Opinion | Ken Starr: The Man Who Created the Lewinsky Scandal

Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo
·11 min read

Obituaries last week portrayed Kenneth W. Starr — the prosecutor who pursued Bill Clinton for nearly six years of his presidency — as an important but supporting player in a scandal where Clinton and Monica Lewinsky played the starring roles. Starr, though — who died last week at 76 — was no mere extra in the sordid disgrace we remember as the “Lewinsky Affair.” He was a motive force behind it, the man who turned what should have been a dispassionate legal inquiry into a frenzied political inquisition. In time, historians may come to see Clinton and Lewinsky as pawns in a scandal that was, to a surprising extent, one of Ken Starr’s own making.

Until achieving notoriety in the 1990s, Starr wasn’t someone you’d peg as a figure of historical consequence. With his doughy, Keebler Elf build and his mild-mannered demeanor, he came across as unassuming or non-threatening. But his colorless exterior masked an inner zeal — a zeal that, in turn, hid a shocking ethical lassitude. Starr was a striver wrapped in a preacher’s frock cloaked under judicial robes. And without this bundle of contradictions, there might have been no impeachment drive, no yearlong sexual hysteria and perhaps a great deal less of the partisan ugliness that wafted off the dumpster fire of his investigation. No individual makes history single-handedly, but Starr was the rare figure who can be said to have altered the course of our politics.

The very appointment of Starr as an independent counsel was itself a strange historical accident. In early 1994, Attorney General Janet Reno named Robert B. Fiske, a respected former U.S. attorney and white-collar litigator, to examine Whitewater — shorthand for an ill-fated real estate deal that Bill Clinton invested in as Arkansas governor in the 1980s, which the conservative press was hyping as the next Watergate. Within six months, Fiske issued a preliminary report sizing up Whitewater as a pseudo-scandal in which neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton had done anything wrong. Fiske also handily dispatched a second, tawdrier assignment: looking into the suicide of White House aide Vince Foster, who had shot himself in a Virginia park — a death that spawned a miasma of far-right conspiracy theories. Fiske found that the suicide had indeed been a suicide.

Fiske’s exoneration of Clinton enraged the right. At this juncture in history, the paranoid style was enjoying one of its sporadic revivals. On talk radio and in the halls of Congress, absurd theories linking the Clintons to Foster’s death flourished. These years also witnessed a rising tendency — led by Rep. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, soon to become speaker of the House — to gin up claims of ethical impropriety to take down political foes. To Republicans unreconciled to the Democrats’ return to the White House, Clinton was inherently suspect. And so, that summer, a panel of three judges, led by Judge David Sentelle — a protege of North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, who had been keen to go after Clinton since his election — took it upon themselves to replace the impartial Fiske with the very partisan Starr, then working in private practice.

It was an unconventional and consequential choice. For one thing, Starr lacked prosecutorial experience. Despite having been a judge for six years in the 1980s, he was also a known partisan, active in the Federalist Society and conservative circles. Having aspired as a youth to become a preacher, he sold Bibles while in college and taught Sunday school even while on the federal bench. His piety often blurred the lines between church and state. As independent counsel, he would promote stories like one in the conservative Washington Times headlined, “Deeply Christian Starr Starts Day Jogging, Singing Hymns.”

The biggest problem with his appointment, however, was a major conflict of interest: Earlier in the year, Starr had provided legal assistance to Paula Jones, an Arkansas woman who was suing Clinton over a vulgar sexual advance he had allegedly made to her as governor. Starr even drafted an amicus brief supporting Jones. But Starr didn’t disclose those connections to the judges who appointed him, and later he would, against all ethical standards, make common cause with Jones’ team in his pursuit of the president.

When Starr began his investigation in mid-1994, Clinton seemed vulnerable. Despite passing some landmark legislation, he had failed to achieve his ambitious health care plan and was struggling over foreign policy messes in Somalia and Bosnia. But after November 1994, when the Republicans won control of the House for the first time in 50 years, Clinton found his footing and his fortunes revived. In response, Republicans launched new investigations into various matters and pressured Starr to find proof of Clinton’s wrongdoing. After several years, however, he couldn’t find any, and Whitewater receded from the front pages. Clinton was destined to become the first Democrat to win two presidential elections since Franklin Roosevelt. Starr, it seemed, would have to close up shop.

But then Starr made a big decision — to extend his inquiry. In early 1997, he and his team began poking around into the president’s sex life. Doing so might have been illegal, since it lay well outside Starr’s mandate as independent counsel. In a few months’ time, the news of his fishing expedition broke. In a June 1997 Washington Post article, Arkansas state troopers spoke with concern about what was going on. “In the past, I thought they were trying to get to the bottom of Whitewater,” said trooper Roger Perry, whom Starr’s staff had questioned. “This last time, I was left with the impression that they wanted to show he was a womanizer. … All they wanted to talk about was women.” The plunge into sexual politics drew denunciations. Starr chose to ignore the warning lights. Moralism propelled him forward.

As Starr later admitted, his office soon opened a back channel — also probably illegal — to lawyers for Jones, whose harassment case was proceeding along independent lines. A gaggle of far-right attorneys helping her had learned about the president’s recent dalliance with Lewinsky and passed it along to Starr’s staff. These attorneys — called “the Elves” because one of their number, the polemicist-provocateur Ann Coulter, compared them to “busy elves working away in Santa’s workshop” — then connected Starr’s office with Linda Tripp, the Pentagon aide who posed as a confidante to Lewinsky, got her to confess details about the affair and secretly taped their conversations.

Starr made his next momentous decision in deciding to use the affair as part of the impeachment case he was building. In mid-January 1998, convinced that Clinton had lied about his relationship with Lewinsky in a recent deposition in the Jones case, Starr asked permission from Reno to formally expand his probe into Clinton’s sex life — even though he had already done just that months before. Years later, he would admit that doing so had been a mistake. (Someone else should have led the Lewinsky inquiry, he conceded.) But in seeking his expanded mandate, Starr hid from Reno and the three-judge panel those back-channel contacts with the Jones team. Reno authorized the expansion, but when she learned months later about the concealment, she almost fired Starr on the spot.

News of Clinton’s affair with a former intern, many years his junior, generated a predictable storm of outrage. But in a short time a public consensus emerged that, however tawdry the affair, and however harshly people might judge Clinton’s character, this wasn’t something to remove a president over. Washington pundits, in contrast, felt differently, as did a few well-placed reporters who, relying on a flood of selective leaks from Starr’s staff (especially attorney Brett Kavanaugh), kept the story alive for months — even as the president’s approval ratings stabilized north of 60 percent. Starr’s hovered around 22 percent.

Clinton appeared to retire the whole business on Aug. 17, 1998, when he finally confessed to and apologized for the affair. Most of the public said it was time to move on. But again Starr — along with Gingrich and the Republican House leadership — refused to let up. With Whitewater a dead letter, sexual politics would be the grounds for impeachment.

During Clinton’s testimony before a grand jury, all the questions had been about sex, and when Starr sent his impeachment referral to Congress in September, it contained gratuitous descriptions of specific sex acts, pornographic in nature. The goal was to incite new public outrage and, perhaps, humiliate his nemesis. Like the classic small-town preacher who rails against sexual deviance precisely because he finds it so titillating, Starr was even more ardent than some of his advisers in favoring a narrative laced with explicit detail. “I love the narrative!” Starr told aides who counseled greater restraint.

Despite losing seats in the November midterm election — historically an almost unheard-of development — Republicans pressed forward with impeachment. Starr made yet another fateful decision by choosing, against precedent, to become “an aggressive advocate” for impeachment. (In 1974, Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski had stayed neutral, submitting a spare factual account and merely suggesting to Congress possible impeachable infractions President Richard Nixon had committed.) Starr’s decision infuriated his ethics adviser, Sam Dash, onetime counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, whom Starr had retained early on to give himself some cover. “He was a partisan Republican,” Dash later said of Starr. But “I really believed him when he said … he could push all that aside.” Having defended Starr for years, Dash now let it rip, quitting the team and publicly denouncing Starr’s decision to openly throw in his lot with the House Republicans.

It was especially unnecessary because Clinton’s acquittal was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Even many Republican senators doubted that the charges amounted to constitutional crimes. But the GOP leadership, joined by Starr, pressed on. In the end, of the four charges that the Judiciary Committee reported, two failed to gain a majority even in the Republican-controlled House. The other two were rejected by the Republican-controlled Senate. But if the damage to Clinton was minor, the disruption to the country had been enormous. Starr’s decisions over many years — to take over from Fiske, to veer into sexual politics, to run with the Lewinsky affair, to make sex the centerpiece of his report — which stemmed from his prosecutorial zeal, had helped poison the atmosphere in Washington and deepen the tendency to use sexual behavior as the basis for partisan warfare.

Ironically, it was already becoming clear that many of the president’s antagonists had their own sexual secrets to hide. House Judiciary Chair Henry Hyde was revealed to have had an affair in his 40s, which he tried to downplay as a “youthful indiscretion.” Gingrich, damaged by the GOP losses at the polls, was overthrown as speaker amid talk that he had been conducting his own extramarital affair. His intended replacement, Robert Livingston, declined the speakership when his past infidelities surfaced. The eventual speaker, Dennis Hastert, was later convicted and imprisoned for child sex abuse. And of course Starr’s key aide Kavanaugh — who pushed hard to grill the president and Lewinsky about the sexual details of their relationship — was, as a Supreme Court nominee in 2018, alleged to have sexually assaulted Christine Blasey Ford while they were in high school. Even Starr’s eventual successor as independent counsel, Robert W. Ray, was charged with stalking an old girlfriend.

Amazingly enough, it eventually emerged that Starr too, for all his moralizing, had carried on his own extramarital affair, with Judi Hershman, an adviser to the independent counsel’s office. More damningly still, Starr had to resign in 2016 as president of Baylor University after it was reported that he had covered up a string of sexual assaults, including rapes, by members of his football team. One victim had even sent him an email, while he was president, informing him that she had been raped. “I honestly may have (seen it),” he said of her message. “I’m not denying that I saw it.” Her rapist was sentenced to 20 years.

Despite his essential role in the Clinton impeachment, Starr in 2020 not only defended President Donald Trump during his (first) impeachment trial, but somehow managed to summon the chutzpah to impugn the Democrats for bringing charges — never mind that the charges against Trump, for conspiring with a foreign government to compromise the 2020 election, were far graver than those against Clinton. “The Senate is being called to sit as the high court of impeachment all too frequently,” Starr piously lamented in Trump’s defense. “Indeed, we are living in what I think can aptly be described as the Age of Impeachment.”

Perhaps we are living in such an age. If so, the person most responsible for that sad state of affairs is none other than Ken Starr.