The Daily Telegraph
Lawyer who led the drive to impeach President Clinton over his relationship with Monica Lewinsky
KENNETH STARR, who has died aged 76, was the independent counsel whose investigations into the extramarital relationships of President Bill Clinton, the so-called “Zippergate” affair, outlined no fewer than 11 grounds for impeachment, including obstruction of justice, abuse of power and perjury.
Starr was initially appointed in 1994 to investigate the suicide of the deputy White House counsel Vince Foster and the Whitewater real estate investments of the Clintons. He later expanded the inquiry into other areas, including the extramarital affair that Clinton had with Monica Lewinsky.
In 1998 Starr filed what became known as the Starr Report, in which he alleged that Clinton had lied about the existence of the affair during a sworn deposition and dwelt at length on the excruciatingly embarrassing details of how he satisfied his sexual urges in the shadowy recesses of the White House.
Starr’s allegations forced Clinton to admit his sins on national television and opened the door for his impeachment in 1998 on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. But when he was acquitted by the Senate the following year, many blamed the allegedly partisan way in which Starr had pursued his quarry.
Twenty-four years earlier, when Leon Jaworski, the special counsel in the Watergate inquiry into the possible impeachment of President Richard Nixon, had presented his evidence, he provided no analysis and no conclusions. He left those to Congress.
Starr’s report, by contrast, was widely seen as an aggressive piece of legal advocacy. Most surprisingly, it contained no references to any of the issues which Starr had been investigating between August 1994, when he began work, and January 1998, when he received authority to turn his attention to the Lewinsky affair.
Whitewater, and other “scandals” which had sustained an entire Clinton conspiracy theory industry for years, ended by producing no charges whatsoever.
The Starr Report did not on its own provide the basis on which Congress could make a judgment about Clinton, and the fact that it consisted largely of Lewinsky-related allegations, much of it hearsay from witnesses whose motives were often suspect, enabled Clinton’s allies to present the report as a hatchet job, and Starr as a “deranged puritan” with an obsessive and prurient interest in the president’s sex life.
The Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz accused Starr of fanning the flames of “sexual Mccarthyism”.
In fact the decision to extend the investigation had not been taken by Starr but by a three-judge panel appointed to oversee independent-counsel law, adopted after the
Watergate scandal in 1974, in consultation with the attorney general Janet Reno, a Clinton appointee. Her recommendation that Starr be allowed to follow up on evidence that emerged after he began his investigation was the reason why the inquiry became involved with Monica Lewinsky.
Kenneth Winston Starr was born on July 21 1946 in Vernon, Texas, the youngest of three children of Vannie, née Trimble, and Willie Starr, a fundamentalist minister and barber. Religion and hard work would remain central to Kenneth’s life. According to his mother he “thrived on spankings” but was “a good boy, not one of those who ran around at night... By the time he got to junior high, his hobby was polishing shoes.”
At Sam Houston High School he distributed campaign literature for Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater. After graduating, he spent two years at Harding College, a Church of Christ school in Arkansas, selling Bibles door-to-door to pay for his tuition.
He transferred to George Washington University where, while other students wore long hair and protested against the Vietnam War, Starr wore a tie to lectures. Thanks to a bout of psoriasis he avoided Vietnam. After graduating, he married Alice Mendell.
He read Law at Duke University then joined the Washington office of the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. He spent a year as a clerk at the Supreme Court with the conservative Republican Chief Justice William Burger, and in 1980, when his mentor William French Smith was appointed attorney general to Ronald Reagan, Starr followed him to Washington. He was swiftly appointed to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, regarded as the waiting-room for Supreme Court justices. George HW Bush appointed him solicitor general.
But Starr’s hopes of making it to the Supreme Court were disappointed. In 1990 a vacancy was filled by David Souter, a little-known but less controversial judge from New Hampshire. Another chance came in 1991, but again Starr missed out. The nomination went to Clarence Thomas, a black conservative lawyer.
When Bush lost the 1992 presidential election Starr, then 46, could still have hoped for greater things. He was relatively young, and had friends throughout the legal establishment. Though conservative on most issues he had shown an independent streak that pleased civil libertarians. As solicitor general, when the White House asked him to advise military contractors in a dispute with whistleblowers, Starr sided with the whistleblowers and against President Bush.
He returned to private practice, this time at the Washington firm Kirkland & Ellis, where he became the most sought-after appellate lawyer.
As he advanced in his career, Starr made a habit of consulting close friends in the Justice Department for advice. But when he was invited to take the independent counsel’s job in the summer of 1994 he did not call them, and they remained baffled, particularly as he was on record as arguing that the position of independent counsel was unconstitutional.
There was probably some truth in all the motivations ascribed to Starr – that he disliked Clinton, felt a civic and religious duty, and had trouble saying no. But it is difficult to reconcile the claim that he was part of a conspiracy devoted to destroying the president with the fact that, in 1997, he tried to leave the independent counsel’s job for the life of a dean at Pepperdine University.
Nor did his investigation please the Clinton-baiters. Not only did he fail to uncover evidence of criminal activity, but he even dismissed the most potent of conspiracy theories – that Vince Foster had been murdered. When in 1997 Starr issued an interim report that Foster had, as claimed, committed suicide, there was irritation in some Republican circles.
Yet if Starr was not a zealot, he did little to avoid the appearance of being partisan. In 1996, a month before the presidential election, he appeared with Pat Robertson, the Christian-right leader and Clinton-baiter, at a celebration of the 10th anniversary of the founding of Robertson’s law school.
In addition, he allegedly leaked confidential grand jury testimony to reporters; pushed for the videotaping of Clinton’s interrogation, virtually assuring that it would become public even though grand jury testimony is normally held in camera; and sent a report to Congress omitting Monica Lewinsky’s statement that the president had never asked her to lie and that she was not promised a job in exchange for her silence.
After five years as independent counsel, Starr returned to private practice as an appellate lawyer and as a visiting professor at New York University and the George Mason University School of Law.
In 2004 he was appointed dean of Pepperdine University School of Law and in 2010 he was inaugurated president of Baylor University, a Christian university in Texas, a post from which he was removed in 2016 after an independent investigation found that the university had mishandled accusations of sexual assault against its football players.
In 2007 Starr was part of the legal team (with Alan Dershowitz) of Jeffrey Epstein which made a deal with the Florida US Attorney Alexander Acosta that protected the financier and accused paedophile from federal prosecution. Epstein subsequently pleaded guilty to a state charge of solicitation of underage girls.
In January 2020 Starr was part of the legal team that defended President Donald Trump in impeachment proceedings, apparently bearing no grudge against the man who in 1999, had described Starr variously as “a lunatic”, “a disaster”, “a total wacko” and “totally off his rocker”.
Ken Starr is survived by his wife Alice and by their son and two daughters.