Top positive review
75 people found this helpful
Great research, fun to read, thought-provoking
on February 21, 2010
This book, nearly 800 pages, analyzes in exhaustive detail Ken Starr's investigation as independent prosecutor of President Clinton.
Two things stand out about this book.
First, the colossal amount of research that went into it. Gormley interviewed not only all the major players in the events, including Starr, Clinton, and Monica Lewinsky, but also hosts of minor characters, relatives, attorneys, and the like. I have rarely read any book on any subject that interviewed so many different people in so much depth, many of them ordinarily difficult to find.
Gormley's extreme diligence pays off as he uncovers tragic but mesmerizing details that are not widely known. For example, he has a detailed account of Jim McDougal's death in solitary confinement including information based on his interviews with McDougal's prison psychologist. He also uncovered a report highly critical of the prosecutors' interrogation of Monica Lewinsky, which criticizes the prosecutors for continuing to question her after she had requested an attorney. What was particularly interesting is that the report was never released because, allegedly, its release would have violated the privacy, not of Lewinsky - but of her prosecutors! One of the most interesting features of this book is that while the FBI was devoting enormous investigative resources to the question of whether the president committed perjury in his Jones deposition, Clinton was sending missiles against al-Qaeda threats in Afghanistan. Some of the participants expressed exasperation that law enforcement did not consider anti-terrorism investigation a higher priority than the Jones deposition issues.
The second great thing about this book is that it's so clear and easy to read. Although it covers events over twenty years, innumerable legal proceedings and lawsuits, it's paced so that it's nearly impossible to put down. It's one thing to collect all this information, but the author also managed to have it tell an incredible tale: at times tragic, at times infuriating, at times laughable - but always fascinating.
Nevertheless, the book had a few weaknesses.
One omission generally was that the details of the legal arguments tended to be glossed over.
For example, there is no analysis of Clinton's arguments that he did not commit perjury in his testimony in the Paula Jones deposition, which are important to understand the merits of his defense. In general, the author sometimes appears to conflate similar terms for specific acts in ways the confuse the issue about perjury.
As the legal discussion, on page 172 the author describes a bill that would allow certain private litigants to sue sitting presidents as one that would "almost certainly have violated the U.S. Constitution's command against bills of attainder and ex post facto laws." This statement seems too strong. Ex post facto laws do not ordinarily circumscribe civil liability, and a bill as described could probably be drafted so as to withstand a bill of attainder challenge.
I would also have wanted to read a more detailed analysis of the legal arguments of Clinton v. Jones or Morrison v. Olson, the two key cases that led to the scandal. Interestingly, the author does include an interview with a Supreme Court justice defending the claim in Clinton v. Jones that allowing a private lawsuit against a sitting president would be unlikely to be distracting. Although the author suggests at one point that Justice Scalia supported the independent counsel, it would have been interesting to note that Scalia was the lone dissent in Morrison v. Olson, the case authorizing the law. Indeed, Scalia predicted, in his dissent in Morrison v. Olson, that the independent counsel law would gravely damage the republic because it violated the separation of powers.
The writing itself is excellent. It's clear, well-paced, and hard to put down. Still, there were some issues in the way of copy editing. On pages 88 and 554 the author misuses "bold-faced" in the phrases "bold-faced liar" and "bold-faced deception". Even if this unfortunate usage has been sanctioned by popularity, it's still better to use "bald-faced" instead. The author similarly misuses "fulsome" to mean "full" on pages 135 and 567 ("draft a more fulsome four-count complaint"; "Starr had taken in compiling a fulsome report.").
Some readers may find that portions of the book take a more supportive view of the independent counsel than the narrative suggests, but since the narrative contains the facts for the reader, the treatment cannot be said to be unfair.
In conclusion the book is well-written, well-researched and interesting. It's a superb example of journalism and an important contribution to the literature.