Kenneth Starr moves into the spotlight Judiciary hearing: Able, dedicated lawyer gets last chance to make case for Clinton impeachment.

November 19, 1998

FINALLY, independent counsel Kenneth Starr will step out of the shadows to argue his case for impeachment of President Clinton.

He will have the opportunity to improve on his written referral to the House Judiciary Committee, which ignored standards for impeachment. Today's committee hearing looms as one of the most portentous in U.S. history.

Mr. Starr will make his case his own way, and then face friendly Republican questioners, hostile Democrats and a defensive White House.

Mr. Starr is a workaholic with a fine legal mind, adept at thinking on his feet. As solicitor general, he faced the most rigorous questioners of all, the justices of the Supreme Court. Mr. Starr can be expected to give a good account of himself.

President Clinton is not out of the woods. Mr. Starr shows no signs of winding down his investigation.

But it is reasonable for the public to assume that he found no presidential misdeeds that meet historic standards of "treason, bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors" since his referral contained none.

The zest of some House Republicans for the fray has faded since the election. But Mr. Starr is his own boss. He may unveil new evidence, make new assertions or prepare more indictments to create national turmoil without recourse to Congress.

Mr. Starr deserves not only an attentive hearing, but sharp scrutiny. On past form, the House Judiciary Committee does not promise a judicious inquiry. It runs to political warfare, each party led from extremes.

After Speaker Newt Gingrich's resignation, committee Republicans operated in a vacuum. It will take Speaker-elect Bob Livingston time to consolidate authority.

Some troubling aspects of Mr. Starr's performance should be examined at another time, when the law establishing an independent counsel is reviewed. But where his conduct affected the proposed impeachment, it is germane to this hearing.

To start with is the appearance of conflict of interest. The amount and source of fees and duties performed by Mr. Starr in private practice, while investigating President Clinton, are essential. One of the purposes of independent counsels is to remove the appearance of conflict of interest on the part of officials appointed by the president. But if the independent counsel is paid by clients interested in ousting or distracting the president, that must be made known.

Mr. Starr made this necessary by refusing to treat his office as a full-time temporary job, as predecessors did. If suspicions are unfounded, the way to make that clear is to lay out the facts.

Other issues that need exploration are collusion with Paula Corbin Jones' lawyers, intimidation of Monica Lewinsky without counsel, possible entrapment, leaks of grand jury testimony to manipulate public opinion and unauthorized expansion of his inquiry.

Mr. Starr is a formidable adversary for Mr. Clinton, or anyone else. Perhaps he can convince reasonable minds that the presidential election of 1996 should be nullified. But that is not an idea that members of Congress, whose only authority springs from similar election, should entertain lightly.

Pub Date: 11/19/98

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