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Jewish World Review April 27, 1999 /11 Iyar, 5759

Paul Greenberg

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An American tragedy: the fall of Kenneth Starr

(JWR) ---- (
IT'S A PITY that not every American could have watched Kenneth Starr testify last week before a Senate committee. Actually listening to the man cuts through the demonization -- and reveals that he's a lot more Mister Peepers than Darth Vader.

Judge Starr was testifying before the Governmental Reform Committee about whether to renew the Independent Counsel Act. He's agin it, and has always has been agin it for constitutional reasons, even while accepting the call to serve as an independent counsel.

Kenneth Starr is one of those public servants (hey, what a concept!) who doesn't have to agree with a law to agree to enforce it. Any more than a good soldier has to agree with a war to volunteer for it.

As both jurist and scholar, Judge Starr had long doubted the constitutionality of independent counsels because they don't fit neatly into the separation of powers: Are they accountable to Congress, the attorney general, or the courts? Are they executive, judicial, or legislative officials -- animal, vegetable, or mineral?

But once the Supreme Court of the United States found independent counsels constitutional, Ken Starr respected its decision. He's not only a jurist and scholar but a lawyer. And he knows that courts determine law, especially the Supreme Court. Once it had ruled, he still had his doubts about the wisdom of the law, but he recognized that it now was the law -- and accepted his appointment.

The level of sophistication among U.S. senators, however, is such that they professed surprise, astonishment, shock! Here was an independent counsel restating his long-standing opposition to the idea of independent counsels. They seemed to think this position of his was something new. Things like candor and consistency always seem to astound certain senators.

One of those oh-so-surprised by Mr. Starr's same old stand was Sen. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey, perhaps the most loathsome of the Get Starr Gang. The senator was at his oiliest during this hearing, praising the judge for his record of public service as he plunged the knife in.

Indeed, said the senator, if only the judge hadn't agreed to take this job, this committee might be meeting not to criticize Kenneth Starr but to approve his nomination to the Supreme Court of the United States. But now, the senator made it clear, the judge's career will forever be in the shallows.

The gentleman -- well, the senator -- from New Jersey may be right on that one point. Not because Kenneth Starr neglected his duty but because he did it too well, even zealously.

Ken Starr's was a politically suicidal course. Only if this round-faced, mild-mannered man had soft-pedaled his strange sense of duty, his curious willingness to follow the law and the facts wherever they led, even into the Oval Office, might he have had a chance to fulfill his ambitions.

Instead, he chose to root out corruption wherever he came across it. In the Justice Department, for example. That wasn't very discreet of him, considering that he had to report to the attorney general. He followed one trail to the governor's office in Arkansas. He followed another to the White House. That was Ken Starr's fatal error: He took his oath too seriously.

A sense of duty can prove a disqualifying handicap in such times. The man might as well have asked to be demonized. He was called a fanatic, a blabbermouth, a partisan, a menace to the Republic, even ... a puritan! Which is about the worst epithet that can be hurled at a public figure these days. After all, the Puritans had a sense of sin and repentance. They recognized that actions and even ideas have consequences. Clearly they're enemies of the people and must be exposed.

Even now, before this congressional committee, being hounded by the Torricellis and Durbins and Leahys and the whole pack, he stood his ground -- but gently. He answered their questions/accusations softly in that law-school way of his. He even acknowledged some mistakes here and there, as if this were some kind of legal analysis. As if he were a professor delivering an objective critique of his own conduct of this case. His voice rose only when he was defending his staff, not himself. And this man is supposed to be the Joe McCarthy of his time? His interrogators sounded more like it.

After all is said and said and said, Kenneth Starr may have only the satisfaction of duty done. Yet that simple satisfaction may mean more to him than all the political patronage and tinny honors this president could ever hand out. He just doesn't understand, does he?


04/23/99: Presidents and the press
04/14/99: A revealing moment
04/14/99: War Day by day
04/12/99: Just a few questions
04/06/99: The problem with the Left
04/05/99: The problem with the Right
03/30/99: But can he convince himself?
03/26/99: Short bursts
03/24/99: Once more into the quagmire
03/17/99: Big time in Little Rock
03/15/99: Our own Roger Taney
03/09/99: A different ‘Waterfront’
03/05/99: Law and disorder
2/26/99: King Richard's revenge
2/25/99: Open season on the fetus, and a good word for the pagans
2/23/99: It never ends: Here comes the judge
2/19/99: After the storm: Going through the debris
2/17/99: Where's the closure?
2/12/99: Hussein the Hashemite: The wiliest player on the board
2/09/99: The social security game
2/04/99: Our own Inspector Clouseau
2/01/99: Night scene, night thoughts
1/28/99: The decay of the art of lying
1/26/99: Impeachment: Short subjects
1/22/99: Bounce, glitz and tedium: The State of the Disunion
1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
1/18/99: Martin Luther King: The radical as conservative?
1/11/99: Why America is apathetic about Bill's date with destiny
1/06/99:The year of Moronica
1/04/99: Clinton’s janitorial crew of two
12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate