Sick puppy goes for the jugular

"Book him!" These are the words, I suspect, that Inspector Clouseau-Starr dreams of sneering contemptuously to the United States' 42nd president as he is hustled off to be fingerprinted, handcuffed and jailed. We now know that the mightily powerful "independent counsel" will not be satisfied with the due processes of law and the US constitution when the Senate finally (and, just conceivably, as soon as next week) fails to convict Clinton and remove him from the White House. Far from retreating, our hero will then try to run Clinton down by some other means - either now or after he ceases to be president on 20 January 2001.

I find myself being flippant about Starr but even the mainstream American press is now beginning to come round to my way of thinking when it comes to the stench of fascistic lunacy he is so clearly bringing to America. With his "customary blundering", Starr is on his way to making himself "a narcissistic legal crank", the New York Times thundered this week. From across the country a Los Angeles Times editorial writer simultaneously dismissed our sleuth as "a sick puppy" who is "accountable only to the demons who drive him". Sound familiar, New Statesman readers?

I still think it possible that Starr himself could one day be fighting to stay out of prison - for various infractions, such as illegally conspiring to entrap Clinton. It couldn't happen to anyone more deserving; what has gone on with Starr, I now believe, is that through him the Loony Right has wormed its way into the US establishment with unprecedented powers to pursue political agendas and destroy lives along the way. The independent counsel law, set up as a result of Watergate, was always iffy; Judge Antonin Scalia had the courage to say as much in a dissenting Supreme Court opinion as long ago as 1988. But it worked reasonably fairly as long as reasonable people were implementing it.

That all changed, though, in 1994. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the 74-year-old twit presiding over the Senate trial in the ludicrous Gilbert-and-Sullivan stripes he insisted be sown on to his robes, is sufficiently right-wing to have been appointed to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon and made Chief Justice by Ronald Reagan. He chose to appoint an obscure but far-right judge named David Sentelle to head the panel that chooses the independent counsels.

You can date the first wafts of that McCarthyite stench precisely from then. Sentelle duly had lunch with two old mates: North Carolina senators Jesse Helms, 77, and Lauch Faircloth, 70, two standard-bearers of the extreme dotty right of the kind unique to the South. He denies having discussed the subject with the two ol' boys, but within three weeks Sentelle had magically decided to dump Robert Fiske, the professional and sensible independent counsel then looking into such matters as Whitewater and the suicide of Vincent Foster. He immediately replaced him with Kenneth Starr - about whom America now knows too much, such is the ruthlessness of his unending quest to get Clinton, be it over fraud (Whitewater: nothing there), murder (Foster: nothing there), or sex (where, with Monica, he finally struck gold in his $50 million trawl).

Thus we have the "vast right-wing conspiracy" to get Clinton, of which Hillary spoke a year ago. There is such a right-wing conspiracy, with tentacles that embrace even eccentric British journalists such as William Rees-Mogg and Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. (They are fed loony ravings which their once-respectable publications then print as news; citing these publications, the media food chain then bounces them back across the Atlantic and so they enter the mainstream.) I find myself, at this point, repeating what I always said about O J Simpson: he may well have been guilty of murder, but anyone who followed his trial could see that he was also framed by corrupt detectives and was therefore rightly found not guilty. In the same way, just because Clinton is a slithering toad doesn't mean there isn't a vast right-wing conspiracy out to get him: there is.

It's been a depressing spectacle to watch the 13 Republican congressmen "prosecuting" Clinton: they are all mini-Starrs, infected with the kind of prosecutorial zeal that is already spreading a new proletarian mistrust of day-to-day prosecutors (itself a disturbing phenomenon). These miserable fellows have worked as provincial prosecutors - just the type who routinely pour their energies into sending young black men to the electric chair.

Representative Ed Bryant, the 50-year-old Republican who questioned Monica on Monday, was a military prosecutor, no less; his colleague in action on Tuesday, Asa Hutchinson, 48, was appointed by Reagan to be a US attorney in Arkansas, where he successfully prosecuted Clinton's brother Roger on drugs charges (he is also a graduate of the Bob Jones University, the establishment that gave us the "Dr" in Dr Ian Paisley); and on Wednesday it was the turn of James Rogan, 41, a former LA district attorney.

The sinister authoritarianism of it all is a peril to which America is fast awakening: people are realising that the threat to the rule of law and to democratic ideals comes not so much from a philandering toad in the White House but from a group of determined zealots who will trample over people, the law and the constitution to impose their sordid wills.

For Clinton it's Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala next week, back in Washington on Friday to hear whether the Senate wants to hang, draw and quarter him, then back to Mexico the following Monday. Just a typical week in the life of a beleaguered US president in 1999.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Think, think and think again