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Starr wars

time cover

Jeffrey Toobin revisits the Lewinsky affair

By Adam Cohen

January 17, 2000
Web posted at: 12:34 p.m. EST (1734 GMT)

There's a reason the Lewinsky scandal was so riveting: it was a true story that was better scripted than fiction. It began as John Grisham, with big-haired, twangy-voiced Paula Jones alleging sexual improprieties in a Little Rock hotel room. It ended as Shakespeare, with a powerful leader nearly felled by a tragic flaw. And it was propelled by characters a Hollywood screenwriter would kill to have dreamed up: the giggling intern, the treacherous best friend.

In A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President (Random House; 422 pages; $25.95), New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin retells the whole tale with gusto and adds some fresh details. One example: a moist-eyed Clinton hails the Travelgate-embattled Hillary in his 1996 State of the Union Address as a "wonderful wife [and] magnificent mother"--and then autographs a copy of the speech as a gift for Monica Lewinsky. Toobin doesn't shy away from the story's tawdriest moments--like the Jones camp's suggestion that Clinton may have undergone surgery to remove the "distinguishing characteristics" on his penis that Jones claims to have seen.

The book offers up strong opinions about the key players, some expected (book agent Lucianne Goldberg is Mephistophelian), some not (much lampooned Lewinsky lawyer William Ginsburg didn't do too badly). But as a former prosecutor, Toobin reserves his greatest scorn for Kenneth Starr, whom he portrays as unqualified, unprincipled, politically biased and lacking in common sense. Toobin's thesis is that the real vast conspiracy wasn't the right-wing one Hillary famously charged was behind the scandal, but a more subtle attempt by the legal system to circumvent the political process through an "after the fact election." That may be true, but the fuller explanation lies in Toobin's damning portrait of Starr. There was no need, the book suggests, for a conspiracy to throw the republic off course. One recklessly unrestrained special prosecutor can do it almost single-handedly.

--By Adam Cohen


Cover Date: January 24, 2000

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