Cover Story

'An honest cop'

Yes, Ken Starr's faith affected his investigation of President Clinton, but not in the way most people think. Far from making him too partisan, it kept him from responding to White House mudslinging. Now a private citizen, Mr. Starr tells WORLD readers the story behind "the recent unpleasantness"

Issue: "Ken Starr: An honest cop," Nov. 13, 1999

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.

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"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.


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