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SHADOW: Five Presidents and the Legacy of Watergate;\o7 By Bob Woodward; (Simon and Schuster: 592 pp., $27.50)\f7

July 18, 1999|KENNETH ANDERSON | Kenneth Anderson teaches law at American University, Washington D.C.; he is legal editor of "Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know" (W.W. Norton)

In the months after the impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton, the race was on, publish or perish, to make some sense of the events of the last year. Notwithstanding that Bob Woodward is the dean of inside-Beltway reporting, the journalist who had defined coverage of presidential implosions, from Richard Nixon onward, he faced stiff competition from a wide range of Clintonia writers, both journalists and former aides, including Michael Isikoff, George Stephanopoulos and Christopher Hitchens. Woodward's entry, "Shadow," attempts to cut loose from the crowd by being about more than just Clinton (although more than half the book is about Clinton). "Shadow" strives to give an account not just of the Clinton turmoil, but of the travails that have overtaken every president since Nixon--as each fought to cope with the heightened scrutiny of the chief executive and the heavy, extra-constitutional weight of the now-defunct Office of the Independent Counsel upon the presidency. The book's central claim is that the relentless spotlight upon the president, in the hands of ever-more relentless prosecutors, has practically ensured that every post-Watergate president will lie, evade and cover up about something; in this regard, looking across the record of five presidents, Clinton is unusual in degree but not in kind from other post-Nixon presidents. As a consequence of this longer view, "Shadow" has a loftier intellectual theme than the quickie Clinton books: Its aim is no less than to set the standard, as did "All the President's Men," for understanding the scandal 30, 40, 50 years from now, when the rest of the books have disappeared, when our recollections have disappeared too and when my now 6-year-old daughter has some unaccountable desire to read about the decadent fin de siecle.

But this book may well make its way quickly to the remainder bin, to join the other contenders in the now-tired genre of the presidential scandal post-mortem. The problem does not lie with a failure to research; Woodward has canvassed the literature and tapped into the legendary Woodward web of sources. In the sections of the book on pre-Clinton presidents, he usually names them, but in the Clinton section he relies extensively on unnamed "knowledgeable sources." Heavy reliance upon these unnamed sources inevitably raises issues of credibility and motive; Woodward's account has been challenged by several players in these events. This leaves readers who don't trust lawyers or journalists, or even the sainted Woodward, in the delicate position of judging the race to lie, invent, and spin. Shall we trust Woodward's account or that of Jane Sherburne, appointed Clinton scandal management lawyer in 1994? Trust Bernie Nussbaum, David Kendall, Charles Ruff, Ken Starr, Brett Kavanaugh, Hillary Clinton, Bob Bennett, David Schippers, Nicole Seligman, Vernon Jordan, William H. Ginsburg, Bill Clinton, lawyers all? Who among them would one not be embarrassed to introduce to one's children or have over to dinner? I would guess that many readers of "Shadow," if honest with themselves, will be unsure who to believe.

In some instances, "Shadow" rings true to everything known about Bill Clinton, for example the repeated instances the author cites of Clinton casually cheating at golf. In other instances, it seems rather that Woodward has been spun by his source--or simply liked him or her--and given various players in the Clinton scandal the opportunity to exculpate themselves and shift blame onto others. Nussbaum's role, for example, in denying the FBI and Justice Department access to Vince Foster's office following his suicide, is spun evidently to rehabilitate Nussbaum's tattered reputation, showing that, far from being out of his league as so many thought, he showed great prescience about the independent counsel office, saying to Hillary, according to Woodward, "Why are you going to put your head in that noose?" Being spun is a risk of relying on the accounts of insider underlings, who have things to hide, scores to settle, blame to shift and new Beltway jobs to maneuver for, even if Woodward is not varnishing the stories himself.

Similarly, much of what is said about and, supposedly by, Bob Bennett, the lawyer who handled the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit for Clinton, reads as though drafted by Bennett and handed to Woodward for unedited insertion. Can a lawyer breach the attorney-client privilege by telling falsehoods designed to make the lawyer look good but which, because they are untrue, reveal no client confidences? Who knows, but it may be Bennett and some of the other lawyers' best, or anyway most novel, ethics charges defense.

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