In the fall of 1998, Terry Lenzner’s investigative firm, IGI, was hired to look into the death of Princess Diana. The client was Mohammad al-Fayed, the father of Dodi Fayed, Diana’s lover who also perished in the car crash in Paris. Fayed was convinced that the crash was no accident, that it was a plot by the British government to prevent Diana from marrying his son. There were legitimate questions about the crash, Lenzner believed, so he agreed to take the case. After an exhaustive investigation, however, in which he recruited his contacts at the FBI, he concluded there was no evidence to support conspiracy.
When informed of the findings, Fayed, instead of being relieved as Lenzner assumed he would be, responded with four words: “Thank you. You’re fired.” He went on to hire another firm that arrived at the opposite conclusion.
Fast forward seven years. Lenzner gets a call from the lawyer of a famous Hollywood director. He tells Lenzner that the director and his family are being threatened, and invites Lenzner to the director’s house to discuss it. When Lenzner arrives, he finds a heavily fortified beachfront estate with armed guards walking the perimeter.
The director tells Lenzner that a relative of his had been staying in Moscow with his Russian girlfriend when a group of Russians burst into their hotel room, accused the relative of rape, and demanded 50,000 rubles. The Russians knew of the director’s relationship to their victim, so the director paid the ransom, only to become the victim of a series of harassing phone calls afterward. The Russian mafia must be after him, the director says.
Lenzner’s investigation discovered nothing of the sort. The kidnappers, it turned out, were actually small-time shakedown artists with no connection to the Russian mafia. As in the Fayad case, however, when Lenzner relayed the news to the director, he was met with anger rather than relief. The director was convinced he was caught up in a case of international intrigue, just like a character in one of his movies. He fired Lenzner and hired another firm, which came to the conclusion the director was looking for.
In his dynamite new memoir, The Investigator, Terry Lenzner combines intriguing stories like these with an up-close history of America over the past half century. As a government lawyer, private attorney, and successful investigator, Lenzner was involved in a mind-boggling number of historic events—from the Mississippi Burning murders to Watergate, from the Alaskan Oil Pipeline inquiry to prosecuting the New York mob, from investigating Princess Diana’s death to the impeachment of President Clinton.
For the first few chapters, the book is a straight recounting of these events, with an occasional perfunctory observation thrown in. As the stories unfold, however, it becomes clear that Lenzner is chasing a bigger theme. Ultimately, The Investigator is about the meaning of truth, and how it has devolved in America over the past 40 years from a conclusion based on facts to something much more subjective.
“Neither side really cared about what was true. Each wanted to see what they could convince enough of the country to believe was true.”
The stories about Fayad and the director, for instance, are used to show how neither was really interested in finding an objective truth, but rather in seeking confirmation for a conclusion they had already reached. Lenzner extends this trend to politics, and laments that American political discourse has reached a point where politicians and the electorate get their “facts” almost exclusively from sources that tell them what they already believe. Every nonpartisan fact-checker is attacked as biased.
Watergate is the book’s highlight, both as history and as a paradigm for how truth should be pursued. As history, Lenzner offers up a bombshell: Watergate, he argues, actually began in the 1960s with a loan that Howard Hughes made to Don Nixon, the president’s brother. The loan was used against Nixon by his opponents in early campaigns and he was terrified that the Democratic National Committee had evidence of another loan from Hughes, this one made directly to Nixon explicitly for political favors. The Watergate break-in, Lenzner suggests, was an attempt by Nixon to ascertain whether the DNC possessed evidence of this second loan from Hughes.
As a model for justice, Lenzner describes how the Watergate Committee Hearings were a transparent, genuinely bipartisan effort undertaken without any preconceived notions or predetermined outcome. There was no obstruction, no cherry picking of facts, no denial. “There was only one truth back then, one set of facts,” he writes. “To learn the truth, both parties had to acknowledge the same facts.”
He contrasts this with the Kenneth Starr investigation. Starr began with a conclusion—Clinton was guilty—and proceeded to fit the facts to that conclusion. Lest you think Lenzner is a rabid Democratic partisan, he lambasts Starr for ignoring much more serious charges against Clinton, such as hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign donations. With an obvious partisan like Starr running the investigation, and through Starr’s focusing on the lascivious Lewinsky affair, it sparked a rush to judgment “with one side believing the president was guilty of every allegation and rumor, the other that he was an innocent victim of everything alleged about him.”
Neither was true. Yet the Starr investigation has become the model for political hearings, not Watergate.
“A sober, Watergate-style investigation was not possible in the highly charged, partisan political environment of 1998,” Lenzner reflects. “It would be even less possible now.” This was the legacy of the Republican-Clinton battle. Then, as now, “Neither side really cared about what was true. Each wanted to see what they could convince enough of the country to believe was true.”