High School, Not High Crimes
Reading the Starr report
So this is what $40 million buys these days: A two buck Harlequin with a stalker for a heroine and a cad for a hero.
As you've heard by now, Starr's report is utterly damning. But it is damning in its own small way. Starr proves that Clinton perjured himself when he denied sexual relations with Monica. (Read the already famous and not to be repeated in mixed company sections of the report for evidence that Clinton touched Monica sexually.)
Starr likewise demolishes Clinton's claim that he didn't try to influence Betty Currie's testimony. Clinton says he was refreshing his own memory when he urged Currie, "I never touched her, right?" As Starr notes, it's preposterous for Clinton to claim he was "refreshing" his memory by telling Currie something he knew was false. He was obviously trying to get her to go along with his story. Starr is equally persuasive when he argues that Clinton concocted a scheme to make the gifts disappear. And he is convincing when he says that Clinton got Monica to lie in her affidavit in the Jones case.
Starr, in short, has proved ... exactly what we already knew. His PR strategy is backfiring. His prosecutors have been leaking damaging evidence for months to gin up public interest in the case. Now these leaks have returned to haunt them. The report arrives not as a revelation but as a shrug. There are no new allegations, no new claims of presidential villainy. Whatever happened to Kathleen Willey? And the talking points? And Bruce Lindsey's supposed thuggery? And the alleged second intern?
Clinton's defenders are vindicated (sort of): It really does boil down to a tawdry little affair with a star-struck girl, and the pathetic--and yes, illegal, but so what?--ways he attempted to cover it up. The report effectively confirms Clinton's basic defense: Whatever wrongs he committed were simply those required to cover up a dumb affair, not grotesque crimes against the state.
The first tactical error is telling Americans only what they already know. The second is telling the story through Monica. This makes for fantastic reading--the report is mesmerizing, emotionally wrenching--but bad evidence. This tale indicts Clinton more for his romantic failures than for his legal ones. His crimes are against Monica.
The most telling line of the report is a Linda Tripp quotation buried in a footnote: Monica had a "photographic memory of the relationship." The report is that memory, and it is exactly what men imagine that their ex-girlfriends do: Compile an elaborate, complete dossier of every moment of the relationship and of every single thing you did wrong. This is romance as seen through the eyes of an obsessive, loving, insecure twit.
The story begins in sweetness. She is the perfect Cosmo girl--a do-me feminist who believes in Titanic and Altoids. They seduce each other with flirtatious glances. She delivers him a pizza and shows him her underwear. Of course a romance is kindled. He's selfish and tender, all at once. The sex is rote: He kisses her lips, kisses her breast, touches her a little, then unzips and demands service. (Even the president of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked: It apparently hurts his back to lie down during sex.)
But still, he calls her "Sweetie" and "Baby" and "Dear." He strokes her hair and tells her she is beautiful. She calls him "Handsome" and tells him her ideas on the administration and on "education reform" (What were they? America wants to know). She falls in love with him, dreams he might leave Hillary, convinces herself he loves her.
There is something missing. They never talk. "This was another of those occasions when I was babbling on about something, and he just kissed me, kind of to shut me up, I think." He chats on the phone during the act. (Dick Morris, Rep. Sonny Callahan, Rep. John Tanner, former Rep. Jim Chapman--did the president sound distracted?) She loses her White House job and gets angry, but does she really deserve to be transferred because she is sleeping with the boss?
The romance doesn't last either. The sex gets rarer and rarer. He dumps her, but she won't stay away. She brings gifts and sends erotic postcards, wants to talk, and demands a better job. She feels him up in a rope line, offers him an Altoids blow job, but nothing works. He has a million excuses: He's late for a state dinner. Or, he vowed after his 40th birthday that he would be faithful (that's a good one!). She's abandoned, despairing, heartsick.
(By the end, you almost feel sorry for Clinton. Monica is a nightmare romance: What started with no-strings-attached quickies became an endless round of emotional conversations about the "relationship." They had only 10 sexual encounters, yet it dragged on for years! This is, incidentally, why I doubt there is another Monica out there. How could he have time for her? In a hilarious footnote, Vernon Jordan reminds Monica that Clinton has other things to think about besides her, that he is after all, leader of the free world.)
So what are readers left with? Too much detail and too little. We learn everything about Clinton's sexual habits, but the report excludes inconvenient characters. Linda Tripp, Lucianne Goldberg, and erratic mother Marcia Lewis are virtually absent from the narrative. Starr doesn't explain how Lewinsky came to the attention of Jones' lawyers, hardly mentions Tripp's sleazy taping, and doesn't discuss Tripp's planned book deal.
Starr also diminishes the role of Clinton's aides to make the president look worse. By painting aides such as John Podesta and Sidney Blumenthal--who were not born yesterday--as innocent, wronged dupes, Starr keeps the focus on what he sees as the singularity of evil: Bill Clinton.
But Starr doesn't seem to realize that what he is reporting is not really evil. It is more mundane: everyday selfishness, weakness, and venality, and the efforts to hide it. Monica was right: Clinton is just a Big Creep. He can rest easy because the report--thin on public crime and fat on private squalor--makes him safe from impeachment. But it also makes him impossible to take seriously again.
Some Other Juicy Details
1) For the most pathetic part of the report, check the footnotes of any quotation from Monica's writing. Virtually every one of those footnotes contains the phrase "spelling corrected" or "spelling and grammar corrected" or "spelling and punctuation corrected."
2) Clinton once told Monica that they needed to concoct cover stories to explain their phone sex because "he suspected that a foreign embassy (he did not specify which one) was tapping his telephones." Two thoughts:
a) Foreign spies tapping White House phones!?! Who's doing it? Has anything been done to stop it? Why hasn't anyone investigated this?
b) What a great liar! Of course she believed him.
3) Hidden in Footnote 210 of the narrative: "They engaged in oral-anal contact as well." Now Starr wants to criminalize kissing the president's ass.
4) Starr repeatedly exposes Clinton's shiftiness with language. Time and again, he catches Clinton trying to claim that words mean what they clearly don't. A favorite example: Clinton told the Jones lawyers that he was never alone in the Oval Office with Lewinsky. Clinton then testified to the grand jury that he hadn't lied because when he said he was never alone with Monica in the "Oval Office," what he meant by "Oval Office" was "Oval Office complex," which includes rooms outside the Oval Office where Currie and Secret Service officers are stationed.
5) So much for the saintly Betty Currie. In devastating detail, the report shows that Currie did everything she could to abet the affair. She came into work after hours simply to admit Lewinsky to the White House. She persuaded Secret Service agents not to record Lewinsky's visits in their logs. She fielded Monica's phone calls and communicated with her using a code name. Other staffers chastised Clinton for his misbehavior, but Currie let him do it and seems to have never said a word.
Slate's Complete Flytrap Coverage
Cover photograph of President Clinton by Win McNamee/Reuters.