Commentary Magazine

The Death of American Virtue, by Ken Gormley

The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr
By Ken Gormley
Crown, 800 pages

Ken Gormley is a chronicler of political minutiae with an odd and endearing affection for unbeloved inquisitors. Also the author of Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation, Gormley has now given us The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr, an exhaustive but unsatisfying conspectus of the characters and events associated with the matrix of scandals—sexual, financial, and political—that climaxed in President Bill Clinton’s impeachment and acquittal by the Senate in 1998.

The title is misleading: Gormley makes no real attempt to argue that the episodes he enumerates represent “the death of American virtue.” In fact, he does not seem especially interested in the moral questions presented by the Clinton scandals, and it is strange that he should compile some 700 pages of mostly tedious prose without engaging the ethical issues at the heart of the ordeal. Perhaps that title is merely a wily publishing ploy intended to hook both those who believe that Clinton uncleansably sullied American public life and those Clinton partisans who believe more or less the same thing of Kenneth Starr. Instead, Gormley treats the confrontation between Clinton and Starr as a kind of natural disaster, a political tsunami that might have been choked off at a dozen different critical junctures—had Clinton simply confessed early in the affair, had Starr delivered a report to Congress without reference to sexual dalliance—but was not, owing to the inscrutable tides of politics.

The author exhibits comic scrupulousness when it comes to judging the relative culpability of the two parties. He can only go so far as to call persons and events “polarizing” and to assert, using prison psychologist Richard Clark as his surrogate, that “this story could not be permitted to repeat itself—ever again—in the yet unborn cycles of American history.” But these “cycles” are the works of men.

It may be for the better that Gormley does not attempt to fulfill the promise of his title, for, as his own detailed play-by-play reckoning makes clear, the crimes and punishment of Bill Clinton certainly did not represent the “death of American virtue” any more than they represented the death of the last dodo. If American political virtue—which is to say, republican virtue—survived into the 1990s, it did so on the down low. Virtue has not been on prominent display in American public life in a good long while, and despite Gormley’s sometimes breathless account of them, the crimes of Bill Clinton were not shocking in their degree, scope, or audacity.

Watergate and Iran-Contra, for example, were serious matters, touching events of consequence. By contrast, Bill Clinton was sued for sexual harassment, a legal innovation of recent vintage, an artifact of an age that in sexual matters is characterized by the strange coexistence of a supra-Victorian prudishness alongside casual brutality. In the course of frustrating the harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones and the investigation into a land deal gone bad overseen by Kenneth Starr, Bill Clinton proceeded with an amoral commitment to his own political survival. But one cannot but remember that many Americans loved—and love—Bill Clinton, not in spite of his transgressions, but because of them. You couldn’t pour virtue on a people like that with a bucket.

The closest Gormley comes to an original moral insight is in his desultory undoing of the myth that Kenneth Starr was a stony puritan, a millennial Chillingsworth driven by religious zealotry to hound the humanely venal Bill Clinton. The creation of this myth was President Clinton’s most ingenious gambit in his own defense: there are few groups of Americans hated as intensely as Christian fundamentalists, and they are particularly hated among those upon whom Bill Clinton most relied. Starr, speaking largely in his own defense to Gormley, argues conclusively that he was the opposite of a zealot: a conscientious bureaucrat, a man who did his job with great intelligence and energy but no especial sense of transcendental vocation. If there is virtue to be found in this story, it is found in the dutiful Starr, a man who might plausibly have hoped to become a Supreme Court justice but instead found himself reviled, his wife harassed, and his daughter receiving threats of punitive rape while she was a student at Stanford.

Gormley is a maximalist reporter of the kitchen-sink variety, one who fails to appreciate that a great reporter knows which detail to exclude as well as which to relate. In this chronicle, no tuna-salad sandwich goes undocumented, no bottle of sparkling water unremarked upon. (The fateful pizza Monica the Intern brought in for the Big Creep? Vegetarian.) If you are wondering what color was Strom Thurmond’s tie on the day of the big vote (red, paisley), then Ken Gormley is your man. The effect is repetitious, and that is compounded by the ugliness and insipidity of his prose. Every view is “dazzling,” every revelation “stunning,” all the Catholics “devout.” Early on we learn that Clinton’s shenanigans so affected poor Betsey Wright that they “literally pushed her over the edge.” Literally? And Mr. Gormley’s insistence that rumors “proliferated like frisky gerbils” ought to occupy a throne of dishonor all its own.

If Gormley’s title is his thesis, then his subtitle provides the book’s narrative structure: Clinton vs. Starr. Much—probably too much—is made of the men’s similarly hardscrabble and adjacent backgrounds in Arkansas and Texas. Both men were bookish and rose by careful application of their intellectual energies. Both were lawyers, both drawn to politics, both known for the generousness of their spirits. But there is more to character than circumstance: Starr’s security and reserve put him on one path in life, and Clinton’s insecurity and gregariousness put him on another. And the two men are weighty characters in a story that turns out to have remarkably few.

How bad were Bill Clinton’s misdeeds, and mightn’t we have waited until he was out of office to punish him for them? Was his impeachment a moral necessity, a political miscalculation, cheap payback for Watergate and Iran-Contra, or all those things? Gormley has no interest in these questions, certainly nowhere near as much as he has in precisely how Paula Jones drinks a Diet Coke (tapping it with a fingernail for emphasis, swirling the ice).

So, if not to address the questions of virtue, then why an encyclopedia of Clintonian scandalology now, at a time when a new set of sobering problems makes the era of “bimbo eruptions” seem Edenic by comparison? If the Clinton era is worth revisiting in the detail offered in The Death of American Virtue, it is only to estimate the scope of the tragedy that was Clinton’s presidency. He inherited a post–Cold War windfall: a world largely at peace, an economy thriving on technological innovation, China and India liberalizing their ways, our own nation remarkably united in the pursuit of material improvement. President Clinton might have done anything. Gormley tells us what he did do, in sad, gruesome, and ultimately nihilistic detail.


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