We're Living in Ken Starr's AmericaRoundup
tags: Bill Clinton, impeachment, Monica Lewinsky, Ken Starr
David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and media studies at Rutgers, is a contributing editor at Politico Magazine. He is the author of several works of political history including, most recently, Republic of Spin: An Inside History of the American Presidency.
Obituaries last week portrayed Kenneth W. Starr — the prosecutor who pursued Bill Clinton for nearly six years of his presidency — as an important but supporting player in a scandal where Clinton and Monica Lewinsky played the starring roles. Starr, though — who died last week at 76 — was no mere extra in the sordid disgrace we remember as the “Lewinsky Affair.” He was a motive force behind it, the man who turned what should have been a dispassionate legal inquiry into a frenzied political inquisition. In time, historians may come to see Clinton and Lewinsky as pawns in a scandal that was, to a surprising extent, one of Ken Starr’s own making.
Until achieving notoriety in the 1990s, Starr wasn’t someone you’d peg as a figure of historical consequence. With his doughy, Keebler Elf build and his mild-mannered demeanor, he came across as unassuming or non-threatening. But his colorless exterior masked an inner zeal — a zeal that, in turn, hid a shocking ethical lassitude. Starr was a striver wrapped in a preacher’s frock cloaked under judicial robes. And without this bundle of contradictions, there might have been no impeachment drive, no yearlong sexual hysteria and perhaps a great deal less of the partisan ugliness that wafted off the dumpster fire of his investigation. No individual makes history single-handedly, but Starr was the rare figure who can be said to have altered the course of our politics.
The very appointment of Starr as an independent counsel was itself a strange historical accident. In early 1994, Attorney General Janet Reno named Robert B. Fiske, a respected former U.S. attorney and white-collar litigator, to examine Whitewater — shorthand for an ill-fated real estate deal that Bill Clinton invested in as Arkansas governor in the 1980s, which the conservative press was hyping as the next Watergate. Within six months, Fiske issued a preliminary report sizing up Whitewater as a pseudo-scandal in which neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton had done anything wrong. Fiske also handily dispatched a second, tawdrier assignment: looking into the suicide of White House aide Vince Foster, who had shot himself in a Virginia park — a death that spawned a miasma of far-right conspiracy theories. Fiske found that the suicide had indeed been a suicide.
Fiske’s exoneration of Clinton enraged the right. At this juncture in history, the paranoid style was enjoying one of its sporadic revivals. On talk radio and in the halls of Congress, absurd theories linking the Clintons to Foster’s death flourished. These years also witnessed a rising tendency — led by Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, soon to become speaker of the House — to gin up claims of ethical impropriety to take down political foes. To Republicans unreconciled to the Democrats’ return to the White House, Clinton was inherently suspect. And so, that summer, a panel of three judges, led by Judge David Sentelle — a protege of North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, who had been keen to go after Clinton since his election — took it upon themselves to replace the impartial Fiske with the very partisan Starr, then working in private practice.
It was an unconventional and consequential choice. For one thing, Starr lacked prosecutorial experience. Despite having been a judge for six years in the 1980s, he was also a known partisan, active in the Federalist Society and conservative circles. Having aspired as a youth to become a preacher, he sold Bibles while in college and taught Sunday school even while on the federal bench. His piety often blurred the lines between church and state. As independent counsel, he would promote stories like one in the conservative Washington Times headlined, “Deeply Christian Starr Starts Day Jogging, Singing Hymns.”