The term subpoena duces tecum doesn't usually turn heads at a restaurant, but it does as PW lunches with journalist, author and TV news correspondent Jeffrey Toobin at Ruby Foo's, a popular Upper West Side eatery in Manhattan. Perhaps our fellow diners recognize Toobin for his appearances on Nightline and Good Morning America, where he is a regular commentator on whatever calamitous trial is mesmerizing the viewing public. Perhaps Toobin is recognizable in his neighborhood -- the neighborhood he grew up in -- as the bestselling author of The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Or perhaps Ruby Foo's just happens to be crowded with savvy New Yorkers who know a New Yorker staff writer when they see one. It is most likely, though, that above the clatter of cutlery and holiday house music, inquiring minds have overheard discussion of their president's penis and Paula Corbin Jones and Dick Morris and "the blue Gap dress," all of which have cast the salacious-sounding Latin term of law in an alluring light.
Would that the entire impeachment hearing and Senate trial of William Jefferson Clinton, the subject of Toobin's new book, A Vast Conspiracy, had been conducted in Latin. It might have lent some mystery to the nation's painful experience of the proceedings, like the Catholic Mass of old, rather than having lathered us in an all-too-obvious bathos. But in fact the ordeal was delivered in a form of English, then proceeded along crisscrossing and unpredictable paths toward an end that most foresaw from early on: the acquittal of the president on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury. And Toobin has risen to the challenge of rendering the chaos of the impeachment, what led up to it and its denouement, in a sharp prose style and in a manner that makes sense of a disastrous phase of American political history, while also providing some hitherto unknown details.
Ah, yes, the details. God may not lurk therein, as many have contended, but in this case, sensation surely does. In fact, some of the material that the dogged Toobin has unearthed for the first time might be enough to inspire a Giulianiesque censure when the embargoed book hits bookstores on January 12, or when Toobin weighs in on an exclusive Nightline report this week, or when the documents themselves, many still under court seal, appear fully unexpurgated on a dedicated Web site, www.vastconspiracy.com, on pub date.
"Mr. Clinton's penis was circumcised and seemed to me to be rather short and thin. I would describe its appearance as seeming to be five to five and one-half inches, or less, in length, having a circumference of the approximate size of a quarter, or perhaps very slightly larger...The shaft...was bent or 'crooked' from Mr. Clinton's right to left...", or so says Paula Jones Corbin in a sealed deposition in Little Rock.
"You'd be surprised what people will hand over to you," says a slightly embarrassed Toobin when asked about the "distinguishing characteristic" document, lowering his voice a shade. In his fine cashmere coat, the writer is a picture of prosperity. Trimly built, he sports a full head of hair, his unlined face belying his extremely busy life covering America's courtroom sagas. His countenance mixes the stolid, sagacious look of Bob Woodward with the more excitable mischief of movie critic Michael Medved, appropriate perhaps for a man half political journalist and half talking head.
Oddly enough, Toobin was long reluctant to embark on a writing and reporting career. The son of pioneering NBC journalist Marlene Sanders and a father who was a producer for Bill Moyers, Toobin hoped to fall far from the tree. "I was entirely sure I didn't want to be a journalist," says the 37-year-old Toobin, who lives with his wife, Amy, the head of Bell Atlantic's high-speed Internet division, and their two young children on West End Avenue. "I wanted to be a prosecutor or perhaps run for office. I was a very political kid, though I always worked on the school paper, and at Harvard, where I met my wife working on the Harvard Crimson." And in fact, Toobin successfully pursued those goals, working as an advance man for John Anderson during his presidential campaign in 1980 and working for Toby Moffett on his campaign against Lowell Weicker a few years later. Toobin returned to Harvard for a law degree, and ended up working as a junior attorney for Lawrence Walsh in the Oliver North case, an experience that led to his first book, Opening Arguments: A Young Lawyer's First Case -- United States v. Oliver North, which Viking published in 1991, despite Walsh's effort to block publication. The ordeal enlivened Toobin in ways he didn't expect.
Although he moved on after Iran-Contra to an enjoyable three-year stint as a U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, Toobin was a changed man. "It was almost like a light bulb going off, and I had to confront what mattered to me most. I thought, 'Alright, stupid, you like writing more than law or politics and there's nothing wrong with doing what your parents did. After the book, I did some freelancing for the New Republic. And in 1994 or so, when Tina Brown was hired with much fanfare at the New Yorker, David Remnick, a friend of mine, said, 'You know, if you're interested, you ought to send in your clips; she's hiring Talk of the Town writers. I was hired in 36 hours. About a year and a half later, O.J. Simpson murdered his wife and I wrote the first story about Mark Fuhrman, and that put me on the map journalistically and I got a book contract" -- Esther Newberg was then and still is his agent, and his last two books have been edited by Ann Godoff -- "and things have taken off from there."
Clearly, though, Toobin's career as a journalist, both in print and on television, builds on his two earlier passions -- for politics and the law. And it d sn't seem likely that reviewers of A Vast Conspiracy will miss Toobin's larger argument, which, peccadill s and anatomical details aside, is a serious and compelling one.
"My thesis about the Clinton scandals relates a great deal to the evolution of political culture and the political class in this country," Toobin says with zeal. "Like any storyteller, I love a good irony. And basically what happened is part of a larger development that is regrettable, I think: that the political left in this country, using Thurgood Marshall's work as a model, started using litigation as substitute for other political action. This was done on behalf of the civil rights movement, of feminism, of environmentalism, and they had some tremendous successes, but they paid a political price, because instead of mobilizing large constituencies behind their work, all they had to do was persuade a few judges. And that was a problem. First, because some of these victories turned out to be politically rather hollow, but more importantly, as far as this story is concerned, they created a template for the right wing to follow. And that's the irony. It was the Democrats who created the use of civil lawsuits for political gain, it was the Democrats who sponsored the independent counsel law, and here was the right wing, in the Paula Jones case and in the Starr investigation, using it almost to topple the presidency and overturn the results of an election."
Notably, the title of Toobin's book omits the term "right-wing" from what he calls perhaps the most famous statement by a First Lady, Mrs. Clinton's contention on the Today show in January 1998 that a "vast right-wing conspiracy" was behind the Starr investigation.
"I believe that she was more right than wrong in attributing her husband's troubles to a vast right-wing conspiracy, but I think understandably she missed the larger point, which is that what happened is politics as usual. The Democrats were just as zealous using the independent counsel when Reagan and Bush were president. Obviously, it was an extreme effort on the part of the right to drive Clinton out of office, but conspirators were on both sides of the aisle." This thesis -- that the legal system has "polluted" the political system and is used by both sides -- returns time and again throughout the book. Toobin is quite adamant that it must change, but he is not necessarily optimistic. And he is aware that the media play a decisive role in this unfortunate dynamic.
"I think the media is enormously responsible for the excesses of this case, in particular," says Toobin, pointing out that in his book he takes to task Newsweek journalist Michael Isikoff, Matt Drudge and David Brock for their reckless journalistic ethics. "I think there is a big lie at the heart of modern media coverage of politicians and that lie is that politicians' private lives tell you something important about how they will perform as political leaders. I think there is no evidence to support that view. And the so-called character issue is an excuse for journalists to treat gossip as something important." Toobin, however, exonerates the public, whose interest in "issues of character" is often blamed for the media's excesses.
"The sleazing up of the media," he contends, is not a reflection of the public's taste or interests, but simply "a reflection of the highly competitive media market place that we all live in. In fact, one of the lessons in the story is that the American public isn't as dumb and sleazy as many of the journalists who serve it."
Of course, someone in Toobin's position in the media, who spent countless weeks in Judge Ito's courtroom with the likes of Larry Schiller and Dominick Dunne, can't afford to throw stones too hard. A good story, he says, is a good story.
"I don't want to sound like a prig. I have to admit that I just loved this story, and I felt that I was born to write it. I worked at the other biggest independent counsel investigation and I also worked as an assistant U.S. attorney, so I know the difference between how an independent counsel office works and how a normal prosecutor's office works. This is a story both about the founding fathers and oral sex, and I confess to a great interest in both. One phrase I associate with Tina Brown was high and low -- that the great stories all have high and low, high principle and low comedy. Well, they don't come any higher and they don't come any lower than this one. And I just loved the sordid, awful cast of characters. I sometimes thought when I was writing the book that I would get whiplash deciding which side was worse. I love a good story, and the opportunity to tell it in its full dimension -- not just Starr, not just Paula Jones, not just Clinton -- was just a joy. But I must say, although I love gossip about the sex lives of famous people as much as the next person, I don't pretend it is significant. I don't pretend that by examining someone's extramarital affairs that you can learn anything about their potential or success as a leader."
PW wonders if perhaps the American people, in their wisdom, have put this sordid affair behind them, and whether it is one experience of the late 20th century they'd just as soon forget. Toobin is ready for the question: "People said the same thing about the Simpson case, and many of the Simpson books did very well. Here, I had essentially no competition, which is a wonderful gift to a current affairs writer. It has been a year since the trial, and I think there are a lot of Americans who will wake up and say, ˜Did we really impeach the president? What the hell was all that about?' And this, for better or worse, is a major event in American history. It is a sensational, hilarious story, and there is definitely a book in it, and one thing to keep in mind is that you don't have to interest everybody."
And the story is not over. "In the book," says Toobin, "you will hear a close friend of the Clintons, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, say that when they die each of the Clintons is going to be buried next to a president of the United States. A lot has to happen in the interim, but if Hillary wins the Senate race and a Republican wins the presidential race, in 2004, 2008, who do the Democrats have? Who are the national figures in the Democratic party? She would be head and shoulders the most prominent. If she wins. And I think she will."
Perhaps there is another former United States attorney who should take heed.