The "young lady" who got under Kenneth Starr's skin

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren is pressing independent counsel Kenneth Starr to think harder about when he learned of Linda Tripp's tapes.

By Joan Walsh

Published November 25, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the Silicon Valley congresswoman who rattled independent counsel Kenneth Starr last week with questions about when he learned of Linda Tripp's tapes, has followed up her House Judiciary Committee performance with a letter asking Starr to explain in a sworn affidavit whether he learned of the tapes in November 1997, rather than January 1998, as he has previously stated.

Lofgren startled Starr and Republican committee members by asking whether he discussed the tapes' existence with anyone last November. At first Starr said he didn't understand the question, and when Lofgren repeated it, Starr replied, "I'm not recalling that. The specificity of your question suggests that there may be information, and I'm happy to respond to information." After U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R.-Wis., and committee chair Henry Hyde cut Lofgren off, repeatedly calling her "young lady" -- Lofgren is 50 -- Starr conceded: "I am happy to now search my recollection and to go back, in light of the specificity of your question, and to provide the committee with information."

On Tuesday Lofgren followed up on that offer with a letter to Starr. "Now that you've had sufficient time to 'search [your] recollection' -- and anything else you may have found necessary -- I repeat my request that you answer [my] questions, and that you do so in a formal affidavit." Lofgren also repeated her request, first made at the hearing, that Starr release journalists from pledges of confidentiality in order to expedite an investigation of alleged illegal leaks by members of his staff to the media.

Lofgren's letter to Starr noted the existing contradiction between his first account -- that he'd heard about Tripp and her tapes about Monica Lewinsky's affair with President Clinton on Jan. 12 -- and his committee testimony that he'd learned about Tripp on Jan. 8.

In an interview with Salon, Lofgren would not reveal her reasons for believing that Starr had spoken about the tapes last November. But Salon has reported that conservative activists who are friendly with Starr say they heard the tapes much earlier than Starr acknowledges knowing about them. "It's a logical hop," acknowledged Lofgren special counsel John Flannery, to assume those friends may have informed the independent counsel of the tapes. Flannery would not divulge the information behind Lofgren's questions to Starr. "All I can say is, these are thoughtful, reasonable questions."

According to Flannery, Starr deputy Paul Rosenzweig called him upon receiving the letter to say he wasn't sure Starr would answer Lofgren's questions, since the request had not come from either the full Judiciary Committee or the Democrats on the committee. Rosenzweig did not return a call to Salon.

Rosenzweig has himself been a conduit of information between conservative activists and the independent counsel. Last month, the New York Times revealed that Philadelphia attorney Jerome Marcus, who had worked on the Paula Jones case, connected Tripp agent Lucianne Goldberg with Rosenzweig to inform Starr of the tapes. According to the newspaper the Hill, Marcus and Rosenzweig were students together at the University of Chicago Law School, and Marcus later represented Rosenzweig in a 1993 House investigation of the Justice Department Environmental Crimes division, where Rosenzweig worked as a prosecutor. House Democrats alleged that some prosecutors had intentionally bungled certain cases in order to go easy on corporate polluters.

Flannery says Lofgren will push to get answers to her questions, despite Rosenzweig's reaction. "We expect a response to the letter," Flannery says. "Mr. Starr said to the congresswoman, 'Send me a letter,' and we've done so."

Salon spoke with Lofgren about congressional sexism, Starr's Judicary
Committee performance and why she thinks President Clinton should be
censured, but not impeached.

When your Republican colleagues started calling you "young lady," I had to go online to look up your age.

I am 50 years old. And I have had such a reaction to it from women, friends, people all over town.

Were you surprised by it?

Regretfully, sexism in the House of Representatives is not a complete surprise.

I am wondering, do you think it was related to your line of questioning? It seemed as though calling you "young lady" was a way to upbraid you.

What I believe is that it was intended to be dismissive. I am 50. Ken Starr is 52. If they were calling Starr "young man," at least it would be evenhanded, right? And there are other things you notice, like who gets interrupted, whose statements are repeated by more senior members -- just because, if a woman just said it, it wouldn't be understandable. Stuff that even I am usually too busy to be tuned into, to have my heart on my sleeve. It is a very weird world.

Is the sexism worse than you thought when you were elected?

It is. Not that any place is perfect, but it is so different than at home [in Northern California]. We have more of a meritocracy there.

I wanted to follow up on your questioning of Kenneth Starr -- the information behind your question about whether he'd heard of the tapes last November.

I have said that I'm not going to go into that at this point. But we just sent a letter to Starr, saying that, since he said he didn't recall [whether he'd had a conversation about the tapes in November], we wanted to follow up, now that he has had a chance to recall. I wouldn't want him to think that being called a young lady hurt my feelings so bad, I just went away!

Having been through the hearing all day last week, did you learn anything?

Well, yes. I learned that Starr has exonerated, and apparently quite some time ago, the president and first lady on Whitewater, Filegate, Travelgate. We didn't learn anything for sure, but we certainly now have some questions about when he knew [about Tripp's tapes]. And my question about the leaks -- whether he'd release journalists from their pledge of confidentiality -- I've got to give credit to Steve Brill. It was his idea, and it was a good one. And first he said a flat-out, "No," and then to hide, and say, "It's under seal." Give me a break. Who asked for it to be under seal? I just thought it was ridiculous.

The common wisdom seems to be that Starr didn't change any minds either way on the Judiciary Committee, but there are now enough Republicans in the House who will cross over and vote with Democrats to oppose impeachment. Is that holding up? What is your best count?

I don't know if that is true or not. I have not done a count. I have a ballpark figure. And I think there will be a handful of Democrats who will vote for impeachment. They've said so. And the Republicans have an 11-vote margin until January; then they only have a six-vote margin. So, there need to be more than a handful of Republicans to make up for Democrats who vote the other way. And it may also be that everyone won't show [for the vote], because it is a lame duck session.

So you're not convinced at this point that it will go away? What does your gut tell you about where it will go in the House?

I have learned over the years to listen to what people say, and what I am hearing the Republicans say is that they are going to push this forward. It looks to me like they are still trying to impeach the president.

What is the right resolution here? You oppose impeachment; what about censure?

I think censure would be better, from what I have seen so far. I don't see anything that rises to the historical standard of high crimes and misdemeanors. However, to say that this is an acceptable behavior -- that's not the case. I have a preference for a statement that this is not acceptable. I think this can do a tremendous favor for those who will follow us in the centuries to come, to clarify the nature of the balance of power between the branches of government. And 200 years from now, I want people looking back at Congress to be very clear what we did about this. Not like us, [reading the Constitution] and trying to guess: "What did they mean?"

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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