Simpler Times: When Bill Met Monica

Book review: A Vast Conspiracy, by Jeffrey Toobin

I was too young to understand much about, or grasp the gravity of what an impeachment was when it happened. What I remember most vividly of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky saga was the edition of the newspaper where the lurid details appeared (maybe it was excerpts of the Starr report, I’m not sure). It carried a parental advisory warning about explicit adult content. Is there any faster way to get a 12/13-year-old’s attention?

But I remembered only the warning, not the content. Of course I know the details now, like everyone on earth, but much of the legal and political proceedings (especially the combination of powerful opponents who went after the Clintons relentlessly and turned the personal into the political into the punitively legal) confused me.

And I wasn’t particularly fascinated with the story – it’s so ingrained in the fabric of American politics and culture that there’s not much mystery left. This was pre-9/11, pre-Trump. The whole scandal seems so innocent, for lack of a better descriptor. We were so young and naive then!

As Jeffrey Toobin closes A Vast Conspiracy“At some point in the distant future, Americans will likely regard this entire fin de siecle spasm of decadence with incredulity – at the tawdriness of the president’s behavior, at the fanaticism of his pursuers, and at the shabbiness of the political, legal, and journalistic systems in which this story festered. Mostly, though, these baffled future citizens will struggle with the same question about Bill Clinton. He was impeached for what? The answer will honor neither the president nor his times.”

I heard that this book would be the basis for one of the upcoming seasons of American Crime Story, a TV series that had a surprisingly compelling first season about the O.J. Simpson trial, similarly based on a book by Toobin, The Run of His Life.

In addition to that piquing my interest, I thought it might be a good source to read about the details of that “vast right-wing conspiracy”, as Hillary Clinton dubbed it on a Today show interview. I think that the decades-long obsession with finding things the Clintons have done wrong, and painting them in as negative a light as possible, was a not-insignificant factor in Hillary failing to come across as a strong candidate last year.

I knew the basics of Vince Foster, Susan McDougal, Whitewater, Bill’s conduct as Arkansas governor. If you’re looking for clearer explanations of the ins and outs of these, this is definitely your book. It cleared up some of the mystery for me about why the Clintons are so attacked, but not enough.

And of course, Hillary’s not exactly right in terms of her famous phrase, but she’s not exactly wrong either. Toobin presents a wealth of evidence showing that the Clintons weren’t just paranoid. A side effect of this aggressive and constant pursuit led to Bill’s “poor pitiful me” demeanor, a kind of victim complex. He was obsessed with Richard Jewell, the security guard suspected of planting the bomb at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, who was actually only trying to help. Clinton saw himself victimized too:

There’s this guy, Clinton recounted, and he’s caught on a cliff in a storm. As the wind and rain rage around him, he grabs on to a branch and he’s just about to fall off the cliff when he looks up and says, “Why me, God?”

And God looks down on him and says, “I just don’t like you.”

…It is always possible to read too much into a joke, but one can see Clinton’s attitude toward the entire swirling scandal contained in this little story. Clinton saw little difference between the man on the cliff, Richard Jewell, and himself – all victims of forces beyond their control. To be sure, he will be remembered as the target of an unwise and unfair impeachment proceeding. But just as certainly, history will haunt Clinton for his own role in this political apocalypse, and for that, despite his best efforts, this president can only blame himself.

Toobin writes a compelling narrative, fleshing out so much about figures that I only knew two-dimensionally from the news. He has a knack for imbuing personalities and situations with character and atmosphere and that goes a long way in a book that deals with some potentially dry legal and political topics. Nevertheless, my eyes did cross a bit, especially in the final stretch of legal maneuverings.

This was an era of a new field of American journalism, known as “sexual investigative reporting”. Think of how it was an open secret that JFK was also an adulterer, but it wasn’t splashed across front pages and didn’t lead to an uproar in morality eventually resulting in impeachment. The Washington Post journalist who helped usher in this field of reporting, Mike Isikoff, is a key player in Clinton’s story. This results in the now-infamous nitpicking over what constitutes “sexual relations”, which were “the obsession of Clinton’s enemies.” 

So there we have a reason for why this all happened in the first place, starting with Arkansas hillbilly Paula Jones. Interestingly, if there hadn’t been a Paula, there couldn’t have been a Monica. Paula’s case against Clinton, at the instigation of her husband, is what fanned the flames and gave the Monica story a platform, according to Toobin’s reasoning.

There are interesting passages in the exchanges that took place between Monica and her recorder-equipped nemesis, Linda Tripp. Actually, Tripp was Clinton’s nemesis – I was always under the impression that she was just an incurable gossip, who couldn’t wait to jump on the aforementioned morality bandwagon and nail the philandering president to the wall when she heard Monica’s stories in this burgeoning era of American journalism. Her bigger goal was to get rid of a president she loathed.

And the detail that Monica called Linda a “treacherous bitch”. I love the drama of it all!

I also always wondered why Monica saved The Dress. I hoped to find the answer here. I sort of got it, but not really: Linda Tripp convinced her to save it by selling her some verkakte story about how maybe she’d need it as evidence someday down the road, in case she fell on hard times and people accused her of lying about her relationship with the president. And then Monica would be able to pull out her semen-stained trump card and that’d shut up all her naysayers.

That’s basically what did end up happening, albeit much sooner, making it only slightly less creepy and weird. Why she saved it in the first place, before even mentioning it to Tripp, never making any cleaning attempts, remains unclear.

And it should go without saying, but parts of this book are, and I apologize for not having a more mature way to put this, completely icky. Just brace yourself for that.

But I’d recommend it if like me you can’t wait for its incarnation on American Crime Story. Despite some parts of the book dragging, I think it’s going to make a phenomenal series.

A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President
by Jeffrey Toobin

published January 11, 2000 by Random House

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