The Death of American Virtue

Article excerpt

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 wasn't just a crooked oil deal

perpetrated by Warren G. Harding's underlings, but Corruption in

the Halls of Government; Watergate wasn't just a break-in/ coverup,

but the End of the Public's Trust in Elected Officials; Iran- contra

wasn't just the Reagan administration's nutty attempt to fund

opposition to socialist Sandanistas in Nicaragua with money from

illegal arms sales, but the Final Flowering of America's Cold- War

Mentality. These great ethical lapses define 20th-century

presidential politics, just as President Bill Clinton and intern

Monica Lewinsky'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, isn't

sure what Monica means. "It would remain unclear to many of those

who participated in the drama, on both sides of the political aisle,

exactly what it had accomplished," Gormley writes of Clinton's

impeachment of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's recommendation

and subsequent acquittal.

Gormley's book, based on original interviews with Clinton v. Starr

all-stars - including the president, the prosecutor, Lewinsky,

Clinton harassee Paula Jones, FBI informant Linda Tripp, Whitewater

conspirator Susan McDougal, and Republican Sen. Henry Hyde - is

exhaustive and exhausting, but packs enough narrative punch to

transport a reader back to a time when the economy was booming,

"Friends" was on the air, and a chief executive's semen ended

up on his intern's dress even though (according to Clinton's

untruthful testimony) they had never been alone together. ("Even

Monica Lewinsky," who perjured herself trying to protect the

president, "concluded that Bill Clinton had lied under oath,"

Gormley writes.)

How did an inquiry into Clinton associate James McDougal's shady

Arkansas real estate ventures turn into a wince-inducing

investigation of Slick Willie's love life? Clinton and Starr,

"two 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,"

Gormley writes. "The 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." Gormley, a former

student of Nixon special prosecutor Archibald Cox who wrote a book

about Watergate, offers a procedural not unlike Manson prosecutor

Vincent Bugliosi's "Helter Skelter," setting aside tabloid

gossip to focus on legal process - in this case, the unprecedented

constitutional crisis that threatened Clinton's second term and

handed George W. …