For Clinton Foes, Morality Clouds Political Storm Over Starr Report

One of the most intriguing questions of the Clinton presidency has been how a politician who pursues such moderate policies can provoke such burning hatreds. Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's report to Congress last week may not answer all the questions it aims to resolve, but it will stand as a definitive document for historians trying to answer that one.

Throughout his presidency, Clinton's fiercest detractors have been driven in their fury less by his public agenda than by his private behavior--by the belief that it is fundamentally illegitimate for a man who dodged the draft, experimented with drugs and cheated on his wife to serve as president. This report is a physical manifestation of that belief. In writing it, Starr joins the company of Clinton critics whose principal objection to the president is not so much legal or even political as moral and cultural.

With its unmistakable tone of disgust, Starr's manifesto is not only the opening bell in a battle over impeachment but a resounding salvo in the culture wars that have raged for a quarter century about the impact of the baby boom generation on American morals--a point the Wall Street Journal acknowledged with perhaps unintended frankness in an editorial praising Starr on Friday. "Who better to bring Bill Clinton to justice," the Journal wrote, "than a hymn-singing son of a fundamentalist minister?"

Who better indeed if the indictment against Clinton is as much moral as legal? The report actually leaves the legal case murky on the most serious charges--particularly allegations that Clinton obstructed justice. But through its explicit reconstruction of the president's affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky, it makes an impassioned case against Clinton's moral character. Its goal is almost too transparent: not only to lay out the relevant facts in a legal dispute but to present reams of unsavory detail that will embarrass Clinton and undermine his public support. To do so, this minister's son willingly subjected every family in America to an avalanche of what in any other context would qualify as pornography.

In the report, Starr argued that he needed to include so many explicit sexual details to disprove the president's contention that his testimony in the Paula Corbin Jones sexual-harassment case had been "legally accurate." (Clinton testified that he did not commit perjury because his contact with Lewinsky did not fit the description of "sexual relations" agreed upon in that case.) And Starr indeed makes a strong case that Clinton lied in that testimony.

But to challenge Clinton's contention, Starr could simply have written in the report a sentence along the lines of "Lewinsky testified that on x number of occasions, she and Clinton did engage in activity that clearly was included under the definition in the Jones case, such as mutual fondling or oral sex."

Instead, Starr offered an exhaustive chronology of Clinton's sexual escapades--at least as described by Lewinsky. At times the report reads less like a legal document than an X-rated version of "Green Eggs and Ham": Did they fondle on the desk? Did they fondle in the mess? Was the president on the phone? Did she talk dirty from her home?

It's difficult to see the legal purpose of such disclosures. If Starr simply said there was evidence Lewinsky and Clinton engaged in activity covered by the Jones definition, the House Judiciary Committee subsequently could have subpoenaed the prosecutor or Lewinsky to provide the details in executive session--if it really felt the need to hear them at all.

But Starr did not stop with including details of questionable relevance about the tawdry and furtive sexual encounters between Clinton and Lewinsky. He also quoted Lewinsky's uncorroborated testimony on all sorts of tangential points that have no imaginable legal relevance but enormous capacity to humiliate Clinton. Reading Starr's report, one can easily imagine J. Edgar Hoover smiling down on the remorseless deployment of the cutting detail, the serpentine innuendo and the captured whisper.

At one point, the report quotes Lewinsky as saying the president had told her that early in his marriage he had "had hundreds of affairs" but that he had made "a concerted effort to be faithful" since turning 40. It quotes a friend of Lewinsky who quotes Lewinsky who quotes the president as hinting that he may someday leave his wife. It uses Lewinsky's words to slip in an insinuation about the Clintons' sexual relationship.

If there is no clear legal justification for including such tabloid testimony, there is a more obvious political rationale: to erode Clinton's support as the debate begins over whether to remove him from office. In that way, the report makes it clear that in coming months the battle over Clinton's presidency will proceed along two distinct tracks.

One will follow the fact trail on the specific legal allegations against the president. Members of Congress will be compelled to decide if they think Starr's perjury case against Clinton is solid, whether it would be sufficient grounds for impeachment and whether the prosecutor has proved any more serious violation. All of these legal skirmishes are likely to be shaped by the second track in this confrontation: the overarching political struggle between Clinton and his critics. Since it does not appear that Starr has amassed an indisputable legal case on the most serious charges, public opinion is likely to exert enormous influence on how far any impeachment effort proceeds in Congress. "No politician gets too far out in front of his constituents on something like this," said one senior House aide.

That's where the report plays such a pivotal political role. As much as anything else, impeachment may turn on whether its grimy sexual details undermine the public support Clinton has held through the controversy, even as views of his honesty and ethics have cratered. Starr has made his best case not only that Clinton violated the law, but that he is morally unfit for his office. The next few months will tell whether the public agrees.

Actually, it would not be surprising to see Americans now wishing a pox on both of these men. With grim determination, Starr has shown that Clinton disgraced the presidency. But with this leering and spiteful report, Starr has disgraced himself.


Ronald Brownstein's column appears in this space every Monday.

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