Chronicle of an important chapter in US history

By Claude R. Marx
Globe Correspondent / February 20, 2010

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They’re back.

Eleven years after the Clinton impeachment saga ended with all sides looking unseemly one might think that there isn’t much new to write about it. Not quite.

Ken Gormley, acting Duquesne University Law School dean, has spoken to most of the key players and done some legal analysis and produced an interesting, though too long and overwritten book.

Gormley has no ideological ax to grind and for the most part “The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr’’ is quite balanced.

He breaks some new ground in several areas, including unearthing Whitewater culprit James McDougal’s psychiatric records, which showed how ready he was to provide damaging information about the Clintons’ involvement in the financial scandal in an effort to be paroled. Gormley writes that McDougal “had found religion and had directly contradicted President Clinton on key points crucial to the Whitewater and Madison Guaranty investigations.’’

But Gormley also notes that while prosecutors used much of his material they realized that McDougal had serious credibility problems. Gormley provides colorful details about how well the prosecutors treated McDougal, including setting him up in an apartment in Little Rock and befriending him during social visits.

Gormley’s approach to the material is rather straightforward, and the result is that it occasionally reads like a law review article, with a couple of interviews tossed in.

Nevertheless, there is plenty for legal and political junkies to sink their teeth into.

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and his staff were so eager for a win that they came very close to throwing the legal equivalent of a Hail Mary pass and drafted an indictment of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Hickman Ewing, a key member of Starr’s staff, prepared the case, which centered on allegations that Hillary Clinton tried to conceal records about her involvement in Whitewater, then lied about it, and also lied about whether she solicited legal business with McDougal while her husband was governor.

However, in a meeting of Starr’s staff, special ethics adviser Sam Dash said the evidence was mostly circumstantial and “amounted to a bunch of nothing,’’ and Gormley noted that “Ewing at his dramatic best couldn’t make this cow fly.’’

Starr’s successor, Robert Ray, was prepared to indict President Clinton after he left office if he didn’t accept a deal that would require Clinton to pay a fine, have his law license suspended for five years, and agree not to seek a reimbursement of any legal fees. Gormley said that Clinton, who tried to fight the punishment until the end, “would never fully grasp how close he came to being indicted and having to face the ordeal of a criminal trial.’’

Gormley not only takes readers back to that time period, but was also able to have some of the key players reflect on those events.

Starr still blames Clinton for engaging in “offenses against the integrity of our system.’’ Starr did say that if he ever saw Clinton again he would tell him, “I am sorry that it all happened.’’ Starr clarified to Gormley that he was saying that “not in the form of an apology, but really as a reflection.’’ Starr said he would also express “deep sorrow that the country was put through this.’’

Although Clinton saw the experience as hellish and never forgave Starr for what the former president viewed as a modern-day witch hunt, he also pointed to a bright side.

“I’d give anything if I hadn’t done it and anything if it hadn’t happened - but there were some unbelievably touching moments. As well as the larger fact that my family came through it and the public stayed with me,’’ he said.

Those kinds of reflections, and the new information that Gormley discovered, make “The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr’’ a worthwhile, important, and engaging account of an important chapter of American history.

Claude R. Marx is a journalist who has written extensively on politics and history.

THE DEATH OF AMERICAN VIRTUE: Clinton vs. Starr By Ken Gormley

Crown, 800 pp., $35.00