Sex, lies and audiotape…
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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.
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 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.
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.