For many years I had a degree of respect —a minimal degree and a reluctant respect to be sure— for Richard Ben-Veniste. This was partly because he had dated Mary Travers (although that may have merited props more than respect); and partly because, although I felt that he had participated in some of the most egregiously over-the-top leaking and extra-legal abuses of the Watergate investigations at their height, I was prepared to accept that he was —however misguided and over-zealous— at least sincere in a belief that he was pursuing some kind of objective standard of truth and justice.
Then I watched him as the Minority Counsel on the Senate Whitewater Committee. Even allowing for what is expected of a Minority Counsel on a Committee investigating a political scandal, his conduct was so blatantly partisan and unimaginatively hackish that even I (who, Lord knows, have not been a total stranger to partisanship and hackery) blushed for the shame he clearly didn’t feel. This was not just a partisan; this was a bitter partisan; and, from the looks of it, not a very nice one.
Mr. Ben-Veniste has just published a memoir —The Emperor’s New Clothes: Exposing the Truth From Watergate to 9/11. His reputation around town —which he has cultivated— as a high-powered, powerful, prickly man with a long memory and a penchant for settling scores, may explain some of the book’s early reviews, which mete out their praise in very precise measures.
In the Washington Post the excellently named Isaac Chotiner (the answer to your question is: I don’t know) writes:
do not expect much insight on how power is actually wielded in Washington. Instead, the reader is fed page after page of Ben-Veniste heaping praise on . . . Ben-Veniste. One minute he is being approached by random, grateful citizens, and the next he is telling us that he is nothing more than a humble “partisan for the truth.” A little later, he speaks of his reputation as “a streetwise kid who was not intimidated.” I think we will be the judge of that. Pretty soon Tom Daschle is calling for his help because only he — Ben-Veniste — asks the tough questions. The 9/11 Commission transcripts he reprints even note spectators applauding his courage.
Ben-Veniste has indeed done some good work during his time in Washington, but next time let’s hear about it from a more neutral observer.
And in a long, thoughtful, and foot-noted review on the DC Bar’s website, Washington legal light Leonard H. Becker doesn’t so much damn as darn with faint praise:
In Ben-Veniste’s memoir, the author comes across as the Lone Ranger of the Legal Pad, single-handedly cooking Richard Nixon’s conspiratorial goose before the Watergate grand jury; ferreting out corruption in the office of the Speaker of the House; defending a victim of government duplicity in the Abscam scandal; striving to protect Bill Clinton from impeachment-minded Republicans; and fighting the good fight, as a Democratic member of the 9/11 Commission, to defend truth and justice against the Bush administration’s ceaseless stonewalling.
Ben-Veniste’s book, like Wagner’s music, is not as bad as it sounds.
Regarding the chapter devoted to Watergate, Mr. Becker writes:
Ben-Veniste’s recounting of the Watergate special prosecutor’s battles with the Nixon administration contains little that the reader will not previously have encountered in the literature. One exception is Ben-Veniste’s claim that he alone came up with the idea that the grand jury should designate Nixon as an “unindicted co-conspirator,” but without naming Nixon in the indictment, instead authorizing the special prosecutor to divulge the designation at an appropriate future interval, such as when the indicted defendants sought a bill of particulars. The idea, Ben-Veniste suggests, was to retrieve some measure of retribution against Nixon after Jaworski ruled out Nixon’s indictment, and to stiffen Jaworski’s wobbly spine when it came to going after a sitting president.
Naming bad guys “unindicted co- conspirators” is an accepted prosecutorial practice, codified in the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual. But the practice is disfavored because of the prejudice it works on the named individual who is deprived of a formal setting, such as a trial, in which to vindicate his reputation. Such considerations do not detain Ben-Veniste while he claims credit for thinking up the idea of getting the grand jury’s carte blanche to label Nixon at some future time. The pertinent passage in Jaworski’s memoir is both cursory and inaccurate. The history of the Watergate special prosecutor’s office, written by its chief spokesperson, neither contradicts nor supports Ben-Veniste’s claim, but it suggests another prosecutorial motivation (also adverted to by Ben-Veniste but plainly attributable to another member of the legal staff)—to ensure that the damaging tape recordings reluctantly surrendered by the White House would be admissible in evidence against the indicted conspirators.
I can’t say that I find anything particularly untoward about a man tooting his own horn in his own book. And if people in politics only claimed credit for the things they really did, the memoir section at Borders would be a shelf and a half at most. But I will report further when I’ve had a chance to read Mr. Ben-Veniste’s book and form my own opinions.