A decade later, an eye-opener on the Clinton affair

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The seismic wave that went through the nation's political establishment yesterday started up on the Bluff.

Eye-opening findings in an upcoming book on the Bill Clinton impeachment saga, by interim Duquesne University Law School Dean Ken Gormley, surfaced on a leading political Web site yesterday afternoon.

The book includes reports on how close both Mr. Clinton and his wife, Hillary, were to being indicted, on an affair Mr. Clinton had with an Arkansas woman who went to jail for refusing to answer questions from prosecutors, and a new claim by Monica Lewinsky that the president lied under oath.

Mr. Gormley's book does not spare independent Whitewater counsel Kenneth Starr either. "The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr" describes a secret report from the Justice Department criticizing the prosecutor's early handling of Ms. Lewinsky, how the investigation led to high-stakes fights between the FBI and the Secret Service, and how Mr. Starr's team drafted impeachment papers for Congress before the Lewinsky matters ever surfaced.

The Whitewater scandal, Mr. Clinton's affair with his intern and his subsequent impeachment -- which the House approved 11 years ago tomorrow -- may seem like ages ago. Mr. Gormley's 769-page book, the first major, scholarly look at the scandal, took him more than nine years to complete. The research included 50 hours of interviews with Mr. Starr and three interviews with Mr. Clinton, including a meeting with the former president on the top floor of the Omni William Penn Hotel.

Though Mr. Gormley, 54, of Forest Hills, found damning information about both men's actions, he said he still came out of the research liking the pair. The book rather turns its ire on the political machinations that kept the scandal bubbling for half of the 1990s.

"Look back -- there were terrorists stalking the country and we were fixated on this. It's really a tragedy in many ways," Mr. Gormley said yesterday. "The hope is [the book] is a small contribution toward all of us realizing the dangers of pushing so far for our team that we forget the institutions we're all trying to protect."

The book, which Politico.com first reported on yesterday afternoon, finds that:

• Mr. Clinton was close to being indicted by Mr. Starr's successor Robert Ray days after he left office, and only avoided it after being talked into admitting he lied under oath and agreeing to disbarment. A federal judge was also close to finding Mr. Clinton in criminal contempt.

• Hillary Rodham Clinton, too, was nearly indicted, as part of Mr. Starr's all-out effort to pressure Mr. Clinton, which included his prosecutions of Arkansas friends Webb Hubbell and Susan McDougal. But then the Lewinsky matter diverted his attention.

"Monica saved Hillary," one interviewee told Mr. Gormley, "because Starr's office was so focused at that point in sealing the deal on the Monica Lewinsky investigation."

• Mr. Clinton indeed had a long-rumored extramarital affair with Ms. McDougal, which the Arkansas woman has denied. Though she would serve 18 months in prison, the affair was not the reason she did not cooperate with prosecutors, Mr. Gormley argues.

• Ms. Lewinsky says for the first time that Mr. Clinton lied in his grand jury testimony, though Mr. Gormley said that shouldn't be too surprising. "Most people by now have reached the conclusion he repeated falsehoods," he said.

• Mr. Starr's team made a grave mistake by grilling Ms. Lewinsky, despite her pleas to have a lawyer present, and the prosecutor's obsession with the intern's story ultimately undid him. "He lost his bearings when it came to the Lewinsky matter -- the investigation took a wrong turn and never recovered from that," Mr. Gormley said.

• The FBI tried to lure the Secret Service into conspiring with the Clinton team by showing Secret Service Director Lew Merletti bad lab results on Ms. Lewinsky's infamous DNA-stained dress. Mr. Merletti, a Central Catholic and Duquesne graduate who is now vice president of the Cleveland Browns, told Mr. Gormley it nearly led to a precedent-shattering attempt to get Secret Service agents to testify about presidential behavior in court.

Mr. Gormley found that former President George H.W. Bush took the agency's side in trying to stay out of the matter.

"There were chilling, kind of 'spy versus spy' things going on," Mr. Gormley said.

• Former President Gerald Ford personally reached out to Mr. Clinton to get him to agree to censure and avoid an impeachment trial, but Mr. Clinton adamantly refused, saying he would rather fight.

• New details on the death of White House lawyer Vince Foster, and on psychiatric records of Whitewater felon James McDougal.

The book is set for release by Crown on Feb. 16.

Mr. Gormley has been at Duquesne Law since 1994 and published a book on Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1997, in the midst of the Whitewater scandal. Bipartisan praise for the book turned him into a go-to expert on independent prosecutors and opened the doors for players on all sides of the Clinton matters to talk to the registered Democrat.

"It took me a lot of years, but being a law professor afforded me the ability to be patient," he said. "I set out to do the definitive, neutral, historical account. I knew it would take a long time to reel in everyone."

Tim McNulty can be reached at tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581.


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