Politics & Policy

The Case Against Ben-Veniste; Two Steps Forward, One Back At The New York Times


I had hoped to start my weekend without having to write about Clinton stuff today. But Richard Ben-Veniste taunts me, he goads me. In today’s New York Times Mr. Ben-Veniste displays once again his gift for duplicity, distraction, and dubious reasoning. There is a certain tone to some New York Times op-ed pieces that I’m sure is richly cultivated by the editors. It is one of subdued outrage and sober urgency. When the tone is affected for truly grave issues — implications of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, “Who lost China,” etc. — it is worthwhile. But when it is employed in a deliberately dramatic manner to evoke dread and gloom where none is warranted, the tone would be comical if it were not so disingenuous. Mr Ben-Veniste mimics this timbre like Rich Little doing Henry Kissinger.

Ben-Veniste lays out his J’accuse entitled “The Case Against Ken Starr.” The real title should be “The Case Against Ben-Veniste’s Researcher at the DNC.” Ben-Veniste displays a Blumethalian penchant for connecting dots that either cannot be connected or for which evidence of their connection is woefully lacking. He runs through a concatenation of ominous dates and alleged “contacts.” Whether all of these contacts actually took place, I don’t know (but I can tell you very little reporting on the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy has been very accurate). As to whether these contacts between various lawyers were as nefarious as Mr Ben-Veniste’s perfervid assumptions, I am sure the answer is no. But so what?

Ben-Veniste’s central allegation is twofold. First, Starr allegedly might have had a “heads up” about Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky. This vital advanced warning, as the defense people might say, could have been — gasp — as long as ten days or two weeks! Therefore Ben-Veniste and the Clintonites contend, Starr and his deputies could devise the fiendishly clever strategy of looking for “patterns of obstruction.”

“Thank Heavens” the Starr Warriors must have declared! Obviously having worked in federal offices for so long, inhaling lead-paint fumes, they were far too stupid to think of looking for something that they’d been knee-deep in for “four years and forty million dollars.” According to the Clintonites, if they had only a day or two to come up with this insight after getting Tripp’s story, they would have been like the apes in 2001 clucking around an alien obelisk. “Hoo hoo, pat-terns of obstruct-shun? What that? Let’s get some bananas.” This is a serious point. Nobody has explained to me why, if true, such a heads-up would be so dastardly. Does anybody in Christendom doubt that looking for patterns of obstruction in the Clinton White House is about as obvious as looking for rings in, well, the rings of a tree?

This patterns-of-obstruction argument was powerful enough to persuade Janet Reno to expand Starr’s investigation. This in turn, according to Ben-Veniste, set up the circumstances for the much-vaunted “perjury trap” that President Clinton was “ambushed” by. I must be the dumbest guy in Washington but I don’t get this, never have, and I fear I never will. According to his grand jury testimony, Mr. Clinton knew, on December 6, 1997, that the Paula Jones lawyers were investigating Monica Lewinsky. Remember: the affair had taken place the previous year. On December 11, Vernon Jordan started making calls for Monica to get a job. Remember: the affair had taken place the previous year. On January 6 and 7 there was a flurry of phone calls between Jordan, the White House, and Frank Carter, Monica Lewinsky’s attorney. The false affidavit was signed. On January 8, Vernon Jordan secured a job for Lewinsky, called the President and declared, “mission accomplished.” Remember: the affair had taken place the previous year. Nine days after Jordan accomplished his mission, the President was deposed and asked about Lewinsky and, according to Ben-Veniste, “ambushed.” “THE PERJURY TRAP WAS SPRUNG!” wail Clintonistas everywhere.

Usually when people say “sprung” there is a connotation of, well, surprise. Indeed the word is almost onomatopoeic for surprise. Where is the surprise? The affair, if you haven’t caught on yet, took place during the previous year. Clinton had about six weeks to contemplate the fact that Lewinsky would come up. And, by the way, he had eight months of wrenching national political turmoil before his grand jury appearance. There was no “sprung.” He was about as forced to lie about what he knew was the truth as he was forced to receive oral sex from an intern while on the phone with a congressman talking about the slaughter in Bosnia. (This is an important point. The Clintonites constantly imply this whole thing was a set up by, among others, Lucianne Goldberg. My mom’s a smart and capable lady. But if someone could explain how she got Monica past the Secret Service to do the things in the Starr report, let me know. I mean if you were going to send a paid seductress into the White House, would you pick Monica Lewinsky?)

The second part of Ben-Veniste’s allegation is that Starr might have “deceived” Janet Reno, when he got the probe expanded. I haven’t really heard any clear evidence of this, and I sincerely doubt it. If we must investigate Starr for these insinuations, so be it. But remember, even if Starr were guilty of every single accusation against him, every one, it would not change the case against Clinton at all.

I have no overwhelming brief for Ken Starr. His office is a black box to me (and rightly so). Sometimes the OIC has taken actions that I have not welcomed. But, my God, has there been a public official more mistreated in recent history? Obviously, some people say yes, Bill Clinton. That is a different argument and my position is well known. But, regardless of what one thinks about the case against Clinton, it seems beyond dispute that the White House cynically decided to destroy Ken Starr, an honorable man, in an effort to save itself. If the accusations about Starr’s zeal are true, how can they be attributable to anything but the Clinton campaign of abuse and distortion? In sports, this is called forcing an error. But this is no game, and Ken Starr does not get his good name back when the buzzer goes off.


I have been disheartened and torn about the arrest of General Augusto Pinochet. No man has more clearly exemplified the Kirkpatrick doctrine about authoritarian versus totalitarian dictatorships. Charles Krauthammer in today’s Washington Post lays out the argument against arresting Pinochet like a surgeon.


The New York Times today stepped back from the brink. Last Sunday, the Times published a balanced piece in the “Week in Review” section about the revised view of McCarthy. They couldn’t make it a whole week without pulling back a bit. Today’s lead editorial is against “Revisionist McCarthyism.” They revisit the real crimes of McCarthy. And they bemoan the atmosphere of McCarthyism that ensued: “The venomous Washington witch-hunt soon spread across American society, poisoning the universities, the arts, the press, and many other professions.” True enough. But let us not forget the cloying and oppressive atmosphere created by the backlash against McCarthyism. For decades conservatives have been dismissed as fascists for addressing the very real threat of Communism. McCarthy may have followed his cause badly, but new scholarship clearly shows that his cause was not bad.


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