Once respected, now besmirched Starr: After his four-year investigation, he goes before the House committee without the support of many who once praised him.

November 19, 1998|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- When he was appointed independent counsel more than four years ago, even a number of Democrats had to concede that the Kenneth W. Starr they knew, although fervently Republican, was "fair-minded," "judicious," "a man of tremendous integrity."

All in all, said one self-described pro-Bill Clinton liberal Democrat who knew him, "a good man."

Today, as he faces the House Judiciary Committee as the key witness in the impeachment hearings against the president, Starr's reputation has undergone a remarkable transformation. The investigator has been nearly as damaged as his target.

"He will never again enjoy the admiration and respect he had across the board," said constitutional law professor Garrett Epps, the liberal Democrat and Starr acquaintance who sang his praises four years ago. "His reputation is in tatters."

Starr emerges from his $40 million-plus investigation of Clinton and his associates as one of the least popular figures in America, attacked by the White House as a partisan zealot on a mission to bring down the Democratic president, and criticized by even some of his former admirers for reaching too far, too wide and for too long.

"Having known him, I had hoped he would comport himself in a nonpartisan way," said Epps. "I think, for reasons I can't begin to fathom, he has not done that. He has become captive to the extreme Clinton-hating fringe of the Republican Party and used the office of the independent counsel to further that agenda in ways that have been shocking and really disgraceful."

Former White House counsel Abner J. Mikva, who served with Starr on the federal appeals court in Washington, said similarly, "The Ken Starr I knew and the Ken Starr I praised when he was first appointed is nobody I recognize in the Ken Starr who wrote that prurient report and has been responsible for outrageous prosecutorial excesses. I can't explain it."

To be sure, many Republicans and Clinton foes beg to differ, hailing the special prosecutor's work as courageous, his tactics routine and his vilification the product of the masterful White House spin machine. To them, it is the ultimate irony that Starr -- not Clinton -- is in the hot seat having to defend his actions.

He's 'been demonized'

"This hard-working, mild-mannered fellow has been demonized," says Miguel Estrada, a Washington lawyer and former colleague. "But it's more a tribute to the PR savvy of his target than it is a statement about Ken Starr as a lawyer. He does not seem to me to have changed at all."

Still, gone are the pre-Whitewater whispers of Starr, a former appellate judge and solicitor general in the Bush administration, as a likely Supreme Court nominee. So much hostility exists between Starr and the Democratic Party that there is virtually no chance he would be appointed to any post needing Senate confirmation, much less the nation's top bench, friends and foes agree.

"If I were he, I wouldn't start getting my robes fitted -- no matter who's the president," says Alan B. Morrison, a lawyer with the public interest law group Public Citizen, who knows Starr and has been an admirer.

Polls show that the public, by a 2-1 margin, disapproves of the way Starr has handled the investigation. His personal approval ratings are in single digits.

Starr is said to be mystified by the public's disdain for him and its continued approval of the president. That bewilderment, said one who knows him, has inspired a fierce determination to prove himself right.

Mock hearings

For the past couple of weeks, Starr, who plans to lay out a case that Clinton engaged in a pattern of obstruction, has been staging mock hearings in his office conference room, with his deputies firing difficult questions at him in anticipation of those expected from the Judiciary Committee Democrats.

Democrats are eager to question the independent counsel about his prosecutorial conduct, including his wiring of Linda R. Tripp before he had the authority from the attorney general to investigate the Lewinsky matter.

Another episode Democrats are likely to bring up -- one being examined by the Justice Department -- is the confrontation of Lewinsky by Starr's deputies in January.

Lewinsky testified that Starr's lawyers discouraged her from calling her lawyer at the time, suggesting that if she did, she would lose her opportunity for immunity from prosecution.

Under Justice Department rules, it is unethical for federal prosecutors to prevent criminal suspects from calling their lawyers. In a statement this week, the Justice Department said it was seeking additional information on the matter from Starr's office before determining whether to start an official ethics probe.

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