Monday, July 04, 2005

Summer Reading, Part 1

No Island of Sanity: Paula Jones v. Bill Clinton: The Supreme Court on Trial
Vincent Bugliosi

In the past six months or so, I've rediscovered a joy of childhood: the public library. Oh, I've always gone to libraries now and then, for a little research, or to look for some older, more obscure book that would be difficult or expensive to purchase. But for most of my recreational reading, I prefer to buy my books, since I have a long-established habit of re-reading. Lately though, due to a combination of budget constraints and a large number of titles I've wanted to sample (but am unsure I want to own), I suddenly thought "Hey! Y'know, I don't have to buy books to read 'em..." Most of these titles have been in the social/political arena. So from time to time, I'll be presenting brief (or sometimes not-so-brief) reviews here.

No Island of Sanity by Vincent Bugliosi is not one I set out to find, but the idea intrigued me and the book is fairly short (132 pages of text, plus another dozen or so of footnotes). Bugliosi, of course, is best remembered as the man who succesfully prosecuted Charles Manson and family for the Tate/LaBianca murders, and for Helter Skelter, the book he wrote (with Curt Gentry) about same. Anyone who's familiar with that case can't help but have a certain respect for the man, his determination and integrity, as well as a certain amount of legal prowess. So I was curious to see what he might have to say on the subject of the Supreme Court and its ruling in the Jones v. Clinton case.

To refresh everyone's memory, the case did not consider the merits of the Paula Jones lawsuit against President Clinton for alleged sexual harassment, nor did it directly pertain to the Whitewater investigation, Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky, or the eventual impeachment proceedings. In fact, Bugliosi wrote this book in 1998, before the matters that would lead to the impeachment came to light. Nor does Bugliosi himself take up the question of whether Jones' allegations had substance (apart from noting, mainly in the footnotes, some contradictory information). Rather, he focuses on the question of whether it makes any kind of sense for a sitting President to be forced to defend himself against a civil suit while still in office, particularly when the suit is pertaining to alleged conduct that occurred before he took office.

Bugliosi makes a pretty convincing case that the unanimous ruling of the Supreme Court that the suit could proceed was dead wrong; that the court failed to weigh, as it must, the competing interest of the people of the United States in having an undistracted President, against the need of Ms. Jones for speedy relief. It should be noted that Clinton never claimed to be immune from the suit altogether; rather he simply wanted the matter delayed till after his term of office. Bugliosi also notes that the constitutional right to a speedy trial only applies to criminal, not civil, cases, and that courts routinely grant long continuances over matters of public interest. In fact, had Clinton been a private soldier being deployed overseas, he would have been entitled by statute to have the matter delayed until his return; is it reasonable to deny the same to the Commander-In-Chief?

Intermixed with Bugliosi's argument (which is fairly simple, and can actually be summed up in just a few pages) are some of his own alarm at the direction of society. Some of this is certainly worthwhile reading, as he takes to task everyone from the media (which mostly applauded the court's decision) to those who would see the country suffer for political gain. My personal favorite quote:

"The ultraconservative wing of the Republican Party, if they had a patriotic bone in their body, which they do not, would want the president, even though he is a Democrat, to do well. Why? Because if he does well, so does the country. But since these beady-eyed, narrow-minded people, at bottom, really don't care how the country does -- they only want the country to do well if one of their people is president -- they wish, encourage, and promote all kinds of harm on the president, even on his wife, Hillary. Not only would they actually be very happy if the president, whose time is extremely precious, was tied up for months on the Paula Jones case, to the detriment of the country, they'd also love nothing better than to see him humiliated, even though this humiliation would automatically and necessarily be humiliating to the entire country in the eyes of the world. This is the crowd that can frequently be heard to say, 'He's not my president.' The same people whose generational predecessors, particularly in the South, celebrated when President Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. What does it say about a group of vile, mean-spirited, and indecent people like this when the best defense for their attitude and behavior, if there is one, is that they are cretinous?"

I think I whooped out loud when I read this one, though for the sake of objectivity, I'd point out that you might be able to make the same charged against liberals for not supporting President Bush more fully in national security matters. (The different, to my mind, being that the main reason I don't more fully support him is that I feel he's making serious policy mistakes that may well be making us less safe, not more...more on this a couple of reviews from now.)

However, some of the symptoms Bugliosi cites as signs of our society's decline are a bit harder to take -- things like women wearing pants, boys wearing earrings, and rap music. There are those sections where he comes off sounding more like someone's grumpy old great-grandpa than a legal scholar of any sort.

Still, I enjoyed the book as a polemic, even though I have to wonder at its legal analysis. Bugliosi acknowledges that people might find it hard to take his opinion (admitting he's not any kind of expect in constitutional law) over an, after all, unanimous decision by the Supreme Court. Yet he doesn't let that stop him from expressing it eloquently and forcefully. I do have to kind of admire that.