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More than a decade after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach President Bill Clinton, a law professor has provided a massively detailed account of how the nation arrived at such an ugly place.
The underlying drama of "The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr" (on sale Tuesday) traces the demise of the relationship between Clinton and special prosecutor Ken Starr -- brainy, talented Southerners born a month apart in 1946. After Starr and his team of lawyers finished their investigation of the president, a sort of truth emerged from the wildly conflicting stories of who did what to whom and when they did it. The Clinton story: A sex-addicted president cast a dark shadow over his two eventful terms in office because he could not keep his pants zipped. The Starr story: A high-powered lawyer (and former judge) known previously for integrity lost control of his good sense, causing a nation agony.
A vital question, in the end unanswerable, undergirds the inter- section of the two lives: Did the special prosecutor's investigation of a sitting president turn out so disastrously because of Starr's well-intended but inept job performance? Or did Starr hate Clinton, and thus use the investigation as a tool of a right-wing conspiracy to drive the president from the White House before the end of his elected term?
Gormley uncovered some new information through extensive interviewing of Clinton, Starr, presidential paramour Monica Lewinsky and many others, as well as gathering documents from previously closed files.
"Some new information" is not meant to damn the book with faint praise. It is a superb book, because Gormley has brought together so much information from the intersecting realms of law and politics, then woven it into a compelling, mostly chronological narrative.
Thankfully for readers, Gormley comes across as nonpartisan while chronicling one of the most politically partisan messes in American history. Whatever Gormley's personal politics, he never sounds like a Democrat or a Republican; his book neither blindly supports Clinton nor rails against him.
Gormley demonstrates again and again that the investigation seemed about to end numerous times, but dragged on because of changing personnel: After all, Robert Fiske, the initial special prosecutor appointed to investigate Clinton, never planned to depart before completing the investigation. It seems unlikely Fiske would have pursued Clinton's sexual affairs given the initial mandate to examine questionable financial dealings of Clinton and his wife, Hillary, before they entered the White House.
The prosecution -- and maybe persecution -- of Clinton distracted him from big decisions about the domestic economy, social welfare issues, waging war and peace. At bottom, the Starr investigation and the political fallout altered the world during the Clinton presidency and played a role in the ascension of George W. Bush rather than Al Gore to the White House.
Steve Weinberg lives in Columbia, Mo., and is the author of "Taking on the Trust." He is at www.steveweinbergwriter.com.