Truth at Any Cost: Ken Starr and the Unmaking of Bill Clinton

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9780060932824: Truth at Any Cost: Ken Starr and the Unmaking of Bill Clinton

What drove the man who nearly toppled a presidency and forced the most serious constitutional crisis in twenty-five years? Conventional wisdom portrays Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr as a right-wing religious zealot out to destroy the president, and Bill Clinton as a victim whose only "crime" was a private indiscretion.

In Truth at Any Cost, two of America's preeminent investigative reporters, Susan Schmidt and Michael Weisskopf, reveal for the first time what really went on inside the Office of the Independent Counsel. The book details Ken Starr's motivations, his inner struggles, and his anguish as he comes under attack by Clinton's ferocious partisans. It goes behind the locked doors of Starr's office as prosecutors make the fateful decision to pursue the case against Clinton for lying to conceal his embarrassing affair with an intern half his age. Schmidt and Weisskopf lay bare what happened on the night when FBI agents first confronted Monica Lewinsky, how the White House launched a political jihad to survive, and how Starr's team agonized over Clinton's fate.

For four years, the bland, smiling man behind the investigation of President Clinton remained a mystery, both to many who supported him and to those who feared him. Until now. Truth at Any Cost shows Ken Starr in a new light: as an upright but politically naive prosecutor who withstood public vilification to pursue the truth--including what he and his deputies saw as the president's attempts to use the power of his office to thwart a legitimate inquiry. Here is an unblinking look at the battle between Starr's legal absolutism and Clinton's chronic evasions. It examines Starr's impassioned quest to bring the president to justice, and explains how Starr eventually became a casualty of his own mission, leaving the arena as bloodied as the man he had pursued.

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Review:

It began with a phone call. On January 12, 1998, Deputy Independent Counsel Jackie Bennett talked to a woman named Linda Tripp, who claimed to have potentially incriminating evidence against President Clinton. Bennett passed this information along to his boss, Kenneth Starr, who then decided it was worth pursuing. Though they knew they would catch some heat for it, it was a chance they were willing to take. In a prophetic, and ultimately understated, comment, Bennett declared: "We're really going to be criticized on this someday." He had no idea. Susan Schmidt and Michael Weisskopf's Truth at Any Cost is an utterly absorbing and honest assessment of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and subsequent investigation, one of the most contentious political issues in memory. Even those who followed the story closely will find many secrets exposed in these pages, many myths deconstructed. Political junkies will likely devour it in a single sitting.

Because relatively little is known about the man who nearly toppled a presidency, a warts-and-all look at Ken Starr is one of the highlights of the book. Like Clinton, Starr's own pattern of self-destruction plagued him throughout the investigation. Surprisingly, considering his 30 years of experience in Washington, most of his problems arose from a lack of political acumen; he may be a topnotch prosecutor, but he's a public relations disaster. Schmidt and Weisskopf brilliantly re-create one particularly naive display, in which Starr agreed to an interview with Brill's Content, a journalism review, and was skewered when his comments were used to suggest that he had leaked grand jury testimony to the press. Snared by the interview and shocked at the treachery of the reporter, he severely undermined the investigation and nearly suffered a contempt-of-court charge in the process. Readers will be surprised to discover just how close Starr came to having the investigation terminated as a result of this event. He never grasped how vital public opinion is to the work of a prosecutor, and he paid a dear personal price for his tunnel vision. Not only was he relentlessly bashed in the press but he was the focus of what one anonymous White House official referred to as a "continuing campaign to destroy Ken Starr" that even included members of the Department of Justice.

Truth at Any Cost deserves to be read both for its impressive depth of detail and its admirable balance. Based on hundreds of hours of interviews with primary sources (30 hours with Starr alone) and reams of official records (including grand jury transcripts), it's a solid piece of journalism by veteran investigative reporters Schmidt and Weisskopf. The authors sum up the complexities of the investigation, with all of its political wrangling, spin control, and legal hair-splitting, and at the same time offer countless juicy anecdotes that reveal much about the character of the participants. And though no book could possibly settle such a polarizing debate, its strict adherence to the facts is as refreshing as it is valuable. --Shawn Carkonen

About the Author:

Susan Schmidt and Michael Weisskopf, both award-winning investigative reporters, worked togethr at the Washington Post for several years until Weisskopf's move to Time in 1997. Schmidt broke the Lewinsky story in the Post in January 1998 and piled up scoops o every front. Weisskopf cowrot Time's 1998 Man of the Year story on Starr and is the coauthor(with David Maraniss) of Tell Newt to Shut Up.

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