Ken Starr, Bill Clinton’s inquisitor, dies at 76

Ken Starr in 2018.
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Ken Starr, who died Tuesday of complications from surgery in Houston, has had a long career in academia, the federal judiciary, the Reagan and George HW Bush administrations, and in the private law firm where he once defended Jeffrey Epstein. He was undoubtedly a luminary in conservative circles for many years, but after his death at the age of 76 his place in history will forever be determined by his controversial, even provocative, role in the impeachment and failed Senate trial of President Bill Clinton be.

In 1994, a three-judge panel appointed Starr independent counsel investigating the convoluted real estate and financial transactions involving Bill and Hillary Clinton
“Whitewater.” His investigation famously went in many directions, as PBS retrospectively noted in 1999:

In the five years since his appointment, Starr, who served as attorney general during the Bush administration — and has been cited frequently as a possible Supreme Court nominee — has overseen a major expansion of the Whitewater investigation into other matters, including: possible wrongdoing in the firing of White House travel agency staff; the unauthorized acquisition by the Clinton White House of approximately 700 confidential FBI personnel files; and legal issues arising from the President’s relationship with a White House intern, Monica S. Lewinsky.

Starr’s fateful fall into Bill Clinton’s sex life at the end of his long mud-fishing expedition about the 42nd President led to all sorts of legal skirmishes between Starr and his associates (which included future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh) on one side Clinton and the other administration and Clinton’s attorneys on the other. But its end product, regardless of its legal significance, was unquestionably a political and even a popular culture bombshell. The 445-page Starr report (officially “Referral from Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr in Conformity with the Requirement of Title 28, United States Code, Section 595(c)”) was presented not only to Congress, but also to the Congress submitted to the public. It was an early internet sensation with an estimated 20 million people downloading it just two days after its release on September 9, 1998, as I discovered 20 years later:

Government servers crashed and media sites scramble to offer alternative feeding tubes to meet the insatiable demand. At the time, less than half of the US population was online and there was no social media to move things forward.

The reason for all the interest was clear:

Starr’s account went into intimate and lewd details about Clinton’s encounters with Monica Lewinsky to a degree beyond what was necessary to support the essential claim that he was in testimony in an unrelated case and later in testimony before the grand jury sex life had lied.

That lust, which Starr forever branded as a privacy-busting, blue-nosed moralist, was embraced by a fervent Republican party. His report and political arming set a precedent for demanding high standards for presidential character that most Republicans would later ignore when Donald Trump faced impeachment. And it was clearly the perception that Starr and his allies were asking questions no one should answer that provoked a violent public backlash against impeachment efforts and a shocking mid-term result in November 1998, in which the president’s party won seats in the election for the first time House of Representatives has won since 1934.

The post-election GOP decision to charge Clinton with perjury and obstruction of justice on decidedly non-libidinous grounds, despite the almost certain Senate acquittal (which duly occurred on February 12, 1999, by only 50 of the 67 votes required for a conviction ) flagged the whole exercise, in which Starr played such a central role, as a political embarrassment, though one few Republicans publicly regretted. However, many deplored the independent advisory system Starr used for his self-governing Inquisition; the Independent Solicitor Empowerment Act expired in June 1999 and was never renewed.

For his part, Starr emerged from the impeachment campaign having lost the bipartisan respect he once commanded but bolstered his reputation as a partisan and conservative warrior. Prior to his dogged pursuit of the Clintons, Starr had served as chief of staff to Reagan’s attorney general William French Smith, then as attorney general to Poppy Bush, and in between those duties as a federal appeals judge on the prestigious DC Circuit. After impeachment, he spent some time in private law practice, which included cases defending California’s Proposition 8 against same-sex marriage and defending epstia from statutory rape charges. None of his past or contemporary controversies prevented him from being named dean of the conservative Pepperdine University Law School in 2004 (a job he left when he became an independent attorney) and president of Baylor University in 2010. Three years later he rose even higher in the firmament at Southern Baptist University in Waco, Texas, which adds Chancellor to his title.

Starr might have enjoyed a quiet retirement from a school where his political and ideological leanings were not a problem. But he became embroiled in a toxic scandal involving various cover-up crimes of sexual assault by Baylor football players, which NPR later reported led to a precipitous descent into the disfavor of Starr and other university leaders:

According to a 2016 summary of findings by law firm Pepper Hamilton released by the university, investigators discovered a “fundamental failure” by Baylor to implement Title IX, the federal statute governing sexual violence on campus, as well as the Violence Against Women’s Sub-Empowerment Act…

Shortly after the report was released, the school’s athletic director resigned after being sanctioned and placed on probation, and the head football coach was fired along with other members of the athletics program. Starr was stripped of the presidency and subsequently resigned from his faculty position.

From sex scandal to sex scandal, the former respected lawyer and law professor followed a long downward arc that culminated in a few appearances on Fox News and a notable appearance on the first impeachment defense team of this paragon of presidential character, Donald Trump.

There is much to admire and lament about the career of this very prominent man. Given his undoubted religious beliefs, one can only hope that Starr has given his maker a full account of a long and momentous public life.

Comments are closed.