Twelve days. On Oct. 30, that's how long Ken Starr has been a private citizen. After five years in the public spotlight-and in the president's crosshairs-he's having a bit of trouble readjusting to private life. He forces a dollar bill on an admirer who has brought him a Dr. Pepper. He can't accept gifts, he explains.
Oh, wait, yes he can. The James Carvilles of the world have other reputations to destroy these days. Mr. Starr can now accept sodas with impunity. Life is good.
Judging from his demeanor, you'd never guess that Ken Starr is "the most hated man in America," as one pundit recently crowned him. He's John Q. Citizen again, and he's loving it. In San Antonio for a speech to the Christian Legal Society, he lingers on each handshake, as if he hates to let go. Photo seekers get not just a smile, but an arm flung around their shoulders, as if they were long-lost friends rather than total strangers. From a distance he might seem to be schmoozing-or even patronizing-his fans. But up close, his eyes tell a different story. He needs this.
"The recent unpleasantness" is how he jokingly refers to the last five years of his life. Free at last from the burden of public service, he seems lighter in every way. He laughs lightly. He moves lightly. He even talks lightly, his voice noticeably higher and his diction less mealy than the sober inquisitor who testified before Congress.
Of all the burdens that used to weigh on him, perhaps none was heavier than the burden of silence. He can talk now. He can give his side of the story. He can defend himself. In a 90-minute interview with WORLD, the president's nemesis finally did just that. After five years of silence, he agreed to reveal what was going on behind the permanent grin that so enraged his critics.
In black jeans and a short-sleeved plaid shirt, he looks relaxed and happy. He knows his reputation is off-putting, but he exudes a warmth in person that never came through on TV. Two maids enter his hotel suite tentatively, asking in broken English if it's OK to clean now. He jumps up and speaks to them in Spanish; after a few sentences they relax, laughing comfortably with their famous guest.
He realizes that he might have won the public relations war if he had been talking like this all along, letting people see the real Ken Starr. But every time he tried to open his mouth, the Clinton administration cried foul, citing rules regarding grand jury secrecy. Besides that, he was philosophically inclined to do his talking in court. That strategy served him well enough in the courts of law, where his office won 20 out of the 20 legal questions it argued. But in the court of public opinion, his silence reinforced the impression of guilt: Guilty of moralism. Guilty of overreaching. Guilty of a personal vendetta.
Those who know him best shake their heads at the irony of mild-mannered Ken Starr being accused of zealotry. In the Reagan and Bush administrations, he was widely regarded as something of a moderate-a man so in love with the law that he had little passion left over for partisan politics. Even after his appointment as Independent Counsel, his cautious style tested the patience of his more cutthroat colleagues. "If [former Attorney General] Bill Barr had been in charge of this investigation, the Clintons and their cronies would be wearing orange jumpsuits right now," says one friend.
It's offered as an observation, not a criticism. Friends know that Mr. Starr simply lacked the political killer instinct needed to press his case on television and in print. Mr. Starr would hardly be offended: He insists that putting the Clintons on a chain gang was never the goal that lured him back into public life, anyway. Rather, he says, his motivation was twofold: "To uphold the principle of the basic accountability of all individuals in our system, including the president himself. And secondly, to serve the honest administration of the justice system and to uphold it when there was perversion of the system through improper or possibly illegal activity."
He took on his new responsibility with a sense of resignation-"Dread would be too strong a word," he says-knowing that he would likely become a target for those desperate to cling to power. As the attacks mounted and his approval numbers plunged, friends advised him to respond in kind. At the end of the investigation, they told him, only one man would be left standing.
Though he says it was hard at times, Mr. Starr never did take that advice. Even now, freed of the judicial constraints that sometimes kept him quiet, he refuses to personalize his struggle with the administration. In 90 minutes of talking about his investigation, he never utters the word Clinton. Likewise, when he begins to fault Janet Reno for failing to defend the career prosecutors assigned to the investigation by her own Justice Department, he suddenly catches himself. "I shouldn't say Janet Reno," he apologizes. "I should say the attorney general. This is not about Janet Reno. Any attorney general should have stood up and said, 'Stop it, these [White House] attacks are wrong.'"
Nor does he seek sympathy for his own ordeal. Given several opportunities to reveal the hurts and indignities he endured, Mr. Starr repeatedly takes a pass. Indeed, he finds it difficult to talk in personal terms, period. He is genuinely loath to talk about himself, and his efforts to avoid personal pronouns make his speech sound oddly stilted and formal. He rarely mentions his motivations or his feelings. Instead, it's usually one's this or that. (At one point, he catches himself saying "my," and promptly apologizes: "I hate to use the my word," he explains.)
The awkward speech patterns, the hesitance to talk about himself, the refusal to name his enemies-it doesn't take long to realize that Ken Starr would make a miserable politician. He's too humble. Too gentlemanly. Too nice. Faced with a consummate politician, Mr. Starr's only hope of bringing down the president lay in abandoning his scruples and stooping to the political mudslinging of the opposition. In the end, he simply couldn't sell his soul to win a conviction. His soul, after all, was already spoken for.
The irony is not lost on Mr. Starr. "My belief system should have been seen as a safeguard against overzealousness," he says with a laugh, recalling the charges that his faith made him a threat to democracy. "I have values and beliefs. I am unashamedly a Christian. At the same time, I recognize that an individual called upon to carry on a responsibility has to be professional in carrying out that responsibility. If anything, the Christian perspective calls upon one to be more gracious, more understanding, and kinder than would a completely non-biblical perspective.... It is decidedly un-Christian to try to win at any cost."
The religious faith that kept him from going on the attack also gave him comfort in the midst of attack. "From a Christian standpoint, we know that our Lord did not fare well in the polls 2000 years ago," he muses. "Even His friends turned against Him at the pivotal moment.... I tried not to take things personally. I also tried not to exalt the importance of public perception and public opinion. Public opinion will wax and wane, but there is truth, and there is right, and it is far better to try to align oneself with that which is true and right, regardless of public opinion."
Never once, he insists, did he wake up at night wondering why he ever agreed to accept the appointment. "For one thing, I always try to be forward looking. Secondly, I'm a cheerful optimist. And thirdly, I know all these things are not in my hands."
"Not in my hands" is a phrase that crops up often in conversation with Mr. Starr. It sometimes has a distinctly religious connotation: Asked whether he might one day serve on the Supreme Court, he says there's "no realistic possibility," then adds, "It's entirely out of my hands; it's in the hands of a higher authority."
At other times, however, his sense of resignation takes on a more secular cast. As he prepared his report on the Lewinsky matter, for instance, he says he had a "keen and abiding sense that these entire matters were not in my hands.... Thus I said time and again that I was untroubled by the result of the Senate impeachment trial. However one might vote, I was content. I tried to convey that same sense in my own testimony before the House Judiciary Committee: That is to say, the referral from my office is now entirely entrusted to you [Representatives] to use as you see fit."
This is faith of a different kind: faith in the legal and political system. Mr. Starr speaks lovingly of his fellow lawyers, whom he sees as protectors of the weak and the few. "At its best, the profession will stand up against majority sentiment, even if it is overwhelming majority sentiment," he says. "Otherwise, how could unpopular causes ever gain representation?"
Ultimately, it was his faith in the law, rather than the protestations of the Clinton administration, that prevented Mr. Starr from speaking out, from going on the public-relations offensive. "I tried very hard to exercise the self-discipline to remain focused, to keep looking ahead and focus on facts and law as opposed to extraneous matters," he says. "This has not been a political campaign. We have received no funding from soft money to advertise-either to attack or to simply explain what it is the Office of Independent Counsel does. We have brought no public service messages nor formed a 501(c)(3) arm to engage in education."
Some would call that naïve, given the intensely political environment in which the investigation occurred. But Mr. Starr insists that his faith remains unshaken, even in light of his experience as independent counsel. "I am very proud of our judicial system. The overriding importance of the independent judiciary has once again been vindicated. The judges once again tried to get the right answer. At times, like the rest of us, one or more judges will fall short. A judge will let his or her predilections determine the final judgment. But that is an act of treason, and just as any army or intelligence agency will have an occasional Benedict Arnold, so too on occasion a judge falls short of independence and dispassionate judgment. That in no wise suggests that the system is unhealthy or unsound."
Likewise, he has nothing but praise for the politicians who judged the president based on his meticulously argued report. "Whether one agrees or disagrees with the result, the process ran its course. The elected representatives of a vast democracy weighed for many weeks whether the elected president should be removed from office.... Not a single shot was fired, not a single tank took to the streets. Voices were raised and feelings ran high, but we worked our way through that ultimate governance question in a peaceful and orderly way. That is a great tribute to the wisdom of the structure of government that was given to us at the founding."
As he speaks, the sun sinks low in the Texas sky. Sitting before a huge plate-glass window, Mr. Starr is gently back-lit. The sunlight shining through his hair gives him a sort of close-cropped halo and bathes him in a warm orange glow. He talks eagerly of his projects: a book about the Supreme Court; teaching at NYU; an outreach effort among at-risk youth in a blighted neighborhood of Southeast D.C.; his work with Advocates International on behalf of persecuted Christians around the world. He looks happy. He looks satisfied. But there's something else-does he actually think he won? Does he believe his investigation was a success?
"Yes," he replies simply-his shortest answer of the day. When pressed for more, he refers to his goals in accepting the position of independent counsel: to reinforce the notion that no one is above the law, and to defend the honest administration of the justice system against those who would pervert it.
President Clinton remains in office under a cloud-and clearly under the law. Perjury was exposed and punished. And a string of judicial decisions won by Mr. Starr will make it harder for future presidents to dissemble and evade when called upon to explain their actions to the voters they serve.
Mr. Starr professes to be untroubled by the fact that his sense of success is not widely shared by the public. "Among judges and lawyers it is widely seen that we had a job to do, and that's what we did," he says, revealing once again his faith in the judiciary.
Will the public eventually reach the same conclusion? Will history judge him kindly? Not surprisingly, he believes that such matters are out of his hands: "I don't have a crystal ball. History will do what history will do. But I do know what the facts are: The president betrayed his moral trust with the American people. He betrayed it badly. He lied to the American people, and he lied in a court of law. That is a permanent blot on our government and on his stewardship specifically. It was my lot to be the cop on the beat. I was an honest cop."