The Death of American Virtue
More than a decade later, an in-depth look at the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Ask any historian: Nothing beats metaphors born of presidential scandal. When our highest elected officials transgress, their sins become symbols. Teapot Dome wasnâ€™t just a crooked oil deal perpetrated by Warren G. Hardingâ€™s underlings, but Corruption in the Halls of Government; Watergate wasnâ€™t just a break-in/coverup, but the End of the Publicâ€™s Trust in Elected Officials; Iran-contra wasnâ€™t just the Reagan administrationâ€™s nutty attempt to fund opposition to socialist Sandanistas in Nicaragua with money from illegal arms sales, but the Final Flowering of Americaâ€™s Cold-War Mentality. These great ethical lapses define 20th-century presidential politics, just as President Bill Clinton and intern Monica Lewinskyâ€™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, isnâ€™t sure what Monica means. â€śIt would remain unclear to many of those who participated in the drama, on both sides of the political aisle, exactly what it had accomplished,â€ť Gormley writes of Clintonâ€™s impeachment of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starrâ€™s recommendation and subsequent acquittal.
Gormleyâ€™s book, based on original interviews with Clinton v. Starr all-stars â€“ including the president, the prosecutor, Lewinsky, Clinton harassee Paula Jones, FBI informant Linda Tripp, Whitewater conspirator Susan McDougal, and Republican Sen. Henry Hyde â€“ is exhaustive and exhausting, but packs enough narrative punch to transport a reader back to a time when the economy was booming, â€śFriendsâ€ť was on the air, and a chief executiveâ€™s semen ended up on his internâ€™s dress even though (according to Clintonâ€™s untruthful testimony) they had never been alone together. (â€śEven Monica Lewinsky,â€ť who perjured herself trying to protect the president, â€śconcluded that Bill Clinton had lied under oath,â€ť Gormley writes.)
How did an inquiry into Clinton associate James McDougalâ€™s shady Arkansas real estate ventures turn into a wince-inducing investigation of Slick Willieâ€™s love life? Clinton and Starr, â€śtwo 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,â€ť Gormley writes. â€śThe 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.â€ť Gormley, a former student of Nixon special prosecutor Archibald Cox who wrote a book about Watergate, offers a procedural not unlike Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosiâ€™s â€śHelter Skelter,â€ť setting aside tabloid gossip to focus on legal process â€“ in this case, the unprecedented constitutional crisis that threatened Clintonâ€™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 â€śsex,â€ť 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 â€™90s partisan rancor, itâ€™s to Gormleyâ€™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 â€ścame to disagree with the course taken by [Republican] Chairman Hyde during the failed impeachment effort.â€ť Itâ€™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. â€śHeâ€™d embarrassed hisself [sic] by doing what he did,â€ť says Paula Jones, portrayed as an Arkansan hick who â€śsipped Diet Cokeâ€ť and â€śmunch[ed] on fried provolone sticks dipped in ranch dressingâ€ť during an interview with Gormley, â€śa compromise lunch that was unhealthy but sufficiently small.â€ť The paranoid, megalomaniacal Linda Tripp is forever â€śhusky-voicedâ€ť and â€śsneaking in puffs of a cigarette.â€ť Gormley is kinder to Lewinsky, but frequent, unsympathetic references to White House â€śfemalesâ€ť remind readers that Clinton, impeached for lies he told about women on the strength of womenâ€™s testimony, still emerged from his trial as nothing less than presidential. Gormleyâ€™s muted sexism reflects the disturbing reality of Clintonâ€™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 Gormleyâ€™s title a bit of a head scratcher. â€śThe Death of American Virtueâ€ť makes one expect an indictment where none is forthcoming. Gormley doesnâ€™t imply that Clintonâ€™s sleazy behavior signaled the end of public morality, and never concludes that Starrâ€™s prosecutorial overreach amounted to a triumph of power over principles. So when did American virtue die, and did someone kill it?
Gormley doesnâ€™t know, but maybe itâ€™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.