It's time for the American system to usher Ken Starr from the stage.

Published August 21, 1998 4:28PM (EDT)

All right, so now we all know -- our president really is Big Creep, a moniker that will forever be part of his legacy. He's been put in the stocks all week long, he's had every kind of abuse hurled at him. Everyone in the republic has lined up to take a shot -- "dismayed" White House aides, Bible-thumping congressmen, even that pillar of moral wisdom Dick Morris. Salon too has joined in the fun, puzzling at length over how such a smart man could be such a fool and putting him on the couch -- in August yet -- for dozens of vacationing shrinks to poke and prod. Clinton deserved every minute of it.

But now it's time to wrap up the show. The American people have spoken -- again and again, in poll after poll -- and their decision remains the same post-speech: He committed no offense worth impeachment, his folly is between him and his wife, Ken Starr has overstayed his welcome on the national stage, let's move on.

But Starr and his prosecutors will not move on, nor will the country's political and media elites -- all of whom remain defiantly at odds with the will of the people. Public opinion be damned, the barons of the Beltway are bent on a palace coup! For years now, Washington's permanent government -- its puffed-up caste of pundits and politicos -- has been veering more and more out of touch with American sentiment. The Clinton sex crisis -- for that is what it really is, despite all the blather about perjury and obstruction of justice -- brings this extreme disconnect between the elite and the people into its sharpest focus yet.

And so we have today's bizarre spectacle. While Starr's minions collected samples of Clinton's DNA -- a bureaucratic invasion of the president's body so grotesque it would make Kafka shudder -- U.S. fighter planes struck back at the terrorist compounds that have declared war on the U.S. The world has clearly moved on, even if Starr refuses to.

And yet this peculiarly American inquisitor -- a cross between Comstock and McCarthy -- plows on, now seeking to trap Clinton with apparent inconsistencies and bring down a presidency on legal technicalities. Clinton has made his confession and offered his apologies. But this all just leaves Starr panting for more.

At the 1992 GOP convention in Houston, Patrick Buchanan famously committed Republicans to a "cultural war" against the values they detest, values embodied by the 1960s-shaped Bill Clinton. Ken Starr has become the point man in this cultural crusade -- prim, doughy and bespectacled, but an avenging warrior nonetheless. He will not rest until Clinton's head is on his pole -- no matter how much collateral damage he wreaks on the American political and judicial systems in the process.

This is why it was deeply proper for Clinton to strike back at Starr in his Monday night speech. The Republican talking heads and professional commentators have scolded the president all week for angrily saying "enough" to his tormentor. But most Americans heartily agree -- they too have had enough. This week, as Starr keeps dragging his victims and accomplices before his grand jury, unassuaged by Clinton's admission, the independent prosecutor seems more out of control than ever. He clearly cannot restrain himself. So it is high time for the forces of fairness and moderation within the American system to do the job for him. Starr himself must come under intense review, before he does any more harm to the country and the institutions he professes to revere.

In recent weeks, Starr's largely unaccountable investigation has finally come under official scrutiny. Because of Steven Brill's explosive report in Content magazine on the unethical relationships between Starr's office and favored members of the Washington press corps, federal judge Norma Holloway Johnson has turned a sharp eye on Starr's prosecute-by-leaks strategy. And as a result of Salon magazine's investigative stories on alleged payoffs to Starr's leading Whitewater witness, David Hale, this matter is now under federal investigation by a team led by former Justice Department watchdog Michael Shaheen. Shaheen is summoning many of the key figures in Salon's stories to testify.

It is vitally important that these investigations of Starr's operation proceed quickly and fully. And it is equally important for the national media, which has so far ignored the Shaheen probe, to report on what these investigations reveal about Starr.

After Sen. Joseph McCarthy was finally censured by his Senate colleagues and the vicious drama of McCarthyism came to an end, legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow reflected on how McCarthy had come to wield so much power and inflict so much harm before he was finally stopped. "McCarthy was in a real sense the creature of the mass media," said Murrow, whose TV program "See It Now" was a solitary anti-McCarthy voice in the media wilderness. The media "made him. They gave nationwide circulation to his mouthings. They defended their actions on the grounds that what he said was news, when they knew he lied ... He polluted the channels of communication, and every radio and television network, every newspaper and magazine publisher who did not speak out against him, contributed to his evil work and must share part of the responsibility for what he did, not only to our fellow citizens but to our self-respect."

While Starr is not of the same menacing stature as McCarthy, the same observation can be made today of his use of the press. It is the national media that created Ken Starr, by giving credence to his Whitewater investigation even after he himself had lost faith in it and was seeking escape to Malibu's Pepperdine University. They kept him going by elevating the Paula Jones case to a vital national matter, and then by helping him link it to the Monica Lewinsky affair. They offered no murmur of protest when the prosecutor took his inquiry in a jarring new direction, abandoning his costly and lengthy Whitewater probe to invade the president's private life and now even his body. No one in the mainstream media has had the courage and dignity to say, in defense attorney Joseph Welch's famous words to McCarthy, "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" -- because the media itself has become shameless.

If the media made Starr, it can -- and must -- now unmake him. The New York Times and Washington Post -- the two great news institutions that are virtual branches of American government -- can begin to do the right thing by turning their considerable investigative powers on the independent prosecutor's office. New York Times editorial page czar Howell Raines and columnists like Maureen Dowd are famously disgusted by Clinton's character flaws. But, as even Dowd herself wrote this week, you can hate Clinton's flaws and still "think Mr. Starr's investigation has been scary."

The Times and the Post invested a lot of money and institutional credibility in Ken Starr's version of Whitewater. But significant reporting in various other publications -- including Murray Waas' investigative work for Salon -- has at the very least damaged Starr's Whitewater case, the origin of this entire national nightmare. Now that an official federal investigation is following in the wake of this revisionist reporting, the Times and Post have a pressing responsibility to re-report Whitewater and examine how Starr built his case. They owe it to the country and to themselves. Newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are grand enough to acknowledge their mistakes, if they do indeed find fault with their earlier coverage. Their editors should not let pride stand in the way of that quaint-sounding old media value, national duty.

Instead of fulminating against the polls and trying to explain them away, it's time for the country's elites to begin taking to heart what the public is urgently telling them about Ken Starr and the national ordeal he seems bent on prolonging.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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