By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
Ken Starr Through the Years
It is customary to forego speaking ill of the dead. So when Ken Starr, best known for his role in former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment—and most recently for his defense of former President Donald Trump at his first impeachment trial—died last Tuesday (Sept. 13) at 76, he got a sugar-coated sendoff.
The New York Times’ usually hard-hitting coverage was nowhere in sight. The paper instead spotlighted an email Mrs. Starr sent to colleagues and friends last week, describing her husband as a “brilliant, kind and loving” man who “did not have a mean bone in his body,” and who “felt compelled to always respond to the call to serve his country, even when it meant enduring harsh criticism for his service.”
Elizabeth M. Locke, a lawyer and protégée, gushed that Starr was “one of the most ethical lawyers I have ever met.”
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who worked for Starr in the Reagan Administration and Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who worked for Starr during the latter’s investigation of President Clinton, both sang their former boss’ praises.
Even Monica Lewinsky, who was persecuted by Starr and his prosecutorial investigators during the Clinton investigation to the point where she was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, graciously, if circumspectly, tweeted only that thoughts of Mr. Starr “bring up complicated feelings,” but that it was a “painful loss for those who love him.”
I, however, do not feel bound by this custom.
As Shakespeare’s Marc Antony opined in Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.” Sadly, Ken Starr’s evil will not be interred with his bones but lives on and proliferates in the hypocrisy of the current Republican Party.
Starr’s major claim to fame (or infamy, depending on one’s point of view) was his investigation of Bill Clinton’s possible connection, when Clinton was the governor of Arkansas, to fraud at a savings and loan association operated by James McDougal. Though Hillary Clinton had done some legal work for the savings and loan association, the Clintons’ only real connection was that they joined in a partnership with James and his wife, Susan McDougal, to form the Whitewater Development Corporation. That partnership bought 220 acres of riverfront land to sell as vacation lots. But the partnership did badly and dissolved in 1992, leaving the Clintons with a net loss of more than $40,000.
After Starr was named as the Whitewater Independent Counsel, he ultimately found that the evidence based on the original Whitewater inquiry was insufficient to support an impeachment referral against President Clinton. Yet, with the zeal of a Joseph McCarthy, he expanded that investigation to include a potpourri of other spurious claims, ranging from the inappropriate firing of White House travel office staff and the collection of confidential FBI files on Republican administration officials, to the outlandishly contrived rumor that the Clintons were involved in Deputy White House Counsel Vince W. Foster Jr.’s suicide.
Starr eventually cleared Clinton of all these allegations. But he obsessively continued his investigation, focusing on private matters. Starr finally made an impeachment referral based on Bill Clinton’s lie under oath that he had not had a sexual relationship with the then 21-year-old Lewinsky, who had been working as an intern at the White House and later in the Office of Legislative Affairs.
Starr’s voyeuristic report making the referral to the House detailed Clinton’s encounters with Lewinsky. It contained what the New York Times described as “explicit, even excruciating detail.” Ironically, that section of the report was written by now-Justice Kavanaugh, who, at his own Supreme Court confirmation hearing in 2018, was the subject of far more serious allegations.
Starr, who supposedly “did not have a mean bone in his body,” not only forced Lewinsky to reveal every lurid detail of her intimacies with the President during hours of interrogation and threats of prison if she did not cooperate, but did nothing to prevent Congress from releasing the report to the public unredacted. Let’s humiliate the little lady further.
To add insult to injury, in his memoir, Contempt, a Memoir of the Clinton Investigation, Starr blamed Lewinsky for her plight, writing that she “allowed herself to become the tragic figure of late twentieth-century America.”
Based on Starr’s sensationalized report, the House of Representatives impeached President Clinton in December 1998. The Senate acquitted Clinton in February 1999, concluding that his wrongdoing did not justify removing him from office. Ultimately, the chastened President was found in contempt of court and fined. He admitted not telling the truth under oath and surrendered his law license.
Starr’s bottom line was that Clinton believed he was above the law and was just lucky: “An indulgent and prosperous nation readily forgave Bill Clinton and instead blamed the prosecutor. That would be me,” he later complained. This statement by Starr was the ultimate in rationalization combined with self-pity for any bad press the relentless independent counsel got.
Bill Clinton’s behavior was unseemly and extremely immature. And it was clearly wrong and illegal to lie under oath about it. However, he was lying about a purely personal matter which had nothing to do with Whitewater and was of no other consequence to the nation. So, one must wonder why Starr was expanding that investigation in the first place.
Ken Starr often told reporters and pundits that he was compelled to take the Whitewater appointment because of principle, and that: "Truth is a bedrock concept in morality and law." But as Starr’s later career revealed, he only cared about truth and law when it was convenient. His guiding star was realpolitik.
In 2010, Starr became the president of Baylor University and oversaw the opening of its $250 million football stadium.
Starr was removed as president in 2016 when, as described by Rolling Stone, an investigation determined that he and other administrators “mishandled numerous accusations of sexual assault—including multiple rape allegations—against the school’s football players.” Investigators said the university leadership had “created a perception that football was above the rules.” I guess a $250 million football stadium would be a waste if your players might get expelled or go to jail.
Rolling Stone also reported that Starr played an important part in pressuring the Justice Department to drop its sex-trafficking case against financier Jeffrey Epstein when Epstein was accused of sex crimes against young girls in Florida. The 2008 deal Starr procured put Epstein in prison for only 18 months and effectively ensured him immunity from future prosecution.
And last, but definitely not least, in January 2020, Starr joined the defense of President Trump in his first impeachment trial in the Senate. According to Fox News, Starr claimed at the time that he was “pushed to take the job because of the politicization of the impeachment process by congressional Democrats.”
During that trial, Starr condemned what he called ‘the Age of Impeachment’ as a weapon in partisan wars—this from the man who had, 21 years before, wielded his impeachment inquiry against Clinton with the fervor of the Spanish Grand Inquisitor Torquemada.
Ken Starr’s moral and legal righteousness depended upon who was his target. He felt no compunctions about pursuing the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about a private, consensual peccadillo. And yet, Starr was against impeachment of Donald Trump, who attempted to extort the leader of a foreign nation (Ukraine’s President Zelensky) into framing a political opponent (Joe Biden) in order to win an election—a lie that has affected every American citizen.
Clearly, Starr’s prosecutorial chutzpah knew no bounds. His gall was only exceeded by his callous hypocrisy. If Dante’s Inferno exists, Ken Starr better beware. Dante’s eighth circle of hell is reserved for hypocrites.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.