TOPICS > Politics

Conversation: Kenneth Starr

October 18, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: This was Ken Starr’s last day on the job, after five years as an independent counsel investigating various allegations against President Clinton, First Lady Hillary Clinton, and others in the Clinton administration. He joins us now for a NewsMaker interview.

Mr. Starr, welcome.

KENNETH STARR: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Do you leave today sighing in relief or in regret?

KENNETH STARR: Well, I certainly am relieved that the responsibility is now in the hands of a very able career prosecutor, Bob Ray. I certainly do have regrets. I guess anyone does with respect to a major phase of their professional life, but all in all, I’m very pleased with all that was accomplished under fairly difficult circumstances by my colleagues, the men and women of the Justice Department on detail to us, the men and women of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies.

JIM LEHRER: So, in general, do you think you did a good job?

KENNETH STARR: Well, I don’t want to be patting myself on the back. I’d rather pat on the back with a lot of enthusiasm, the men and women with whom I was privileged to serve who I think were just terrific. They were highly professional people who, again, under very challenging conditions, I think, time and again, rose to the occasion in Arkansas and then here in the Washington phase of the investigation.

JIM LEHRER: You used the word “accomplishment” a moment ago. What would you say was the major accomplishment of your five years?

KENNETH STARR: Well, I think the principal effort, and I hope it can be viewed as an accomplishment, was to serve faithfully the principles of our legal system, to try zealously to find out the relevant facts, to assess those facts in a very professional way and then to make sound judgments. I think we did that throughout the investigation — even though I fully well recognize that a number of those judgments were quite controversial.

JIM LEHRER: You must be terribly disappointed that President Clinton was not eventually removed from office, is that right?

KENNETH STARR: No, that really isn’t right, Jim. We did have an obligation under the statute — and Congress saw fit to do this, to impose on an independent counsel to report to Congress when information reached a certain level. We reached that professional determination, and I’m pleased to say that we reached it unanimously in our office. So this was not just an individual judgment. It was a collegial and collective judgment of the men and women of the office. It was an unhappy judgment but it was one that we made. But once we referred the matter — as we were required to do under law — then it became a question ultimately for the American people, a political judgment, and the ultimate kind of political judgment and the American people through their representatives came to a judgment. I respect it and I don’t regret that at all.

JIM LEHRER: But how do you explain the huge difference between what you thought had happened and what you wanted done and what the Congress of the United States and, as you said, the American people wanted done?

KENNETH STARR: Well, Jim, I don’t agree with the premise. It was not that we were saying that the Congress should take specific action, whatever that action might be. It was here is the information that we are duty bound as law officers to give you because you’ve directed us in the law to provide you with this information. But, Jim, as I testified before the House Judiciary Committee back in November of last year, holding up the referral, I said you can take this and you can just jettison it. You can toss it in the trashcan. What you do with it is entirely your judgment — and an ultimate, as I say, political judgment.

JIM LEHRER: But that piece of paper left no doubt that you felt that these were impeachable offenses that the President had committed and he should be removed from office.

KENNETH STARR: I disagree with the latter assessment, that he should be removed from office. Again —

JIM LEHRER: Isn’t — Aren’t they the same thing?

KENNETH STARR: No, not at all, because for one thing the statute doesn’t even define, and this of course was a great issue at the time, what an impeachable offense is. And I think a judgment was reached that whatever the facts were, those facts did not so affect the President’s ability to carry out his weighty duties as the President of the United States so as to warrant his removal. But, at the same time, even in some of the resolutions of censure as you’ll recall, some of the resolutions were rather — such as Senator Dianne Feinstein’s resolution, and supported by a number of people on the Democratic side — of senators on the Democratic side — were very strongly worded in terms of condemnation of the actions, but viewing those actions as insufficiently related to his conduct as President.

JIM LEHRER: But you’re not suggesting that you didn’t think they were impeachable offenses and the President should be removed from office, are you?

KENNETH STARR: I’m suggesting only that these were clearly — in my judgment –possible impeachable offenses, and that it was not my call. I was —

JIM LEHRER: Well, how did you feel about it? How did you feel about it? Did you think that they rose to that test?

KENNETH STARR: I thought genuinely that a reasonable judgment could be made either way. When in late December Senator Moynihan made a comment before the trial proceedings began in the Senate to the effect that he was concerned about the stability of the American government, I saw that as a sign and a signal from one of the most respected members of the Senate, and indeed one of the most respected people in public life, that this was a serious issue, a weighty issue that concerned people. And therefore, to determine that a particular, call it remedy, should not be invoked, the ultimate remedy in a democracy of removing the President, should not in fact be utilized or employed in these circumstances was, in my way of thinking, a reasonable judgment. Reasonable persons could come to another judgment or another conclusion as well, and I think people, men and women of good conscience in this country were deeply divided over it. It did not make either position the least bit unreasonable. That’s my judgment.

JIM LEHRER: But — would you not agree that the general perception in the country, as reflected in the polls and everywhere else, was that you felt very strongly that President Clinton had committed impeachable offenses and should be removed from office?

KENNETH STARR: Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt that was the perception, and I’ve said, Jim, that one of my regrets is that I did not do more along the way to try to provide public information, education, if you will, about what the role of the independent counsel is, the limitations of that role. But I think you’re quite right, it was seen that way. And I regret that. I didn’t take action, in my judgment, that should cause reasonable people to feel that way. We were simply living up to our responsibilities under the law.

JIM LEHRER: You were also perceived, according to the polls, and a lot of pundits and editorial writers as somebody — and by the President himself who said in an interview with us, in fact that Ken Starr was out to get him, that Ken Starr was out to get Bill Clinton. Is that true?

KENNETH STARR: It was untrue. What we were out to get, to gather, were all of the relevant facts. And I regret that the President came to that view. I communicated with the President’s counsel in the wake of that interview that you had, and so I think that is unfortunate and that it would be far better, and we urged the President to clarify matters so that there would be no reluctance on the part of witnesses at a critical time in the investigation, to come forward and provide investigators and the grand jury sitting in Arkansas at that time with relevant information. That was not to be. But, you know, the law did have a remedy. If there was, in fact, a prosecutor who was out, on some sort of vendetta, and just taking his language, which was pretty strong language in his colloquy with you, then that prosecutor should be removed from office. And that, of course, was never done. I think that’s one of the evils, Jim, of what we’ve been through with in terms of the independent counsel statute. It’s far better, as we’ve seen with Senator Danforth, for the attorney general to make the appointment. She will support that independent counsel or special counsel as they’re called now. An independent counsel appointed by, under the statute, three judges just is not going to get it in terms of support from the executive branch.

JIM LEHRER: The President’s comments aside, how do you explain the public’s perception that was reflected in every poll that Ken Starr was a Republican carrying out a vendetta or trying to carry out a vendetta against the Clintons?

KENNETH STARR: Two aspects of that, at least, it’s a rich question — but two things occur to me: One is the intense politicalization of the process. And I don’t think that we in our office were involved in that. Indeed, I think we were very much, probably too much on the sidelines in not communicating with the people and trying to provide assurances that the work of the government in this respect was being carried out correctly. The second is — especially with respect to impeachment, the founding generation knew that it was going to be so divisive and here was an inferior your officer of the executive branch making this kind of determination and a referral to congress that then had this personalization and politicalization effect that I think is the direct result of this statute, which was unwise.

JIM LEHRER: So you’re saying that you didn’t personalize this; somebody else did. In other words, the people who were defending President Clinton personalized it and –attacking you?

KENNETH STARR: Jim, I’m not going to start pointing fingers, but I will simply refer to the attorney general’s own testimony and that of the deputy attorney general with respect to this statute; that this statute, they weren’t talking about this investigation alone – remember, the Iran-Contra investigation by Judge Walsh had its critics at the time and there were suggestions that that independent counsel had gone too far. Without making any judgments, the point that the attorney general and the deputy attorney general made is the statute lends itself to that kind of politicalization. And that’s wrong; its bad policy.

JIM LEHRER: Politicalization though – but you’re saying you didn’t have anything do with it. You didn’t politicize this. Who did then? Who did?

KENNETH STARR: Well, I wasn’t out holding press conferences and the like, and I probably, as I say, should have done more. But I’m not going to, again, get into finger pointing. I would simply point rather instead of at personalities and the like, to the wisdom of the founding generation, Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers wrote very thoughtfully to the effect that if there is an impeachment process, it is going to be extraordinarily divisive for the American people. He said that 210 years ago — how prescient he was. But then the debate became a debate at the political level in which we were not anticipating at all. I think there was a perception, Jim, that we somehow were participating when, in fact, we were not. We were simply doing what the law required us to do.

JIM LEHRER: You said recently that you made a mistake in judgment when you decided to pursue the Monica Lewinsky matter. Why was that a mistake?

KENNETH STARR: I don’t think it was a mistake to pursue it. I think it was a mistake for my office, and office which I headed, to take that on. It was perfectly, again, reasonable and sensible at the time. That when we brought the information to the attorney general, the attorney general made the decision this matter should be investigated; this is serious. It has nothing to do with the morality of the situation. It has everything to do with whether serious federal crimes have been and are being committed. Someone has to investigate it. I was willing to do that. I think it would have been better, in retrospect, for the Justice Department to have appointed another independent counsel so as to not give further life to this perception that there was a vendetta.

JIM LEHRER: And do you think that’s what happened? In other words, just your accepting that investigation made you even more of a target of people accusing you of a vendetta?

KENNETH STARR: I don’t think there’s any question about it. For — I’m sorry.

JIM LEHRER: No. Go ahead.

KENNETH STARR: I was going to say that I think there was a sense that the Whitewater investigation had long since been concluded; that really was not so at the time. It has since been concluded. I think there was a profound misunderstanding — I don’t think I did enough to correct that misunderstanding — of how widespread or how wide based the Arkansas investigation was that I inherited as the independent counsel. But then on top of that, to accept along the way issues like the Travel Office firings, the F.B.I. files matter, and then ultimately the Lewinsky investigation, fostered this public perception, which is completely wrong.

JIM LEHRER: Did you have the power to say no thanks, I don’t want to do that?


JIM LEHRER: And you didn’t do it?


JIM LEHRER: Why not?

KENNETH STARR: I felt at the time that it was the right and sensible and certainly by far the most efficient way to go about conducting the government’s business. And it was. It was efficient. There is no question in terms of the efficiencies involved, the cost and the like. People talk about, gee, it’s cost $47 million. The fact of the matter is, we are five independent counsel offices rolled into one by virtue of the expansions of our jurisdiction at the request of the attorney general.

JIM LEHRER: From your perspective, did you make any other mistakes?

KENNETH STARR: Well, I probably did, but those are the ones that I think are really the significant and enduring ones. I certainly think that along the way I should have, as I say, done much more to provide a public accounting beyond simply the reports to Congress and the like.

JIM LEHRER: So you –

KENNETH STARR: To provide information about what I was doing — and then more carefully assessing what additional matters to take on because I would, in fact, be through had we simply remained with, as an office, the very wide ranging Whitewater investigation, which was a misleading misnomer to begin with. And that in itself was sufficiently complicated enough with a variety of matters involved, including Mr. Hubbell’s billing practices, the then-governor’s activities with respect to his cable business, possible federal irregularities in crimes in connection with a 1990 Gubernatorial campaign. Those I inherited.

JIM LEHRER: But there’s a whole list, as you know, Mr. Starr, of all kinds of other things that people have criticized you for; for instance, by calling the First Lady before a grand jury in a very public way; for bringing Monica Lewinsky’s mother, to the grand jury the way she was brought; the whole relationship, the way the FBI and your folks first talked to Monica Lewinsky –


JIM LEHRER: — at the Ritz-Carlton here in Washington; the Secret Service issue; lawyer confidentiality. There were many decisions that you had to make in the course of this five-year investigation. Are you — you’re saying that all of those, as a matter of process, as a matter of investigation, you’re satisfied and have you no apologies to make to anybody?

KENNETH STARR: Absolutely. Absolutely. In each of those episodes that you identified, to the extent that there has been litigation, we have won that litigation. At times charges are made publicly but never taken to a court of law. We have had our position — and I don’t say this in a braggadocios way – it is simply a fact — that time after time we have won in court. With respect to the subpoenaing of the First Lady at the time, we thought very carefully about that — the dignity of her office as the First Lady of the land – and we concluded that under the circumstances of the discovery of those billing records in the White House, it would have been irresponsible of us not to proceed that way. Not everyone agreed with that, but everyone in the office did.

JIM LEHRER: There was a story in the New York Times over the weekend, which laid out how names and words from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal may go into the dictionary forever. And there is a quote in there that says “Starr’s name is relentlessly invoked as an extreme example of prosecutorial over-zealousness.” What do you think about that?

KENNETH STARR: I think it’s a totally unfair and bum rap. It is totally unfair to career prosecutors who were not reinventing the book; they were going by the book. And when these matters, again, would be brought into court, frequently they were not. Criminal defense lawyers would do what they would try to do to win the battle for public opinion, to calumny the prosecutor, to attack the motives of the prosecutor and the like. But each time that we went about our work, we did it thoughtfully, consistent with Justice Department policy and practice. And in literally every time, we were vindicated in courts of law.

JIM LEHRER: But you were losing it in terms of the public perception as being seen as overzealous?

KENNETH STARR: I think there certainly was that perception, which was contributed to by the fact that this particular independent counsel, yours truly, was still in business, and that why is he now looking into this new matter? I thought he was simply looking into Whitewater, when in fact it was essentially an efficiency determination by the Attorney General of the United States. I accept responsibility fully for taking on the responsibility. But it was her judgment that this is the sensible way to proceed; that this is the Independent Counsel Office that should investigate, in this particular matter, the Lewinsky matter.

JIM LEHRER: There was a Gallup poll earlier this year that asked similar — exactly the same question about you and they asked it also about President Clinton. And the question was: “Do you consider him to be a winner or a loser as a result of the entire impeachment matter?” On Mr. Clinton 58 percent said he was a winner; 38 percent a loser. On you, 20 percent a winner, 73 percent a loser. Do you leave office today considering yourself a loser as a result of all of this?

KENNETH STARR: No, I don’t. And if we entrusted everything to polls, we probably would not have entered World War II, or we certainly would not have — at least we would not have done what we should have done at various times in the nation’s history. Law officers are sometimes given pretty unpleasant tasks to do. And we should be, as a people, I think, less guided by polls. But certainly law officers — and heaven forbid — that judges should start looking to polls to determine how a matter should be decided. What would happen to the First Amendment, among other things, if we started looking to polls and ran this as a plebiscite democracy? The rule of law means rules count and the law counts. And so whatever happens in public opinion, the abiding issue is: Was it a law-abiding process? It was. We’ve won in court in that respect. And was it done in a professional way? And we followed throughout Justice Department practice and procedure. And I think that’s increasingly recognized, perhaps not by the general public. But I think it’s increasingly recognized by thoughtful members of the bar, members of the criminal defense bar included, that we were not there reinventing the book. We were really following the book in terms of what we did.

JIM LEHRER: But does it not bother you that the public feels that way about you?

KENNETH STARR: Well, I think public opinion shifts. And Mr. Lincoln wasn’t reading polls and the like. So I would say the comfort that I have is being honored by my professional friends, my colleagues with whom I’ve been privileged to serve these past five years, who are honorable and decent people who have complete integrity and who worked hard to do their job honestly and ably and I think they did.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see yourself — sitting here now — after this is all over as a victim of this process as much as the perpetrator of it? I mean do you feel you’ve been hurt? That’s what I’m really trying to get at here.

KENNETH STARR: No, I feel as if I’ve been privileged to serve in a very difficult job. I’ve said on other occasions that there are two books in Washington. I was very privileged to serve in positions that are found in the plum book. The independent counsel is a job that belongs at the top of the list of the prune book. It’s a terrible job; it’s a terribly difficult and challenging position. I’ve been fortunate enough to be a judge, to be the solicitor general of the United States, to serve as a chief of staff to the attorney general of the United States. My time had come to take on a pretty pruney assignment.

JIM LEHRER: And is this it for new terms of public service? You’re going back to the private practice of law now, right?

KENNETH STARR: Yes. I’m actually going to take some time and do something I started on seven years ago, Jim, and try my hand at a book on the Supreme Court — not a book about a certain subject.

JIM LEHRER: Not the one we’ve been talking about for the last 20 minutes.

KENNETH STARR: Exactly. But then in the fullness of time to return to private law practice and then to resume my teaching at New York University.

JIM LEHRER: This has not left such a bad taste that you would never consider public service again?

KENNETH STARR: I’m a cheerful optimist, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Starr, thank you very much.