Inside the Starr chamber

Bob Woodward's new book shows the independent counsel as the pervert-run-amok we all knew he was.

Jack Hitt
June 17, 1999 2:39PM (UTC)

My mother has never liked Ted Kennedy's politics. But throughout my childhood,
she would always conclude one of her anti-Ted diatribes with some remark like
"but no one deserves to lose two brothers the way he did," or "his mother Rose is
a strong woman." When the American public remained unchanged in its feeling for
President Clinton throughout the Starr investigation, there was a similar dynamic
going on. People might be angry at the president for sinning (and sinning and
sinning), but they never lost sight of the personal nature of Clinton's
crimes and, I think, the brutal agony they must have visited upon Chelsea. It
angered a lot of Republicans that the public wouldn't separate the man from
the office.

Probably no Republican was more enraged by this failure than Kenneth Starr. In
his new book, "Shadow," Bob Woodward offers a few glimpses inside Starr's office and
what one sees is not only the pervert-run-amok we all know and love, but just a
generally weird guy. Starr is shown having immense "respect" for lofty
institutions and statutes and protocols, but recklessly unconcerned with the tiny
human scale of this scandal.


Clinton's flaw is exactly the opposite. After the grueling four-hour
grand jury inquisition in which he painstakingly explained how his penis came to
be touched by this girl's mouth and then laid out his miserable argument that
this technically did not constitute sexual relations by the Jones' definition,
Woodward reports: "Clinton shook Starr's hand and put his other hand on Starr's
shoulder." That kind of physical contact is much more revolting than anything
Monica Lewinsky ever did.

But it is Starr who has the Freudian need to separate the man from the office
(which he tried to literally enact, I suppose). "My mother taught me never to
hate anyone," he says, ` la "Forest Gump." "You can hate what they do, but don't
hate the person."

I hear that sentiment a lot these days. I have no idea what it means.


The day Starr's men first argue to subpoena Clinton, Woodward reports: "Starr
agreed that there was no question they had the law on their side, but he was
still reluctant. He seemed determined about Clinton but squeamish about the
presidency." In fact, Starr so often relies upon this curious distinction,
Woodward puts it in his index:

Starr, Kenneth Winston
presidency respected by, 286, 252, 400, 436

When Starr's staff argues that they don't have enough good evidence, according to
statutory section 595(c), to trigger a referral recommending impeachment, Starr
says, "I feel like I've been in 595(c) territory since the spring, and I have
a statutory obligation to get this to Congress." For Starr, the landscape of
the world is an endless vista of 595(c) territory, populated only by his own
cramped interpretations of the law. People never figure in.


And this is where Starr got it all wrong. Good judges must consider the often
pathetic human motives underlying even the harshest facts. Then they apply the
law and then make a "judgment" -- hence the job title. That's why independent counsels
who investigated the treasonous activities of the Iran-Contra affair could leave
Ronald Reagan out of it. It's why Ed Meese, who was guilty, was never prosecuted. It's
why Joseph diGenova, the independent counsel who looked into the Bush campaign's
illegal rifling of Clinton's passport file in 1992, could find clear evidence of
a cover-up conspiracy, and yet still not file charges. Each of those prosecutors
looked at the actions taken and the motives of the people who took them, and
decided it wasn't worth a national crisis.

But if you've been "in 595(c) territory since the spring," coming to sober
judgments is no longer possible. Starr fairly stalked the president, repeatedly
making the harshest, most aggressive interpretation of every issue that came
before him. Throughout the book, Woodward finds himself writing sentences such as
"Starr found the evidence more conclusive than anyone else in the office" or
"Starr seemed more willing to continue than others on his staff. He was reluctant
to close anything out while there was still a possibility."


Occasionally, former Watergate chief counsel-cum-independent counsel
"ethicist-for-hire" Sam Dash tries to advise caution. But it's hard to take him
seriously since he is always threatening to resign. At one point, he's insisting
he'll quit if two adverbs and two adjectives he wants don't show up in the
referral. He keeps rehearsing his resignation, and of course, he finally performs
it, kicking Starr in the teeth the day after his Judiciary Committee appearance.
The only time I felt sorry for Starr was wondering what it must have been like to put
up with this ethical blowhard. Woodward's index lacks one line, which I offer up
for the paperback:

Dash, Samuel
resignation threatened by, 393, 417, 459, 479, 481

Starr, the old pornographer, comes through loud and clear in the book. We see him
bargaining with Lewinsky's lawyers about the referral. "I believe we can remove
the reference to genitalia and the to-MA-to," Starr proffers. And later: "'I
don't think we can remove all of the F-words,' Starr answered prissily." Starr
would make a great magazine editor.


As they prepared to send the referral to Congress, staffers told Starr it had too
much unnecessary sex. What was the point of proving in painstaking detail what
Clinton had just confessed on national television? But Starr insisted upon an
"encyclopedia" of Clinton's sexual exploits because "it will show how much work we

Later, one staffer says, "The narrative shows how pathetic Clinton is, that he
needs therapy, not removal. It's a sad story. Our job is not to get Clinton out.
It is just to give information." He pleads with Starr to at least move the sex
narrative from the front of the referral (It's not about sex, remember?) to a
place behind the more sober perjury arguments. Woodward reports: "Starr rejected
their suggestion. 'I love the narrative!' Starr said."

Well, Bob, I just love that exclamation point!


After the Republicans blew up at Starr for quitting to accept a job at a minor
right-wing law school, the independent counsel returned to the job and now with a
madman's zeal: "He authorized his prosecutors to pursue lines of inquiry delving
into every aspect of Clinton's past."

Woodward describes what was called the "Trooper Project." Essentially, Starr's
men interviewed every Arkansas state trooper on a sex-crime fishing expedition,
following closely and suspiciously in the tracks of Paula Jones' lawyers. These
depositions were taken long before Monica Lewinsky came to light. They
interviewed trooper Roger Perry, among others, exclusively about sex. "All they
wanted to talk about was women," he said, "They asked if I had ever seen Bill
Clinton perform a sexual act." Perry told Woodward that they "also wanted to know
if another woman had given birth to Clinton's child and whether the child looked
like Clinton."

Woodward went to press on June 25, 1997, with a Washington Post story outlining
the Trooper Project under the headline "Starr Probes Clinton Personal Life." Then
Woodward explains: "Starr, furious, issued a denial. He claimed he was not
investigating Clinton's sex life, but merely using 'well-accepted law enforcement
methods' to find witnesses associated with Clinton who might know something."

Apparently, in Starr's mind, questioning troopers only about Clinton's sex life
does not constitute "investigating Clinton's sex life." I guess it depends on
what your definition of "sex" is.


The other thing that comes across in Woodward's book about Starr is just how
feeble a prosecutor he was before he lost his mind and decided to play Ahab to
Clinton's Moby Dick. I did not know that when Robert Fiske was ousted, he had
done all the heavy lifting in preparation for indicting Gov. Jim Guy Tucker
for fraud and of Webster Hubbell for bilking the Rose Law Firm of hundreds of
thousands of dollars -- the two prosecutions Starr loves to cite as his great
"achievements." When Starr first took a deposition from Clinton, Abner Mikva,
who was present, told Woodward, "The questions were mostly trivial" and he
"almost felt sorry for Starr, that the independent counsel should be embarrassed
to be asking the president such questions."

The only thing Starr did when he took over was to reopen the Vincent Foster
suicide case and then, while complaining bitterly that Clinton was delaying the
Whitewater case, spend three slow years before grudgingly admitting that Hillary Rodham Clinton
had not shot Foster in the head before ordering her flying monkeys to roll him in
a carpet and dump him in the park.

Hypocrisies of this sort litter Woodward's book. Perhaps the most infuriating one
is Henry Hyde's. The unindicted home-wrecker who lachrymosed pitifully about his
principled courage in standing up against the flawed will of the people is
revealed to be as ignominious a poll-whore as is Dick Morris.

After it became clear that the Republican mob was going to force an impeachment
vote in the House, he conspired secretly with a liberal friend, Howard Berman, to
try to get a censure resolution before the House so he could have a way out. Why?
Because polls showed that the people who elected him -- his
constituents -- wanted Clinton out, even though Hyde personally believed
impeachment would be ruinous for the party.


"In my district they want this guy," Hyde told Berman, "They want this guy's
head." So, he asked Berman to try what was dubbed the "Plan of the Four Bobs."
Berman was to call his friend Bob Strauss, who was to call Bob Michel, who was to
call Bob Dole, who was to call the speaker designate at the time, Bob Livingston,
and get him to force a censure vote.

"Then Livingston will visit me," Hyde told Berman, "and I won't put up much of a
fight." The Plan of the Four Bobs was initiated, but by the time the phone-tag
game got to Dole, rumors of Livingston's orgy preferences were sweeping the
capital. The plan flopped and Henry "I'm all principle" Hyde pushed through with

The only person who comes through this book with any self-awareness is, oddly,
Clinton. I say that as a proud Clinton-basher (I just bash Starr even more,
because the way he wielded state power was far more dangerous than the way
Clinton waved around his johnson). Clinton knew he was scummy and possessed a
certain brutal honesty about it. "I fucked it up," he shouts at one point. I'd
say that's fairly accurate. On the day his videotaped grand jury testimony was
released, the pundits psychobabbled that perhaps Clinton was in a state of
denial. Clinton stomps around his office, roaring, "Goddamn it, I'm not in
denial. I got my ass kicked. There's no denial here." That seems about right.

In the end, Woodward notes that Starr could never find a John Dean -- an insider
willing to spill the truth -- because there wasn't one. Even as Clinton's lies
were becoming glaringly obvious, there are these grim scenes of the president
singlehandedly trying to keep aloft his flimsy fiction: He "grasped [Erskine]
Bowles by the right forearm. 'I'm telling the truth on this,' Clinton said."


After Watergate, pundits noted that no White House official would write down
anything. The unwritten code in Washington was to have an unwritten code. By the
time Clinton got to town, it had become too dangerous to even talk to your staff.
So he did it all -- had the affair, lied about it, covered it up -- all by
himself. He never implicated his own staff in the cover-up because, as Woodward
rather nicely puts it, "the cover-up was a one-man operation." Is that the real
lesson of Watergate?

The cold, unapproachable Richard Nixon self-destructed by asking all his friends
to lie in order to save him. But Clinton -- the flesh-presser, the eternal
campaigner, the leaper out of the limousine into the crowd, the walking Rolodex,
the caller of old pals at 3 a.m.-- saved his friends from such a Hobson's choice
by destroying his presidency, alone.

There's something self-destructively heroic about Clinton lying to his friends,
as if he didn't want to hurt their feelings with the truth. It may be the
strangest legacy of all.

Jack Hitt

Jack Hitt is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and PRI's "This American Life."


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