Washington has never seen anything like it. For almost a year now, the White House has waged war against a duly empowered government official for simply trying to do the right thing. Through all the harassment, accusations, and innuendo, Ken Starr has refused to bow to the pressure.
With an unflappable calm-and a persistent smile that seemed gratingly artificial to those who don't know him-Mr. Starr just kept serving a higher purpose, doing what he was called to do.
For that sin, like the biblical Daniel, he was thrown to the lions last week.
Unlike the biblical Daniel, however, the lions in this case did not have their mouths shut. In a grueling, marathon session before the House Judiciary Committee, Mr. Starr was repeatedly mauled by Democratic members and the president's attorney, David Kendall. The bitterly partisan tone was set from the very beginning, as the committee's ranking member, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, accused Mr. Starr of being dishonest, unethical, self-righteous, heavy-handed, and obsessive.
As the feeding frenzy unfolded over the next 12 hours, those who know the character of the independent counsel-and not simply the caricature drawn by White House minions-looked on with dismay. To his friends, the ultimate irony in Ken Starr's public persona is that it is so far from the truth. "I've never really regarded him as the sort of partisan individual he's been made out to be," says Terry Eastland, a former colleague at the Justice Department who now publishes The American Spectator. "I told someone in the White House when Ken was first appointed that they were lucky. I said if I were going to be investigated, I'd want it to be by someone with Ken's sense of fairness and decency.
"It takes a great deal of courage for someone to continue to carry out this particular assignment," Mr. Eastland notes. "What we have seen is an unprecedented political attack upon a prosecutor. He's to be commended for his courage and steadfastness."
All who know Ken Starr agree that his deep personal faith serves as a rock in turbulent times. He was reared in the backwater burg of Thalia, Texas, by a Church of Christ minister father, and God was central to his life from the beginning. Though he transferred from Harding College, a Church of Christ-affiliated school in Arkansas, to pursue his political ambitions at George Washington University in the nation's capital, he never forsook the faith of his childhood. He worked his way through college by selling Bibles door to door, and later, as he began his heady ascent up the legal ladder, he always took the time to teach Sunday school in whichever church he found himself.
"I remember early on being impressed to know that he was teaching Sunday school to a group of very young children, while he was this high-powered Washington lawyer," says Henry Parr, a Greenville, S.C., attorney who has known Mr. Starr since they briefly clerked together on the Supreme Court. Indeed, the independent counsel put his Sunday school career on hold only recently, when the stress (and the press) made it impossible to continue in that role at McLean Bible Church in Washington's Virginia suburbs.
Not surprisingly, that kind of consistent faith became a target for the president's increasingly desperate defenders in the early days of the Lewinsky scandal. While editorial cartoonists portrayed Mr. Starr as dour and sex-obsessed, White House advisers like James Carville and Sidney Blumenthal publicly accused the Office of Independent Counsel of religious fanaticism. The implication-picked up last week by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee-was that a person with strong biblical faith could not carry out a fair investigation.
In reality, of course, an understanding of biblical objectivity underscores the pursuit of fairness. "He has a great dedication to the rule of law," says Mr. Eastland. "That's always been a distinguishing characteristic of Ken's." Mr. Parr agrees: "He respects the rule of law, and he loves his country. He's quite a patriot."
Paul Cappuccio, who worked with Mr. Starr in the Justice Department before joining him as a partner at the Kirkland & Ellis law firm, says his friend's faith is firm and deep, but not overbearing. "Ever since I've known Ken he's had a reputation for being very devout and religious. He takes God very seriously, and always has.... Ken is the sort of guy who when you have dinner alone at his home and not even his family is around, he will begin the meal by saying a brief word of grace. He is only the second person in my life who constantly and quietly chides me every time I say [expletive]."
Mr. Starr's deep religious convictions also preserve him from a sense of moral superiority and push him toward service: "Ken is perhaps the one person most dedicated to public service that I have met in my time in Washington," Mr. Cappuccio insists. "He takes it as a very serious obligation, akin to a tithe. Ken will not say no to an important request to serve the public."
Mr. Starr's career path, though spectacular, is not one that an ambitious climber would have mapped out. After clerking for Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1975, Mr. Starr went into private practice at the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, where William French Smith was a prominent partner. When Ronald Reagan tapped Mr. Smith as his first attorney general, the young Mr. Starr was brought in as a top aide. Just two years later, President Reagan appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a lifetime position on an important bench that has frequently served as the on-deck circle for future Supreme Court justices. The year was 1983, and Mr. Starr was just 37 years old-the youngest appeals court judge ever.
But then duty came knocking. In 1989, as Mr. Cappuccio recalls, "The White House called over and asked him to step down to become solicitor general," the lawyer who argues the government's position before the Supreme Court. "Ken did not want to go, and he told us he did not want to go. You're trading a lifetime appointment for a job that lasts a couple of years. But his decision was, 'If I'm asked to do this, then I've got to do it.' It shows how serious he is about this."
When the Bush Administration ended three years later, Mr. Starr found himself doing something he never thought he'd have to do again-hunting for a job. He had barely settled into his lucrative private practice at Kirkland & Ellis when duty knocked again, this time with the offer of independent counsel. "He viewed the initial call from Attorney General Reno, and then later the offer from the three-judge panel, as the same sort of call to public service," Mr. Cappuccio says. "It's clear that he would rather be with his wife and children practicing law in McLean or teaching in Malibu."
Instead, he finds himself in the lions' den, the subject of an unprecedented attack from an administration desperate to divert attention from its own legal and ethical lapses. Only his faith has enabled him to stay the course, according to his friends. "He's handled it better than most human beings could," says Theodore Olson, a longtime colleague and partner in Mr. Starr's original law firm of Gibson, Dunn. "The thing that has helped him withstand this constant, withering attack from the White House is his strong sense of personal values. His critics have laughed at his religious convictions, but I think this is a very strong asset for someone to have. It's very, very helpful to know what you believe in, and to know that those are enduring values."
Those values are distinctly out of step with the relativist, postmodern ethic of the day. Despite the pressure to bow the knee to public opinion polls, the independent counsel has remained independent and insistent that standards of right and wrong must be fixed and external, no matter how powerful or popular the wrongdoer. For Mr. Starr, that fixed, external reference point is the law of God. For the public figures he investigates, the reference point is the law of the land-the very law that the president is sworn to uphold.
Mr. Starr has ordered his entire life on those beliefs. Now, public opinion has declared he must no longer do so. But like Daniel before him, he refuses to hide his beliefs behind a veil of expediency. For that, he has been thrown to the lions. And for that, in turn, he is WORLD's first Daniel of the Year.