Linda Tripp did it. So did Monica Lewinsky. Now, it seems, independent counsel Kenneth Starr has embarked on a rehabilitation tour.
And where better to buff one’s reputation than here, in the city of high-concept image-making? On Wednesday, Starr took a stab at polishing the history of his tortuous, five-year investigations.
Speaking at a luncheon of about 550 people, including several of the city’s corporate lawyers, judges and business executives, Starr said he ought never to have been handed the task of investigating Lewinsky’s dalliances in the White House. The country could have been spared much of this agonizing chapter in Washington, he noted, had the now-lapsed Independent Counsel Act never existed.
“The statute simply does not work” and should not be revived, he said. “The Congress was trying in effect to create a separate branch of government.”
It was hard to square some of Starr’s regrets with history. As his digging into the Whitewater land deal in Arkansas turned up ever-multiplying questions about President Clinton’s behavior, it was Starr himself who several times requested wider responsibilities from Attorney General Janet Reno. And when Tripp contacted his office with the Lewinsky tapes, Starr asked Reno to expand his jurisdiction to investigate the matter.
But as Starr lapsed into his most sugar-toned, pedagogic manner, the months of snickering about cigars and thong underwear might as well have been muffled sounds from another galaxy.
“It would have been better for the country for the Lewinsky matter to have been handled by another independent counsel,” Starr told the audience, adding with a touch of understatement: “Unfortunately, there was by that time a sense that there was a vendetta under way.”
He said he thought Reno had correctly concluded that Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky “had to be investigated.” Yet “it would have been better, all things considered, for the American people to have viewed a new, fresh face, to avoid that very serious public perception.”
Starr used hindsight to full effect, saying that in retrospect, he had made mistakes. He admitted to having made a “serious error” almost as soon as he was appointed by Reno, in “accepting the assignment of investigating the [White House] travel office and FBI files.”
In fact, Starr says he now regrets having failed to communicate to Americans exactly what his multimillion-dollar legal adventures were aiming to achieve. “I would have tried to be more open with the American people about what the investigation was about to do to the extent that I could lawfully do,” he said.
The continuous leaking from his office throughout the Lewinsky affair finally made Starr the subject of an investigation himself, about how supposedly confidential grand jury testimony repeatedly ended up as front-page news. Ultimately, Starr was found not to have violated the law.
The independent counsel almost made it through the lunch without attacking Clinton. But in answer to the audience’s final question, Starr said the president — “someone who has such talents and gifts and such extraordinary energy and commitment” — hit a low point last year when he “took a poll about whether to tell the truth.”
At first, Starr appeared determined to play the academic at the event, with a lengthy historical lesson about Richard Nixon’s Watergate cover-up, which ultimately led to the Independent Counsel Act. Starr is, after all, an adjunct law professor at New York University. He accepted an appointment in 1995 to head Pepperdine University’s law school, on the bucolic cliffs of Malibu, Calif., but turned it down when outraged politicians demanded he hunker down in the capital and finish his Whitewater investigation.
“A funny thing happened on the way to Malibu,” he said, in one of his only moments of humor. Putting a fine gloss on those “funny things” was the real work of his speech. The independent counsel system itself was deeply flawed, he noted, allowing each twist in the legal process to be challenged in court. No fewer than 20 challenges were appealed by Starr’s office — at a cost of several million dollars — and all 20 were won.
Although aides have described Starr as driven to uncover all of Clinton’s sexual misconduct — according to Bob Woodward’s “Shadow,” it was Starr himself who insisted that the most salacious details make it into the text of his report to Congress — the independent counsel waxed philosophical about the public’s rejection of his judgment.
“I think we reached a decision as the American people … that acts of conduct that might very well justify removal of a sitting judge or Supreme Court justice will not do service in the removal of a duly elected president, because of the profound interest in the stability of the republic.”
What, then, is the climax of Starr’s tenure? He did not bother to mention when his final Whitewater report — after all, his original mission — might appear, and when reporters chased him down the hallway afterwards to ask him the question, he said three times: “I don’t want to comment on that.” He also would not speculate on how his investigations might effect Hillary Rodham Clinton’s New York senatorial campaign. And when asked whether he’d say what his future plans were, he giggled: “Not today.”
It remains to be seen whether the history books will agree with Starr that the Independent Counsel Act was the real villain of the Clinton years.
But would history one day vindicate Kenneth Starr, the reporters wanted to know? Starr fell back on his boyish, unflappable smile, the one that greeted television cameras every morning for months outside his Washington home.
“My task has been to do my job,” he said. “The rest will be in other people’s hands.”