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