Kenneth Starr may look nothing like Darth Vader: he is bespectacled and professorial, seen most often in television clips clutching a travel mug of Starbucks coffee, getting into his car outside his modest Virginia home to go to work. He also enjoys taking long walks in the countryside, singing hymns and thinking about passages from the Bible as a way of unwinding—a habit learned in childhood as the son of a strict Church of Christ minister. But in the minds of President Bill Clinton and his wife, Hillary, the special prosecutor is the equivalent—or worse—of the black-clad master of the Dark Side. “He’s a persecutor, not a prosecutor,” the President has raged to aides. Clinton could not help taking a swipe at Starr in his grudging Aug. 17 admission of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Even in 1996, asked whether Starr was out to get him, Clinton replied: “Isn’t it obvious?”
Things were not so obvious back in 1994, when Starr was chosen by a panel of three judges to investigate the Clintons over allegations about their dealings in a rural Arkansas property known as Whitewater. Then, Starr was seen as a straitlaced fellow who taught Sunday school and coached his daughter’s softball team. The White House counsel at the time, Abner Mikva, assured the Clintons that the conservative Starr was a fine man who would be decent and fair. It seemed a trustworthy recommendation: Mikva was at the opposite end of the political spectrum but had served with Starr on the U.S. Appeals Court in Washington. Other Starr colleagues had similar praise. Two years earlier, during an investigation of sexual misconduct by Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, Starr was picked by both Senate Republicans and Democrats to review the senator’s personal diaries. Starr’s judgments led to Packwood’s resignation from the Senate.
But the Clintons soon came to have a very different view, as Starr relentlessly pursued his investigations of Whitewater and mini-scandals such asTravelgate—the firing of White House travel office staff—and Filegate, when confidential personnel files on Republican officials from the Reagan and Bush administrations were obtained by the Clinton White House. Initially, Starr had a cordial relationship with the Clintons. But he soured on the First Lady after law firm records on Whitewater he had long sought from her mysteriously turned up in the White House residence in January, 1996. In a dramatic confrontation, Starr subpoenaed her to appear before his grand jury in Washington. She denied any wrongdoing, including hiding documents or obstructing justice, and said she did not know how the records surfaced.
Insiders say Starr has come to regard the Clintons as slippery liars who have long engaged in deception and coverups and run roughshod
over their friends. But although Starr handed down several indictments in the Whitewater scandal—including one against former associate attorney general and close Clinton friend Webster Hubbell—the Clintons remained elusive quarry. Then came Monica Lewinsky—and the opportunity to go for the kill. In January, Starr gained permission from the panel of judges—and Clinton’s Attorney General Janet Reno—to expand his probe. The battle with the first couple escalated fiercely. Hillary Clinton denounced Starr as “a politically motivated prosecutor who is allied with the right-wing opponents of my husband.”
Some friends believe Starr’s pursuit of the First Family might have been less zealous had they not turned their spin machine on him. ‘The White House has waged a war to destroy Ken Starr,” says Theodore Olson, a friend of Starr who was an assistant attorney general in Ronald Reagan’s administration. “I admire the job he is doing under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.” Another Reagan-era friend and justice department official, Terry Eastland, has similar sympathy. “This is the first modern political campaign ever run against an independent counsel, a war-room campaign,” says
Eastland. “And he can’t respond because of the nature of his job.” The White House has also mounted charges, which Starr must now defend himself against in court, that he leaked information about the Lewinsky investigation to reporters. “There is a human dimension,” says Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at New York University School of Law. “The White House strategy of demonizing Ken Starr has probably had the effect of encouraging him to resist the attack, get all the information he could, and now file the best report he can.”
As Starr examined the Clintons’ lives, he became increasingly disenchanted. Friends describe him as a devout man, deeply influenced by his strict religious upbringing in the small southern town of Thalia, Tex. He was likely disturbed, they say, by the President’s adultery and lying but would not have acted without believing there was evidence of a serious legal infraction.
That is the view of former judge Robert Bork, who served with Starr on the Court of Appeals for the Washington circuit. “His personality is not that of a zealot,” says Bork. “He’s a cautious and prudent and honest man.” One of Starr’s qualities—some would say faults—is his obsessive thoroughness. The energetic independent counsel, who is known to leave voice-mail messages for people at 4 or 5 a.m., has spent some $60 million probing Clinton over more than four years. He insists on following the law wherever it leads, « whatever the outcome. His dili£ gence is by the book. But he pos£ sesses, friends say, a tin ear when g it comes to political sensitivities, g Nonetheless, his career has s combined his supreme legal skills “ and his penchant for politics. After graduating from Duke University Law School, he clerked for a federal judge in Miami and, later, chief justice Warren Burger. He was known as a serious man, determined to excel, and a committed Republican. By his mid-30s, he was working in Reagan’s justice department, vetting nominees such as Sandra Day O’Connor for the Supreme Court and Bork for the District of Columbia circuit. When Starr was 37, Reagan gave him his own lifetime appointment to the D.C. circuit. His mind had long been on one goal: a Supreme Court nomination. He was deeply disappointed not to get one under president George Bush, though he was named solicitor general, the government’s top lawyer, who argues cases before the high court. After Bush lost his re-election bid in 1992, Starr joined the Washington law firm of Kirkland & Ellis at an annual salary of $1.6 million. He also considered a run for the Senate in Virginia.
Though he opted to stay out of the 1994 Senate race, he remained active in Republican politics by contributing to candidates and joining the boards of several conservative groups funded by Clinton foes. Some analysts speculated he accepted the job of Whitewater counsel to remain in the public eye. And his critics—including, of course, the Clintons— saw him as a political creature, beholden to right-wing causes and figures. Until recently, he continued his job at Kirkland & Ellis, representing such clients as the Brown & Williamson tobacco company. He
has also made speeches to highly partisan audiences. Ethics counsellor Samuel Dash, the onetime Senate Watergate Committee chief counsel whom Starr hired to try to quiet critics, admitted that, while “proper,” Starr’s activities could be seen as having an “odor.”
Perhaps the biggest storm came when Starr abruptly announced last year that he was quitting the job of special prosecutor to head a new School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. Critics raged that this was further evidence of his right-wing connections. The chair was financed by Richard Mellon Scaife, a supporter of conservative causes and a leading purveyor of Whitewater conspiracy
theories, including the notion that Vincent Foster, the former deputy White House counsel, was murdered. Stung by the criticism, Starr backed out of the Pepperdine job.
Throughout, Starr has simply pressed on, confiding his real feelings only to his closest advisers and his family—Alice, his wife of 28 years, and his three children: a son in college and two daughters in high school. Alice Starr has described the last few months of the investigation as a nightmare—particularly the attacks on her husband. As it is, she scarcely sees Starr. Despite its wealth, the family lives in a modest house in McLean, Va., an upmarket Washington suburb. She maintains as much normalcy as possible; that is difficult, though, with TV cameras constantly camped out in the driveway. They are likely to stay for some time. But Starr’s inquiry has now shifted to Congress. His legal work is all but done—and he himself will likely be judged on the outcome. Ultimately, his struggle with Clinton may be decided by which man the public believes to be the real force from the Dark Side.
LOUISE BRANSON in Washington
Friends say Ken Starr is honest and diligent, but critics see him as a right-wing zealot
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.