The Talent

February 23, 2010 5:24 PM

To Whitewater and Beyond: Q & A with Death of American Virtue Author Ken Gormley

Posted by Brian Baxter

AmericanVirtue In the same week that erstwhile White House independent counsel Kenneth Starr was appointed president of Baylor University, a highly anticipated new book delving into his long-running investigation of former President Bill Clinton was released by another law school dean, Duquesne University's Ken Gormley.

Gormley, the interim dean of Duquesne's law school as well as counsel with Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis, leaves no sordid stone unturned in The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr. As one might expect of a book about such a polarizing topic, Gormley's 800-page paean to political intrigue has received a mix of positive and negative reviews. (Click here, here, and here for other reviews.)

We caught up with Gormley by phone at his home in Pittsburgh last week, shortly after he returned from a book tour that included appearances with Charlie Rose and Fox and Friends. Like his new tome, the conversation touched on Whitewater, Monica Lewinsky, and plenty of top lawyers.

What made you want to write this book?

I'd written the biography of Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor, who was one of the great lawyers of the twentieth century and my professor at Harvard Law School. That book came out just as the Monica Lewinsky story was exploding in the news in early 1998. I remember getting a call from The New York Times as that story was breaking to comment on it. And before long I became a talking head--writing about [the scandal], commenting on it, and attending the first day of the impeachment proceedings in the Senate. From then on, I felt destined to write a book about this, because it was all just so incredible.

How long did it take you to write?

My first interview, which I remember vividly, was in January 2000 with Ken Starr. So this has been almost ten years in the making. But I set out to make this a long-term project, which I think was one of the selling points to those I interviewed. Ken was the first person I approached, because I had written things that were perceived as pro-Clinton, and I wanted to make sure I wrote a balanced book. I needed both sides, and if Ken didn't cooperate, I don't think I would have done it.

How many people did you interview for the book?

There's about 160 interviews listed in the back of the book, but the total number is probably close to 200, because I spoke with some people off-the-record. I set out to have both sides talk and have the story told in their own voices. I really didn't want to use one-dimensional caricatures that were created by the media during this thing. I wanted to meet each person, hear from them, and make my own judgments.

I take it more than a few of those were lawyers. What was it like interacting with your peers on such a sensitive subject?

The Archibald Cox book was the single most important entree to most of the big interviews, because it was viewed as balanced. Washington is a small town and many of the key players in the Clinton-Starr saga, at least the lawyers involved, had played some role in Watergate. In most cases I worked through lawyers in getting access to people. And I attribute a lot of the success to the Archie book, as I call it.

Your book features the first in-depth discussion with Monica Lewinsky about her perspective on the scandal, including her allegation that Clinton lied under oath. How did you go about approaching her?

I set up a meeting with her lawyer, Plato Cacheris, who represented one of the defendants [former attorney general John Mitchell] during the Watergate prosecution. Even though Cacheris is from Pittsburgh, I didn't know him, but he had read my book on Cox. And he strongly urged Monica to talk to me. We started talking in 2002 and had a series of follow-up interviews over the years. Some material, especially at the end of the book, she provided through e-mails and letters up until late last year.

What other lawyers helped you get access?

President Clinton's lawyers--David Kendall and Bob Bennett--helped provide guidance and I have the utmost respect for both of them. I also spoke to friends of the Clintons in Arkansas, many of them lawyers. It was a very important network in order to gain a sense of trust.

When did you interview President Clinton?

We spoke four different times, all of which were only possible after his memoir came out, because he had a contract. The first time I met with him, I think it was 2005, and a few days later he had open-heart surgery. I feared that he wouldn't be able to go through with the project, but to my amazement, he called me right after he left the hospital and we met again at a hotel in Philadelphia. The next two interviews were at his home in Chappaqua.

I've seen reports that you have praised Starr and criticized him for his actions as independent counsel. At the risk of oversimplifying things, how do you think he performed?

I have the greatest respect for Ken; he's a wonderful person and leading luminary among lawyers and law professors. In a nutshell I concluded that as Whitewater prosecutor he got pretty high marks, and I did not find evidence of him being a partisan zealot out to bring down the president. He was always very respectful of President Clinton. I do think he took too long [with the investigation] and while it was permissible to work [at Kirkland & Ellis] as independent counsel, it was a big disadvantage to getting the job done. He was essentially working two jobs.

In your mind, where did Starr stray during his inquiry?

I think Ken slid off the track because he was the wrong person to get involved in the Lewinsky investigation. The essence of the independent counsel law was based upon perception: finding someone who was perceived to be free of any bias. And by that time at least half the country saw Ken having an agenda to be out to get Clinton, however unfairly. The Lewinsky case was also linked to the Paula Jones case, in which Ken had some direct involvement, albeit in a limited fashion.

How so?

Starr appeared on national TV as being in favor of suing the president in a civil suit. And he tentatively agreed to file two amicus briefs in the Jones case on behalf of the Independent Women's Forum and also, ironically, on behalf of Robert Fiske for the Office of Independent Counsel. [Starr replaced Fiske as independent counsel in 1994.] The information concerning Linda Tripp that led to the sting on Monica came through what Michael Isikoff termed 'the elves,' folks that were working behind-the-scenes in the Jones case that were friends with Paul Rosenzweig, one of Starr's deputies.

You think that Starr should have focused solely on Whitewater?

Yes, anything remotely connected to the Paula Jones case should have been for someone else. I've said this to Ken and we agree on some things and disagree on some things. I think you have to separate Ken Starr as Whitewater prosecutor and Ken Starr expanding into the Monica Lewinsky case.

Was the Clinton-Starr imbroglio the turning point in our political discourse, where everything just became so politicized?

To me it's the division of red states and blue states along with cable TV shows for liberals and conservatives. That hasn't been a positive development. Our country became so concerned about what affairs Bill Clinton might have had in Arkansas years ago, while abroad people were stalking our country and getting ready for an attack. It's sobering to realize, and I think all of us really lost our perspective.

The world doesn't wait for us to sort out our political differences.

No they don't. We're best as a country when we're pulling together and not when we're at each other's throats like this, I think it brings out the worst of us as a nation. A lot of this [divisiveness] started with the Clinton vs. Starr battle and it's time to put it to rest.

All interviews are condensed and edited for grammar, style, and clarity.

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