Ken Starr, who on Tuesday died from complications following surgery in Houston, had a long career in academia, the federal judiciary, the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, and private legal practice, where he once defended Jeffrey Epstein. He was without question a luminary in conservative circles for many years, but upon his death at 76, his place in history will forever be defined by his controversial, even provocative, role in the impeachment and failed Senate trial of President Bill Clinton.
In 1994, a three-judge panel appointed Starr to serve as an independent counsel investigating the convoluted set of real-estate and financial transactions involving Bill and Hillary Clinton known as
Whitewater. His investigation famously veered off in many directions, as PBS noted retrospectively in 1999:
In the five years since his appointment, Starr, who served as Solicitor General during the Bush administration — and was frequently mentioned as a possible nominee to the Supreme Court — presided over a great expansion of the Whitewater investigation into other matters, including: possible misconduct in the firing of White House travel office employees; the unauthorized acquisition of some 700 confidential FBI personnel files by the Clinton White House; and legal issues arising from the President’s relationship with a White House intern, Monica S. Lewinsky.
Starr’s fateful lurch into Bill Clinton’s sex life at the end of his long fishing expedition for dirt on the 42nd president led to all sorts of legal skirmishing between Starr and his staff (which included future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh) on one hand and the Clinton administration and Clinton’s lawyers on the other. But Starr’s final product, whatever its legal import, was without question a political and even a popular-culture bombshell. The Starr Report (officially the “Referral from Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr in Conformity with the Requirement of Title 28, United States Code, Section 595(c)”), weighing in at 445 pages, was released not only to Congress but to the public. It was an early internet sensation with an estimated 20 million people having downloading it just two days after it dropped on September 9, 1998, as I noted 20 years after the fact:
Government servers crashed, and media sites scrambled to offer alternative feeding tubes for the insatiable demand. This was when less than half the U.S. population was online, and there was no social media to goose things along.
The reason for all that interest was clear:
Starr’s account went into intimate and prurient detail about Clinton’s encounters with Monica Lewinsky, to a degree that exceeded anything necessary to support the essential claim that he had lied about his sex life in a sworn deposition in an unrelated case and later in grand jury testimony.
This prurience, which branded Starr eternally as a privacy-violating blue-nosed moralist, was embraced by an eager Republican Party. His report and its political weaponization created a precedent for demanding high standards of presidential character that most Republicans would later ignore when Donald Trump was facing impeachment. And it was clearly the perception that Starr and his allies were asking questions no one should have to answer that fed a powerful public backlash against the drive for impeachment and a shocking November 1998 midterm result in which the president’s party gained House seats for the first time since 1934.
The postelection GOP decision to go ahead and impeach Clinton on the decidedly non-prurient grounds of perjury and obstruction of justice despite the near-certainty of an acquittal in the Senate (which duly occurred on February 12, 1999, with only 50 of the required 67 votes for conviction) marked the whole exercise in which Starr played so central a role as a political embarrassment, albeit one that few Republicans regretted publicly. Many did, however, regret the independent-counsel system that Starr utilized for his self-governed inquisition; the statute authorizing independent counsels expired in June 1999 and has not been renewed.
For his part, Starr emerged from the impeachment fight having lost the bipartisan respect he once commanded but having gained an enhanced reputation as a partisan and conservative-movement warrior. Prior to his dogged pursuit of the Clintons, Starr had served as chief of staff to Reagan’s attorney general William French Smith and then as Poppy Bush’s solicitor general, with a stint as a federal appeals-court judge on the prestigious D.C. Circuit between those assignments. Post-impeachment, he spent some time in private legal practice, which included cases involving the defense of California’s anti-same-sex-marriage bill Proposition 8 and the defense of Epstein against charges of statutory rape. None of his earlier or contemporary controversies kept him from being appointed dean of the conservative Pepperdine University Law School in 2004 (a job he had given up when he became independent counsel) and then president of Baylor University in 2010. Three years later, he ascended even higher in the firmament of the Southern Baptist school in Waco, Texas, adding chancellor to his title.
Starr might have enjoyed a quiet drift toward retirement at a school where his political and ideological leanings were no problem. But he became embroiled in a toxic scandal involving various hushed-up crimes of sexual assault by Baylor football players, which, as NPR later reported, led to a steep descent into disgrace for Starr and other university leaders:
According to a summary of the findings of the law firm Pepper Hamilton released by the university in 2016, the investigators discovered a “fundamental failure” by Baylor to implement Title IX, the federal law that polices sexual violence on campus, as well as the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act …
Soon after the report was released, the school’s athletics director resigned after being sanctioned and put on probation, and the head football coach was fired along with other members of the athletics program. Starr was stripped of the presidency and subsequently resigned from his faculty position.
From sex scandal to sex scandal, the former distinguished jurist and law professor followed a long arc downward, culminating in some appearances on Fox News and a remarkable appearance on the first impeachment defense team of that paragon of presidential character, Donald Trump.
There is plenty to admire and deplore about this very prominent man’s career. Given his undoubted religious faith, one can only hope Starr met his maker with a full accounting of a long and consequential public life.