In his new book rehashing the Lewinsky scandal, Jeffrey Toobin is disgusted by the “fixation on the personal” that leads journalists and others to investigate “the private lives of public people.” The press, he says, “could define tawdry voyeurism as the study of ‘character,’ but the labeling couldn’t obscure the true nature of this new kind of reporting.” It amounted, Toobin argues, to a “high-minded rationale for covering the sex lives of famous people” that satisfied a “hunger for sleaze” in a “competitive market for journalists and journalism.” The dust jacket for Toobin’s book, A Vast Conspiracy, says it “analyzes the facts … with a measure of dignity [that] this story has not yet received.”
So what does Toobin do to publicize his book? Dump Clinton sex documents on the Internet! Specifically, on Tuesday, the Web site for Toobin’s book promises “the complete and unexpurgated depositions of Paula Jones and Bill Clinton,” a “secretly recorded interview with Juanita Broaddrick” [who claims Clinton sexually assaulted her], and–most dignified of all–“the complete text of the affidavit in which Paula Jones identifies purported ‘distinguishing characteristics’ of the President.”
I called Toobin and asked him why this wasn’t hypocritical, and he offered various semi-contradictory answers. First, he said that “only one of the documents” is “what you would call a sex document.” The “rest are highly political.” The one sex document, in Toobin’s view, is the ‘distinguishing characteristic’ affidavit (in which, as was reported over a year ago, Jones says Clinton’s penis was crooked). But Toobin’s classification system is suspect. The Paula Jones deposition, for example, has already been partially made public. The parts that haven’t, but that Toobin will now post, seem to consist largely of defense lawyers grilling Jones on the details of her private sex life. That makes at least two sex documents–and gee, they just happen to be the ones highlighted on the Toobin Web site!
Toobin then told me he was justified in releasing the documents because they were “part of history now.” He then switched course, saying, “There’s no point arguing people aren’t interested in it. … I like gossip as much as the next guy. The difference between me and the character police is that I don’t try to dress gossip up as more than it is.” As, say, “part of history”?
But wait a minute! Would it have been OK to report on Clinton’s sex life in all its moist detail if the press had only admitted the purpose was pure gossip? That can’t be Toobin’s position. It’s impossible to read his book, with its righteous denunciations of “tawdry voyeurism,” and think his main complaint with the coverage of Clinton’s sex life is that it wasn’t forthright enough about the pleasures of disclosing the “private lives of public people.”
I don’t think Toobin can escape the charge of massive hypocrisy. He’s written a book denouncing people who sell books by revealing salacious private sexual details–and he’s selling his book by revealing salacious private sexual details, or at least hinting he’ll reveal them. (It’s even less excusable, in a way, to reveal those details now that the Jones case, and the Clinton impeachment, have been settled. If something was too private to reveal then, why not let it rest for now?) …
Of course, even Toobin’s hypocrisy may not be enough to turn his book into a commercial success. Are you itching to read another breathless account of what Paula Jones said to Danny Traylor? I didn’t think so. …