ago in Washington.

"This started out of Whitewater," Gormley tells Terry Gross. "And it escalated into this thing that almost derailed [Clinton's] presidency. It turned into the Monica Lewinsky investigation, which then turned into the second impeachment trial in history. And it's an event that almost every American remembers and had strong opinions about — like the assassination or the removal of Nixon."

The investigation of Bill Clinton began in January 1994, when Attorney General Janet Reno appointed special prosecutor Robert Fiske to head the Whitewater investigation. Fiske's appointment, Gormley writes, first "prompted universal praise ... among Republicans."

The praise lasted for several months — until Fiske wrapped up his criminal investigation within six months of his appointment. The short investigation, combined with Fiske's announcement that there was "no evidence that issues involving Whitewater, or other personal legal matters of the president or Mrs. Clinton, were a factor in [Vince] Foster's suicide," caused Republicans to declare Fiske "unfit for the job," Gormley writes.

When Congress decided to reauthorize the independent counsel investigation, the three-judge panel overseeing the independent counsel decided to replace Fiske with another attorney, Kenneth Starr.

Starr, Gormley says, "did as good a job as he could do [during Whitewater]. Certainly there were others around him eager to find wrongdoing and came together to produce a witch hunt. But I don't think Ken Starr was out to bring down Clinton."

Clinton, however, saw otherwise. "President Clinton believed from the start that this was nothing but a political witch hunt," Gormley says. "In his mind, they were out to get him because they wanted a regime change and were willing to go for broke."

In December 1997, Starr shut down the Whitewater investigation because of insufficient evidence. A month later, Linda Tripp called Deputy Independent Counsel Jackie Bennett and said she had taped conversions with Monica Lewinsky about an affair with the president.

The decision to move from Whitewater to Lewinsky, Gormley says, "altered Ken Starr's legacy as a prosecutor."

"There is no question that [Starr's office] had lost perspective," Gormley says. "Their job was not to get a person — it was to investigate. And there was such a lack of restraint on both sides, which ended up being bad for the country."

Gormley says the time he spent writing his book led him to believe that the Clinton impeachment was a precursor for today's divided political landscape.

"This is the beginning of the sharp division of red and blue," he says. "It's a tragic story ... and it's essential that we do not let something like this happen again."

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