Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Starr

When the real Kenneth Starr finally stood up before the House, he turned out to have a split personality.

By Gary Kamiya
Published November 20, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

"One may smile, and smile, and be a villain."

With only slight modification, the musings Hamlet applied to his murderous uncle can also be applied to independent counsel Kenneth Starr: One may drone, and drone, and be a villain.

In his appearance before the House Judiciary Committee Thursday, Starr launched a carefully choreographed blandness blitz, a wild orgy of soft-spoken probity. But it was all too apparent that beneath his milquetoast Clark Kent exterior lay a fierce partisan. No matter how convincingly Starr tried to portray himself as a model of gentle and manly judiciousness, his actions spoke louder. And those are the actions of a man entrusted with virtually unlimited power who, through prosecutorial recklessness and an all-consuming desire to "win," has allowed himself to become a tool of political zealots.

The Starr who appeared on the witness stand Thursday is a fascinating study -- an obsessively legalistic man so steeped in a right-wing atmosphere where revulsion at President Clinton goes without saying, and so unconscious of that bias, that he may not even be aware that at some point he crossed a fatal line and began searching for a crime to attach to the man. Starr does not seem to be a liar -- he really believes that he is completely fair-minded, that he was simply after the facts. Hence his utterly plausible, utterly unflappable, even likable demeanor during his long ordeal. And hence his weird apparent obliviousness to the obviously partisan bias of his referral.

To take just one example, as Barney Frank acidly pointed out to him, Starr's referral conveniently neglected to state that his office had exonerated Clinton on Filegate -- it wasn't until after the election that Starr saw fit to make that piece of information known. Starr sees nothing wrong with that because his bias is so deep he is unaware of it -- or because he is possessed of a quasi-religious conviction that all tactics are valid when used in battle with the Evil One who holds forth, clenching a cigar between his cloven hooves, in the Oval Office. St. Ken vs. Beelzebubba.

Only an unconscious zealot -- or alternatively, a more consciously political agent who had grown soft and smug, whose warning systems had atrophied after years of right-wing domination -- could so easily and blandly ignore even a pretense of objectivity. It is easy to forget that the independent counsel is not an ordinary prosecutor -- more than a prosecutor, he is supposed to be a quasi-judge. He evaluates evidence, he does not slant it "his way" -- he is not supposed to have a "way." He is searching for the truth. From Archibald Cox to Lawrence Walsh, this is what this strange and soon-to-be-extinct creature has always done. But as Democrat after Democrat pointed out in their grilling of Starr, in every single case in his referral, Starr slanted -- or, to use his word, "interpreted" -- the evidence. Have we grown so cynically accustomed to the idea that Starr is a partisan that we've forgotten just how far he has departed from what his office is supposed to represent?

The most egregious example of Starr's slanting of evidence, cited by New York Sen.-elect Charles Schumer among others, was Starr's failure to include the verbatim transcript of Monica Lewinsky's famous statement to the grand jury that no one asked her to lie. Starr's explanation for his relegation of that statement to an appendix, and his paraphrasing of it in the body of the referral as "explicitly asked," is a smart bit of legal exegesis, and may well be true: Placed against the whole body of evidence, her one statement is misleading; conspirators (if we can dignify the desperate, furtive wrigglings of doomed interrupted-fellatio practitioners with that Brutuslike title) don't say to each other, "Now, remember to lie!" But the plausibility of Starr's interpretation isn't the point. Starr may be as astute a practitioner of hermeneutics as Harold Bloom, but his job was to deliver the facts -- not to decide what they meant. Particularly not when, in every instance, what they mean turns out to be unfavorable to his adversary.

The day started out as if there would be major fireworks. Shortly after
10 a.m. EST, it looked like the whole carefully choreographed theater of
impeachment might blow up and keep on blowing, like an out-of-control
performance art piece where the actors beat up passersby and piss on each
other for the edification of the audience. Henry Hyde, the ringmaster of
the House Judiciary Committee who seems to control the animals with quips
rather than the lash, rolled up his sleeves and prepared to deliver his
"our-grave-constitutional-duty" speech. He was just getting going when
William Delahunt broke in and brought out the circus. The Democrat from
Massachusetts moved that Starr should be questioned by the White House for
two hours, rather than half an hour. Hyde denied the request and returned
partisan fire, rebuking Clinton for not answering the 81 questions
Republicans had sent to him. Delahunt went back on the attack, saying the
time limit was unfair. Then Democratic Rep. Melvin Watts barged in, saying, "We're disrupting a railroading."

Food fight! Rumble in the jungle! Democrats emboldened by election
results assault Starr, Barr -- seven hospitalized in wild brawl on floor of
Sensing pandemonium, Hyde chastised, "The gentleman will observe
decorum." But before decorum had a chance to congeal upon the august
members, Jerrold Nadler of New York piled on, followed by Sheila Jackson
Lee. "Justice should be blind, but we've never argued that justice is
gagged," Jackson Lee said. She actually invoked the Chicago Seven. "The chair
doesn't intend to bind and gag anyone," said Hyde. In a no-holds-barred
statement delivered in an amiable drawl, John Conyers called Starr a
"federally paid sex policeman" and said "a sense of desperation is
palpable." In the words of Beatrix Potter, "There were very
extraordinary noises overhead, which disturbed the dignity and repose of
the tea party." The angel of Bronx-cheer kookiness threatened to spread his
wings over the proceedings, and that particular bird, in this case, is
definitely a Democrat.

Alas, the mania passed. Starr read his leaked statement, which calmed
everyone down to the point of deep sleep and convinced anyone not
disconnected from higher brain functions that Clinton had sex with Monica
Lewinsky and then lied about it under oath, but didn't convince a lot of
people that he obstructed justice or misused the powers of his office. And
then the ritual beatings and exaltations began.

The Democrats immediately attacked Starr everywhere they could hit him.
They pummeled him for his association with Richard Mellon Scaife, his
representation of tobacco firms antagonistic to Clinton, his leaks, his long ties with
the Paula Jones camp. At first, as his Democratic interlocutors tried to
press these points home, his bland, just-the-facts demeanor seemed to work.
He was immeasurably aided by the five-minute time limit, which ended all
interrogations before they got anywhere and allowed his Republican henchmen
to jump into the ring like tag-team wrestlers, pull him off the mat, call
him "Judge" to the point of honorary-title sensory overload and pretend
the previous unpleasant exchanges hadn't taken place.

Minority counsel Abbe
Lowell asked Starr why he didn't tell the Justice Department about his
previous ties to Jones when asking for expanded jurisdiction to investigate
Lewinsky. Draping himself in the lofty robes of constitutional scholarship,
Starr pooh-poohed his amicus brief on behalf of Jones as completely
irrelevant and explained that his involvement was so well-known he didn't
think to bring it up. As for bullying Lewinsky and keeping her from calling
her lawyer, those were all well-known prosecutorial tactics. And so on.

It was all so reasonable and vanilla-tasting, and interposed
with so many other adulatory and accusatory episodes -- to which Starr responded in
the same calm, helpful-but-firm way -- that whatever Starr might have done
wrong began to seem beside the point. The man with the well-modulated voice
and the squishy-lipped, vaguely menacing mouth began to seem like a rock of
judicial reasonableness in a sea of squabbling political hacks. The stage
managing was working the Republicans' way. But then, once you got used to
this peculiar type of theater, Starr's "I'm just trying to do my job" act
began to wear thin. The cuts began to mount up: The failure to include the
Filegate exculpation. The unadmitted Jones contacts. The tendentious
referral. The harassment of Lewinsky (Starr stumbled badly in his defense
of his misleading press release, bringing down the house when he said, "Let
me explain what press releases are designed to do"). As a TV personality,
Starr continued to play his role impeccably -- he didn't start sweating and
acting Nixonian (or Clintonian). But the gulf between his super-judicious
demeanor and his actual judicial actions began to become uncomfortably

Finally, Democrat Zoe Lofgren drew real blood. She asked Starr if he first
learned in November of the existence of tapes concerning a woman who had a
sexual relationship with Clinton -- a crucial question, because it cut to
the heart of his murky relationship with Linda Tripp and the Jones lawyers and
raised the specter of improper collusion and the secret creation of a
perjury trap. Starr's
lofty rhetoric about the seriousness of perjury as a high crime and misdemeanor would
begin to smell a bit off-color if there were reason to think he helped
engineer that perjury. Shockingly, Starr couldn't answer. He mumbled something
about not having a clear recollection. Suddenly we were back in the days of
old owl-face Adm. Poindexter saying, "I did not micromanage Oliver
North" and "to the best of my recollection, I can't recall" and Clinton's
immortal excursion into Jesuitical ontology, "It depends on what the meaning of
the word 'is' means."

Starr may have proved to the world, as his defenders were saying in
advance, that he doesn't have horns. But he may yet be shown to be
a prosecutor who didn't play by the
rules. If that turns out to be the case, all the bland geniality in the
world won't help him.

Gary Kamiya

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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