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Jeffrey Toobin and l'affaire Lewinsky

By Jason Gay

FEBRUARY 14, 2000: 

A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President by Jeffrey Toobin (Random House), 422 pages, $25.95.

In recent years, legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin has sunk himself into some pretty deep cesspools. First, he covered O.J. Simpson's criminal trial for the New Yorker, an assignment that evolved into the bestselling The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Next, Toobin immersed himself in l'affaire Monica Lewinsky, a scurrilous mess of dirty deeds, accusations and politically charged double-crossing that, in terms of scale, made the Simpson case look almost ordinary. This has resulted in A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President -- easily the sharpest and most entertaining account of the whole sordid sinkhole to date.

Toobin, a former assistant counsel in the office of Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, has a gift for making even the most exposed stories feel newly compelling. And that gift is crucial to sustaining anyone's interest in A Vast Conspiracy, because, as with the Simpson case, the author finds himself treading upon heavily traversed material. Outside the Simpson case, in fact, it's hard to imagine a news story that has been more overexposed than the Lewinsky affair -- most of us, at the very least, are familiar with the basic charges, counter-charges, and main characters in the drama, which consumed the nation for more than a year. Not only that, but it's safe to assume that the vast majority of us were mighty sick of the whole thing by the end.

But once again, Toobin provides enough new nuggets of information and insights to construct a fresh and impressively readable narrative. In a story with no shortage of heavyweight characters -- to say nothing of a president -- Toobin understands that some of the most enlightening details can emerge from following the bit players behind the scenes. The author combs through the back woods of Arkansas, the Beltway, and beyond to untangle and pump new life into this bizarrely complicated (yet at the same time sadly simplistic) scandal, which involved so many individuals that Toobin feels compelled to insert a five-page "cast of characters" at the beginning of the book.

And this cast of characters is an awfully motley crew. From scheming New York publishing agent (and rumored LBJ paramour, Toobin claims) Lucianne Goldberg to Paula Jones's opportunistic husband, Stephen, to Ken Starr's not-so-special-prosecutors, like Jackie Bennett and Bob Bittman, this is a story where good intentions are few and only a handful of people distinguish themselves (one of those left unscathed is Susan Webber Wright, the judge who presided over the Jones case). What's more, not all the players are motivated by the same thing. Many of the participants in the Lewinsky affair are driven by their desire to use the case for career or financial advancement, and again and again, key decisions are made under clouds of ethical conflict.

But the main motivator in the case against the president was clearly a deep-rooted and sometimes irrational hatred of Clinton himself. The title A Vast Conspiracy refers to Hillary Clinton's famous interview on The Today Show, where she blamed her husband's travails on a "vast right-wing conspiracy." Although Mrs. Clinton may have been a tad extreme, not to mention hopeful (at the time, it's reported, she thought that her husband had been unjustly accused and had never had an affair with Lewinsky), Toobin spends a good deal of his book demonstrating that she was not entirely wrong. The author leaves little doubt that intense personal animus toward the president -- some of it decades old, and almost all of it conservative in origin -- propelled the Lewinsky matter from a consensual mistake into a full-blown investigation and impeachment. And though it was not a true conspiracy -- many of the principals involved were far too sloppy and unsophisticated to be capable of such a plot -- Toobin ably shows that a loose but well-funded web of determined Clinton haters very nearly did bring down a president.

Not that Clinton himself is absolved from blame. Although Toobin concludes that the president's actions weren't deserving of impeachment -- much less a Senate conviction -- he's scathing in his criticism of the president's personal impropriety and legal strategy, especially his resistance to an early settlement with Paula Jones (which, after all, is what brought the Lewinsky investigation to life). But the author's harshest words are reserved for Starr and his prosecution team, who in their zeal and inexperience, Toobin argues, blew their best chance to drive the president from office when they backed away from an immunity deal with Lewinsky in the early, frenzied days of the scandal. It was a huge tactical blunder, but as A Vast Conspiracy shows, hardly the only one in this ugly tale.

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