The Book Club

Reaching Truth Through Slant

Dear Jim,

I’m glad that you’ve confessed your preference for Amanda Spake’s version of the Sheila McGough story over that of Janet Malcolm. Having now read the Spake piece, I think it encapsulates much of what divides us not only about Malcolm’s book but perhaps about journalism in general.

Amanda Spake is obviously a fine reporter, and her piece in the Washington Post magazine is a model of its type–thorough, fair- minded, and, above all, objective. It begins with a humanizing anecdote. (“The curious thing about the dozen long-stemmed red roses that were delivered to Sheila McGough’s law office on February 14, 1987 was the envelope.”) It presents the prosecution’s theory that Sheila and Bailes were having an affair, and Sheila and Bailes’ denial that they were having an affair, while scrupulously refusing to take sides. (“Yet whether or not McGough was romantically involved with Bob Bales [sic] there’s no doubt she became entangled with him–or, to be more precise, ensnared.”) It gives us a dizzying number of accurate facts–even those (such as the precise allocation of the $75,000) that don’t directly bear on Sheila’s guilt or innocence. She lets all the parties have their say. And, 5500 words later, it concludes with a snappy, nonjudgmental quote about how the minute Bailes comes in the lives of his female lawyers “their lives go topsy-turvy.”

But there’s one thing Spake doesn’t give us: the truth. We have little sense, after reading her piece, whether or not Spake thinks Sheila is, in fact, innocent or guilty, what Sheila’s really like, why she acted in the irrational ways she did, what her parents are really like (aside from cliches about the fact that her mother is “stubborn” and “has faith”), what her prosecutors are really like, why they acted in the irrational ways they did, and all the other large and small questions that Malcolm’s book answers so confidently and vividly. At the risk of sounding like Champagne Charlie to your Bruce Springsteen, I have to say that Amanda Spake is to Janet Malcolm as Kenneth Starr is to Oliver Wendell Holmes. She has no judgment–or, more precisely, she’s not permitted to have any judgment in a journalistic medium that assumes, for good and bad reasons, that objectivity is the best way of conveying truth.

Malcolm’s work shows us how dull-witted that convention is. This is why there’s no contradiction between her sensitivity to the inherent shapelessness of truth and her conviction that it’s the job of an intelligent journalist to make confident narrative and moral judgments that bring order out of chaos. Yes, truth is a housecoat–or rather, Sheila’s version of the truth and Hulkower’s version of the truth are housecoats–but Malcolm understands that her role, after evaluating the evidence in all of its complexity–is to offer a coherent narrative that tells us what to think. In her past work, Malcolm has quoted Donald Spence’s helpful distinction between historical truth and narrative truth, recognizing that a well constructed story can have a rhetorical persuasiveness and impact that unmediated historical truth–the “document dump,” as you put it–can’t begin to approximate. It’s this paradox that Malcolm insists on and that you keep refusing to recognize: In a world governed by language, narrative selectivity represents, at the same time, a departure from truth and the only way of conveying it.

Which brings us to Monica. (I thought I’d last, more than three days without returning to my favorite topic, but there we are.) What’s the best way for ordinary citizens to discover the truth of the relationship between the president and that woman, Ms. Lewinsky? Ordinary citizens could plough through the grand jury transcripts–the raw document dump–which represent the closest thing to unmediated truth but are also, as I can attest, nearly unreadable in their numbing detail and chaos. They could watch every minute of the Senate trial, and listen to the lawyer’s narratives of the case–the prosecution’s moustache-twirling claim that Clinton cynically tried to bribe Monica with a job to buy her silence and the defense’s equally implausible counter-narrative, which insists that the Paula Jones suit was the last thing on Clinton’s mind as he acted purely out of compassion to help a friend. But, as Malcolm suggests, tendentious lawyers’ narratives are closer to fiction than to the truth. The closest approximation of the truth would be neither the grand jury transcripts nor the lawyer’s stories, but a scrupulous journalistic narrative, offered by a reliable observer such as Malcolm, who read the raw evidence, sifted through the competing realities, and conveyed the ambiguity and complexity of the choices faced by the president and Monica and their prosecutors, but didn’t shirk from making factual and moral judgments about all of the parties concerned.

I think, in this regard, of Jeffrey Toobin’s book on the Simpson trial, the best work to emerge from the case, perhaps one of the best trial narratives ever written. No one who watched the trial on television could be confident that they had grasped the truth, even if they had paid close attention. Only with the help of an intelligent mediator like Toobin, who reviewed the evidence and put it in a coherent narrative and moral perspective, was the dramatic reality permitted to emerge. Most journalists don’t have the time or the skill to write at book length, like Toobin or Malcolm. But Malcolm reminds us that the raw data offered up as objective truth in the daily press, like the tendentious pieties of the courtroom, are a shadowy approximation of the real thing.

Best regards,