Morality Play

Is Kenneth Starr, Historic Sleazeball, At Last Getting His Just Deserts?

A good Christian’s incredible hypocrisy may finally be catching up to him.

UPDATE: This column was written on Wednesday May 25. The next day, Baylor fired its football coach, and Ken Starr was "reassigned" from "president and chancellor" to "chancellor and professor."

Sometimes, when I’m reading a news story about some particularly risible act by a public person, I find myself wondering how the first paragraph of their New York Times obituary will read when the inevitable day arrives. It’s the job of the newspaper of record to heed Shakespeare’s words and “take him for all in all.” How bad does it have to get for that very first paragraph to accentuate the negative?

Ken Starr isn’t exactly in Bill Cosby territory, but with the revelation that he’s apparently being canned from the presidency of Baylor University for ignoring charges of sexual misconduct by football players, he has made himself into one of the most exquisite hypocrites of our age. (I should note that the university, responding to reports Tuesday of Starr’s impending dismissal, refused to confirm the news, although it didn’t deny it either.)

Here is morality according to Starr, who by the way is (of course) a great Christian. It’s appropriate to expose sexual misconduct (wrong, but consensual) when it gives you a shot at bringing down a president you loathe and creating a constitutional crisis over a few blow jobs. But when sexual misconduct risks messing with the football team, well by God, you brush it under the rug! You’re in Texas, boy.

A lot of you reading this may be too young to remember what I’m even talking about, and many of you who were around forget the appalling details. You may have seen the other day that Starr had some kind words for Bill Clinton, to which we’ll return. But don’t be deceived, and whatever you do, don’t go soft on Starr. He’s one of the monumental sleazeballs of our era.

Some innuendo-rich reporting in the Times and elsewhere during the 1992 campaign suggested that both Clintons may have behaved inappropriately with regard to a land investment known as Whitewater. They did not, as time would prove, but the right pushed the story hard, and the mainstream press sensed that surely something happened, because this was how things had to have worked in a hayseed state. By 1994, President Clinton, succumbing to external and some internal pressure, agreed to appoint a special prosecutor to delve into the facts.

Attorney General Janet Reno appointed a Republican named Robert Fiske. Fiske was finding no evidence of wrongdoing and was about to say so. Then, a twist of fate: It so happened that the special prosecutor law was coming up for renewal. Clinton considered it bad law (as did Antonin Scalia) and didn’t want to sign, but he knew it would look suspicious, so he signed. His renewal of the law had a crucial consequence: It transferred oversight of the special prosecutor from the Justice Department to the D.C. Court of Appeals, and specifically to a three-judge panel thereof. This panel consisted of two arch conservatives. Immediately, the panel fired Fiske on flimsy, trumped-up conflict-of-interest grounds, and appointed Starr.

Starr at that point enjoyed a grand reputation in Washington. He’d been a judge and Ronald Reagan’s solicitor general, and he and his wife glided through the social circuit with apparent grace. But he had well concealed the partisan knife that he now began to unsheathe.

To make a really long story really short, he turned up nothing on Whitewater. He spent three years subpoenaing everyone he could think of, squeezing witnesses; he jailed a woman, Susan McDougal, for nearly two years, trying to get her to lie about Clinton, keeping her for a time in solitary confinement, even in a PlexiGlas cell, on display like an animal. The ACLU of Southern California called her treatment “barbaric.” But he had nothing. He even quit the gig in 1997, because he knew he had nothing, but The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Times columnist and GOP propagandist Bill Safire hounded him back into the job.

Meanwhile in 1997, Monica Lewinsky met Linda Tripp, who, at the suggestion of conservative provocateur Lucianne Goldberg, started secretly taping Lewinsky’s discussions of her and Bill’s liaisons. Also, Paula Jones, who had a sexual harassment suit going against Clinton, fired her regular lawyers and hired very political, right-wing counsel. Goldberg got word to these lawyers that she had information that might be useful to them, so they connected, and in short order, in late 1997, a connection was made to Starr’s office.

Jackpot! He had nothing on Whitewater, but now here was evidence of a presidential affair. And, in his fevered dreams, maybe obstruction of justice to boot, he hinted to the Justice Department (with no hard evidence). And so the Lewinsky story broke in January 1998, and Starr possessed the power to bring down a president.

Clinton’s behavior, both the act and the lying about it, was of course indefensible. But funny thing—the public was far more repulsed by Javert than Valjean. In March 1998, just two months after the scandal broke, Clinton’s approval ratings were pushing 70, while Starr was at 11 percent. That September, Starr released his famous report, a 445-page doorstopper that went into completely unnecessary detail—the word “sex” or a variant thereof was used 581 times, the word “Whitewater” just four times.

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His conduct was reprehensible. He put dozens of totally innocent aides through legal hell. His office illegally leaked grand jury material left and right to friendly reporters. He lied repeatedly and publicly about Madison Guaranty, Susan McDougal and her ex-husband’s bank. And he wrapped himself in a cloak of self-righteousness the entire time, and the media, which had turned into a mob, was almost wholly on his side.

And now he comes to praise Clinton? Please. No thanks, says longtime Clinton aide Betsey Wright:

I have been crying ever since I read the article in today’s New York Times which carried Kenneth Starr’s words of praise for Bill Clinton. Those words brought back memories of the Clinton years in the White House that were all a very dark period for me, not because of anything the Clintons did, but because of Mr. Starr’s witch hunt. They should have been celebratory years for me, but they were pure misery. I spent them receiving subpoenas… being fingerprinted by the FBI… testifying before the grand jury and a Senate investigation committee…being forced to be custodian of hundreds of boxes of Clinton papers…being deposed endlessly…even receiving ‘spinoff’ subpoenas from lawyers for Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones…being treated as a pariah by top White House aides, even some fellow Arkansans, e.g. Bruce Lindsey and Mack McLarty, who refused to return my phone calls…being prohibited from communicating about anything with the President because I might be accused of obstructing justice…racking up several hundred thousand dollars in legal and travel bills which were not eligible for reimbursement because I was not a federal government employee…being quoted for years and years in dozens of books by hateful authors I never talked to, and who made up things attributed to me…all while I was struggling to overcome clinical depression. There was no acknowledgement by Mr. Starr of the countless numbers of us who were Starr’s collateral damage. (At least I didn’t have to serve time in prison like Susan McDougal did.) Mr. Starr’s words in the NYT article today smashed into me with horrible memories of the years he ruined.

Which brings us to Baylor. Here’s a little summary of the series of allegations of sexual and other types of misconduct against Baylor football players. They are serious, and they were completely ignored by the football program and by Starr.

Remember, this is Texas. Football is a second religion. These kinds of things tend to be ignored, especially when the team’s been a winner, as Baylor has been. So you can imagine how bad things must be when even in Texas they start saying hey, this is getting a little embarrassing. Here’s a recent comment by a Baylor alum named Matt Mosley, who’s a sports-radio host in Dallas:

We obviously didn’t do right by these victims of sexual assault. The findings of this law firm from Philly need to be made public. You certainly protect the identity of victims mentioned, but folks need to known about the failures. Then Baylor needs to let everyone know what the plan is moving forward. Ken Starr is one of the most articulate men I’ve ever encountered. His relative silence on such important issues has been disturbing to a lot of us who love the university. He either needs to step up or step aside. The Regents need to be decisive in their actions. This is no time to be bullied by Judge Starr. Our university has taken a huge hit.

What’s going to happen? It appears that Starr is pushing to keep his job, but he has already revealed who he is. He has now defiled both the republic and the academy. Quite a life’s work. It is very much to be hoped, to return to Shakespeare, that we shall not see his like again.