A Vast Conspiracy by Jeffrey Toobin

Sex, lies and audiotape…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

Every detail you ever wanted to know about the whole Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, and several that you didn’t. This is more than a salacious recounting of the affair that nearly brought down a President, however. Jeffrey Toobin argues convincingly that politicians on both sides of the aisle had gradually been using the courts more and more to decide political questions, and that the Clinton scandal was a clear indication that the balance of power had shifted, and that the legal system was from now on to be the arbiter of all political questions in the US. He also suggests that it was the beginning of the sordid game beloved by politicians and the media (but not so much by the public, he implies) of dragging political opponents down, not by dissecting their poor performance as politicians, but by pretended moral outrage over their private behaviour.

The book was originally published in 2000, so long before the MeToo movement but at a time when questions of sexual abuse in the workplace were being raised by feminist groups. In his introduction, Toobin admits that he may have treated Lewinsky differently had he been writing now, when terms like “power imbalance” are part of the everyday lexicon. To be honest, I’m glad he wrote it when he did then, for two reasons. Firstly, my opinion then (when I was still a fairly young, ambitious, working woman) and now is that a 22-year-old woman is a grown adult, perfectly capable of making her own decisions, and therefore morally responsible for her own behaviour. There was never a suggestion that Clinton forced himself on Lewinsky – quite the reverse – so while I think he’s a disgusting and rather pathetically inadequate adulterous pig, I’m not willing to see her as his victim. (Her treatment later, by her tape-recording “friend” and the lawyers investigating Clinton, seems to me far more abusive than anything Clinton did to her.) Secondly, because Toobin wrote it in the heat of the moment, more or less, it gives a much clearer picture, I think, of the attitudes prevalent at that time than any later history, trying hard to tell the story through the filter of a 2020 lens, could ever do. Although Toobin is pretty tough on Lewinsky, he also shows no mercy to Clinton, so this is in no way an apologia.

The happy couple…

Toobin spares us none of the intimate detail, and I fear I learned far more than I wanted or needed to about Clinton’s anatomy and sexual preferences, not to mention Lewinsky’s underwear and performative techniques. (It made me realise that, back in the day, although the case was reported on at extremely boring length over here too, our dear BBC must have decided to leave out the most salacious details, for which I belatedly thank them.) However, in terms of the book I do think it was necessary to include them, because part of Toobin’s argument is exactly that public interest arguments shouldn’t justify this level of intrusion into the minutiae of sex between consenting adults. This case opened the door to the constant diet of sleaze that is now common currency in what we laughably call political debate. Does the public have the right to know their President paid a porn star for her silence about their affair? Probably – it goes to questions of character and vulnerability to blackmail. But do we really need a detailed account of the act complete with anatomical measurements? I think not.

The other woman…

The bulk of the book, however, is about the Starr investigation, and how incestuous the whole relationship between the legal and political systems of the US has become, with partisan lawyers and judges acting to down political opponents and circumvent the laws of the land, rather than behaving as impartial administrators of justice. This provides a lot of insight for outsiders, and I expect for many Americans too, on why the most important agenda item for many politicians seems to be to pack the courts with their own appointees. One only has to see the reaction of the left to the appointment of Kavanaugh (who plays a bit part in the Clinton story), or the desperation with which the Democrats are praying that Ginsberg will be able to remain in her role until next January, or the disgust of Republicans that Chief Justice Roberts has “betrayed” the right in a couple of recent judgements to know that this politicisation of the legal system is corrupting even the Supreme Court. Toobin shows us the origins of this, and the collusion of all sides in allowing it to happen. There were several chapters where, had the names been omitted, the book could as easily have been about Trump, Mueller, and the biased and polarised media of today’s America.

The real US Government…

So despite all the sleazy details, I found this a fascinating and illuminating scrutiny of the modern American political system. It also surprised me that so many of the political players back then are still influential now – Kavanaugh, George Conway, Ann Coulter were all linked to the Starr investigation, while many of the Senators and members of Congress on both sides, mostly not young or junior even back then, were trotting out opposite arguments during the Trump impeachment two decades later. It made me wonder why the US seems to have stuck – these same people have been running it, badly, for decades. Maybe it’s time for a generational shift, though since the major question in this year’s election seems to be which of the candidates is less senile I’m not expecting it to happen soon. Recommended to Americans who want to understand how and why their system fails them, and to Brits and others as a stark warning not to follow them down the road of giving lawyers and judges more power than our elected politicians.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, William Collins.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

52 thoughts on “A Vast Conspiracy by Jeffrey Toobin

  1. The likes of Lloyd George and Palmerston, with their “interesting” private lives would be out of office in two minutes if they were around now! The really worrying thing is that people of their calibre are no longer entering politics, because of all the trial by media/jury that goes on now.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, that’s what worries me too – I can’t imagine why any sane person would go into politics these days when we treat them like dirt all the time. It’s one thing criticising people’s policies, but they should be entitled to have a private life so long as they keep it legal!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Corruption and intrigue in politics have more than likely gone on forever, it’s just become much more in the public domain. I honestly can’t think of one politician I would trust, and certainly none that are in power now.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. For me the interesting part of the story is how Bill and Hillary Clinton dealt with the events, although I doubt the personal story will ever be told. I suppose it doesn’t really need to be told anyway, as their behaviour afterwards continued them as a couple along their particular career paths.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve never understood why Hillary didn’t leave him after his stint as President came to an end. If it had been just one affair, I could imagine her forgiving him, but it seems he made a habit of it. Ugh! And I must admit I always feel sorry for the children in these situations – Chelsea was a teenager at the time, I think. She must have just loved everyone discussing her dad’s sex life…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think the same. I think she stayed with him for their political motivations as a couple and for her own. Perhaps they had a private agreement regarding his affairs but she was the one left publicly humiliated, not him.
        I always feel sorry for the children of public figures regardless of whether their parents are notorious or well-regarded but in this case, poor Chelsea!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. i really don’t think I want to spend time with these events, even though this does sound excellently done. Its really interesting how the seeds of what we’re dealing with now can be seen then, even though it was so different in terms of digital media.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, apparently this was right at the start of the internet in the US, and made the names of some of the big well-known partisan political sites, like the Drudge Report. So basically Twitter is Clinton’s fault too… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t think I’m interested enough in politics to read this but I’m fascinated by your account. I didn’t realise that the Clinton/Lewinsky affair had played such a role in shaping today’s salacious reportage of politicians’ dalliances. You’ve also sharpened my awareness of the powerful role of the American courts, though I was aware of their politically underpinned appointments.
    And finally, I appreciated your reference to the senility debate – it’s pretty tragic and unsettling. I relish the more youthful (and competent and moral) perspectives of our PM. It struck me one day that some of the admirable ways she has dealt with some pretty massive challenges since she’s been in office just couldn’t have come from the usual 50s+ leadership. It’s quite refreshing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m utterly fascinated by what’s happening to the American political system at the moment – not in a good way! All my life I wondered how a sane and hardworking race like the Germans had allowed the Nazis to come to power, and now I feel like I’m seeing it happen in real time. What worries me most, though, is that there’s a sizable contingent of political malcontents in Britain who are going down the same road of trying to use the legal system to overturn democratic decisions – so dangerous. Democracy depends on the consent of the loser, but increasingly losers refuse to accept majority decisions – the old “if you don’t agree with me, you’re too stupid to have a say” argument! The same people who will weep over the sacrifices of the suffragettes or the Chartists to win us all the right to vote… I despair sometimes.
      Yes, I think there’s an optimum age to be a leader – probably Ardern is at the youngest end and maybe up to around 60-65. Any older than that and people’s faculties and energy do tend to start falling off, and there is a tendency to get stuck in the past. There are always exceptions to the rule, but having two bumbling old men who can’t speak in sentences seems to be taking things to extremes… 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      • I do understand what you mean about the slippage that can come under incompetent, dishonest and narcissistic leadership, I’ve had the same thoughts about what’s happening in the US, it’s quite frightening and you wonder how recovery can happen. Things that are initially considered outrageous become dangerously familiar or discounted when they happen on a daily basis and permission is given for the least healthy perspectives in society to come out of the shadows and flourish. Even here, we have that other side expressed by some politicians and citizens. It seems almost inevitable that one of its characteristics is disrespect and a nastiness in tone. I’m just holding my breath for our upcoming election.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The media has a lot to answer for too. I can pretty much tell which paper an article is in purely by the headline. Some of our papers are so virulently anti-Tory that day after day they are filled with totally negative articles on every page, spinning everything to “prove” the government is evil. It reaches the level where it can’t be considered news any more – it’s propaganda, speaking purely to the already convinced who never come out of their bubble to check a fact or read an alternative viewpoint. And there are other papers who are just as virulently against the Labour Party. Fortunately we still have the BBC which isn’t perfect but at least tries to insert a bit of fact occasionally.

          Liked by 1 person

          • One thing I notice when we do have those moments of straightforward media presentation and clear and honest political communication (especially when this is sustained for a while) is how much psychological energy is saved in my response (and the opposite when other forces are at work). It must be creating a background of stress for us all in this combative political environment. I’m grateful our political forces are less complicated than most.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yes, we had a few weeks at the beginning of the pandemic where all the political parties and the media and public pulled together, and despite the horror that was going on, it felt kinda nice. Then they all started name-calling, lying and exaggerating again and it became true hell. Oddly, the government got more support when we were having hundreds of deaths a day than now, at under ten deaths a day. It’s the pretence that somehow they don’t care that I hate – it’s so clearly untrue and unfair. Question politicians’ competence by all means, but in general I wish we’d accept that they’re trying to do what they think is best for the country, whichever party they belong to…

              Liked by 1 person

  6. You know, I’ve always wanted to read this, FictionFan, as a look at the politics and behind-the-scenes machinations of the time. You’ve got some well-taken points about the value of a then-current perspective as opposed to a ‘looking back’ sort of perspective. And you’re absolutely right about the dangers of giving any part of government too much power; it’s always dangerous. I’m glad you found this well-written.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’ve been fascinated by how much power the courts in the US seems to have, not just to interpret law, but seemingly to make or overturn laws too. And Toobin is really excellent at making it all understandable for the layperson. While occasionally his language about Lewinsky jarred in the modern context, I felt he wasn’t unfair to her overall, and was glad he decided not to revise for this reissue – contemporary accounts always give a window into the times which later books rarely achieve as easily.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I lived through all this, of course, and read Toobin’s every word daily, so I probably won’t undertake this read, partly because I’ve been thinking of taking on his new one. The Clinton thing was so salacious and sordid and just politically motivated–she was no victim, and what happened between them goes on all the time all over DC and beyond, especially in politics. That whole saga left us with the dysfunction we have now, and was perhaps the single major failure of his administration.

    I’ll likely take on Toobin’s new one, True Crimes and Misdemeanors, and his recent piece in the New Yorker seems to shed light on important material that’s not come out. Robert Mueller was a real disappointment. I had law partners–Democrats and Republicans–who had worked with him for years and had the utmost respect for him. But Toobin is convinced Mueller let the country down when he didn’t have to, so I look forward to reading his brief on that. If I do slog through that much nonfiction, I’ll write a review on my blog.

    As to the point about our politics being broken, and having damaged our court system with politically driven appointments, I’ll share this. Heather Cox Richardson asked on her blog the other day, apropos of all the confusion Trump is attempting to bring to the election and its result, “What gives you hope?” My answer: John Roberts (the Republican-appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court). It may well come down to him, and I’m cautiously optimistic. If he has a legal way to save the Republic, he will.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yes, I get rather tired of the “woman as victim” narrative that’s going on right now, when it comes to consensual sex. If women aren’t responsible for their own actions by the age of twenty-two, just when do they become adults? And while I have no sympathy for Clinton’s behaviour, I must say I care considerably more about what politicians do in terms of politics than what they get up to in their personal lives, so long as the one doesn’t affect the other. And I have no respect for any opposition that uses sex and sleaze as weapons because they can’t win by political debate… grrr!

      I’m planning to read Toobin’s new one too, though probably not for a few months. I feel Mueller is another symptom of the US’s strange attitude of dragging ancient people back from retirement to do important jobs. Hopefully I’m old enough to get away with being ageist, but really, it was embarrassing watching Mueller when he appeared in Congress – he clearly wasn’t up to the task. So it was a completely missed opportunity – he let Trump off the hook. And now the Dems have put Biden up against the biggest threat America has ever faced – I despair!

      I’ve been relieved to see that Roberts seems willing to put partisan allegiances aside from time to time, but I do find it worrying that the fate of the self-proclaimed “world’s greatest democracy” should stand or fall on the integrity of one appointed, not elected, official, and maybe a few generals. I truly think the US has to revisit its Constitution and make it suit the modern world if it wants to survive as a real democracy.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I suppose this was probably a more honest look at the events than might have been the case if it was written now, so for that reason, I might be tempted to read it. I certainly remember the case being on our news constantly at the time, but I dare say the BBC kept some of the more sworded or explicit details out, which is just as well really.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Even yet I think the BBC would be reluctant to get as deep into the sleazy end of sex scandals as seems to be the norm in the US, thankfully! I watch quite a lot of CNN because I’m so fascinated by the state of American politics at the moment, and even on their daytime shows they go into salacious details regardless of the fact that kids will be watching, and they’re gradually normalising the use of swearing among their political commentators.

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  9. I don’t think I could stand wading through this one, FF, but you’ve got a brilliant, balanced review here! I find it interesting that, the more we think things are changing, the more we should realize how little they are. Hard to believe it’s been 20 years since this fiasco! Yes, I remember at the time thinking a grown woman should have been more responsible for her own choices.The idea that our judicial branch is this controlling frightens me. So many of those folks are old and dilapidated, and they probably should be retired to a nice rocking chair!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Debbie! 😀 Yes, I’m afraid that if a twenty-two year old woman chooses to have an affair with a married man, I’m not willing to pretend she’s somehow a victim. Most of us are well capable of keeping our clothes on at work… 😉 Haha, I must say that, to me looking in from the outside, the whole of the US seems to be being run by people who should have been put out to pasture years ago! And that includes both the judges and the politicians!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Well, I really have no interest in reading this, because I lived through this event, too, and I don’t want to know any more of the details. Plus, I don’t want to pile on to the despair I already feel about our political system. All you have to do is take a look at our path over the past fifty years, comparing the proportions of the haves vs. the have nots to the Romanovs and their ilk, to see who’s really in control of this country. It’s the 1%. And until we dismantle the institutional favoritism that benefits the stock market (like corporate stock buy-backs that bankrupt companies while letting their investors reap the rewards), we will be stuck on this treadmill to oblivion. I voted for Warren in the primary. She had decent plans for getting us back on track, but it appears that few were comfortable with her vision, including those in her own party.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I like Warren too, but quite frankly I’d have chosen any of them over Biden. Well, maybe not Tulsi or Marianne, but any of the rest! I can’t imagine a less inspiring person to lead the fight against Trump, and I’m frankly dreading the debates. We’re always a bit puzzled over here because what the US calls far-left socialism is pretty much centre-left over here. The idea of not having a national health system in the world’s richest country baffles me, and yet so many people are against it. Don’t get me wrong, we have plenty of problems, but even our right-wingers do tend to believe that society has a responsibility to look after the most vulnerable. The US is the only major democracy that doesn’t, and I suspect that’s why democracy itself seems to be at risk – as you say, the US system only seems to work for the rich.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the link, L. Marie. I’ve seen her talk recently somewhere, but can’t remember where. To be fair, Toobin made it clear that she was never the one who was crying that she was Clinton’s victim, at the time at least – that’s a narrative other women have created long after the event. To me the real abuser was Linda Tripp, who recorded their conversations and then made them public.

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  11. I’m probably not going to read this as I don’t relish the idea of learning all the sleazy details! I don’t really remember the case and I imagine I was too young to really understand it when it was going on, even if I’d caught wind of it on the news. I have been impressed with the way Lewinsky has reinvented herself in the last few years as a campaigner against bullying on the basis of her own experiences in the press.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The sleazy details were a bit much for me, but the bulk of the book isn’t directly about them happily! I truly think it’s the media who is always the biggest bully in these situations, while crying mock tears over the poor victims as if they cared. Then when the story goes off the front page, the victims are simply left to deal with the fall-out on their own.

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  12. Hmmmm. I probably shouldn’t weigh in on this one. I think I’ve mentioned before that as an Arkansan, I’ve dealt with more Clinton antics and scandals than most. I’m not a fan of either of our major political parties and despair at the choices offered by both for the coming election. Let me just shut up now….

    Liked by 1 person

    • I despair too – although not an American, we’re all affected by who’s President and I can’t believe the awful choice you have in November. In a country of 330M, can these two really be the best??? I used to quite like Hillary till I learned more about American politics over the last few years, and now I understand better why people were so unenthusiastic about her too…

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I barked out a laugh when you recommended this book to Americans as an explanation as to why their system fails them (and why, in general, their sorry excuse for a government never seems to change) I would laugh more if I didn’t feel like crying. I feel sorry for our lovely American book blogger friends, they seem as incredulous as we do!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. As someone generally pretty confused by the American legal system, this does sound interesting. I had just begun high school when Clinton and Lewinsky were in the news and I remember my parents turning off the radio when the reporters would get to the more detailed parts!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great review, thanks! I am constantly horrified about the electoral system in the US and hows pretty much everybody can run for office, as long as they have plenty of money and are loud enough.
    What I always wondered about this particular case: where was Hilary Clinton in all of this? And how could she possibly have stayed married to him? What does Toobin have to say about her?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! It’s the fact that people are willing to vote for some of them that appals me. In a country that size, there must be some decent people they could elect instead!!
      He suggested that at first Hillary either believed him when he said he didn’t do it, or pretended to. He gave me the impression that they were very much a political marriage, and that, though Hillary was furious, it was as much at the damage he had done to their joint career as the personal side. Doesn’t make her very attractive either, really…

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Sometimes I wonder if it would be beneficial to make voting mandatory?

    As for the Germans 👋, I think people were still reeling from the „Great War“, the political situation was unstable, the country poorly led, there was the Big Depression and this guy shows up and tells them he will make Germany great again…. wow, where have I heard that before? Honestly, Trump scares me. I think I‘d rather see an even more senile Biden in his place than him for another four years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m never sure about mandatory voting – already so many people vote for a tribe without bothering to find out enough about their policies or personalities – hence Trump!

      Ha, yes, exactly! Although world circumstances are different, the path the Americans are on is horrifyingly similar – I just wish more of them could see that before it’s too late. And I’d definitely vote for Biden too, but I really wish the Dems could have found someone more inspiring…

      Liked by 1 person

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