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Kenneth Starr, With Legal Certitude for All

Starr Independent counsel Kenneth Starr reads from the Constitution during the afternoon session of the House Judiciary Committee's impeachment hearings. (Reuters)

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  • By Michael Powell
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, November 20, 1998; Page F1

    He walks in flashing that merry little smile of his, the plump and neatly scrubbed personification of The Case Against the President of the United States. His blue eyes are owlish behind his glasses. His skin, pink and dimpled as dough.

    He lays out his papers, carefully, neatly. He bids hello to Rep. Henry Hyde, adjusts the microphone and sits down.

    Kenneth Starr is in the chamber. He's a most unusual witness, this former judge: He is the impeachment case. He's investigator, prosecutor, star witness and his own best hope for giving legs to this constitutional melodrama.

    He does not shrink from his task to inform and instruct and buck up Congress for the impeachment struggle ahead. In sonorous I-say-this-more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tones, his voice pounces light as a cat on a word here or there.

    "The evidence suggests that the president made a series of premeditated false statements under oath. . . . The president participated in a scheme. . . . The president, acting in a premeditated and calculated fashion, deceived the American people. . . . The president made false statements to his aides and concocted false alibis. . . . "

    He has carefully rehearsed his every inflection and gesture. By show time, Starr is reciting rather than reading his testimony.

    This prosecutor and his narrative have few historical antecedents. This case has no John Dean insiders spilling the beans, no presidential burglars trotting off to jail or Marine lieutenant colonels vamping for the cameras. No House of Representatives Wise Men rising above the partisan storm to shine a light through the pettifogging.

    There is just Starr. (He seems to recognize how alone he is: He requested 25 reserved seats in the Judiciary Committee hearing room yesterday; he got eight.)

    We've made sense of our changeling president, a man whose mood and message and shape seem to transform with each personal and political crisis. He's the Oxford scholar and Slick Willie wrapped into a bundle; flirting with the women one minute, mediating a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians the next.

    But our images of Starr tend to cascade one upon the other in an unhelpful muddle.

    Is he as the Democrats portray him: a Grand Inquisitor who entrapped The Groupie to snare President Bill through his Executive Libido? Or Archie and Veronica's principal, the stern twit who shuts down the gym and bans kids from sitting in the backs of their jalopies? The sort of guy who notices the lipstick on your shirt collar?

    Rep. John Conyers hammers at this version of Starr before the judge clears his throat.

    "Today's witness, Kenneth Starr, wrote the tawdry, salacious and unnecessarily graphic referral that he delivered to us with so much drama," Conyers says. "The idea of a federally paid sex policeman spending millions of dollars to trap an unfaithful spouse, or to police civil litigation, would have been unthinkable prior to this investigation."

    Conyers wags his finger at Starr, who peers back, impassive and Buddha-like.

    Starr seems to find comfort in being a Sir Thomas More for the modern age. A public and a small-p political man who asserts a timeless morality and rule of law and faced down a sexually and ethically profligate liege.

    Still, it's clear all this Torquemada stuff baffles him. He sings hymns by the riverside, yes, and teaches a little Sunday school, but he's no zealot. His Texas accent long ago yielded to the plummy inflections of the Washington boardroom. He's worldly enough to stop short of moral censure.

    "I want to emphasize that our referral never suggests that the relationship between the president and Ms. Lewinsky in and of itself could be a high crime or misdemeanor," Starr cautions the committee. "Indeed, the referral never passes judgment on the president's relationship. . . ."

    He pauses just a beat. "The propriety of a relationship is not the concern of our office."

    Starr blames any soiling of the republic on the president himself. Starr didn't want to count orgasms and put them in his report. He didn't want to do the verbal pat-down on the president's girlfriend. He didn't want to do a lot of things required by this investigation, as he made clear in one artfully planted press leak after another these past few days.

    "Any suggestion that the men or women of our office enjoyed or relished this investigation is wrong." He tilts his head and leans toward the members, as though to help the hard of hearing. "It is nonsense . . . but the Constitution and criminal law do not have exceptions for unseemly or unpleasant or difficult cases."

    It's a recurrent theme for Starr. He had no choice. The law demands it.

    Starr is Washington: careful, lawyerly, a bit self-righteous. And as his strikingly personal testimony made clear, he inhabits a world far removed from Geraldo, Springer and hoi polloi.

    "We go to court and not on the talk show circuit," he says. "There is a bright line between law and politics. . . . It leaves the polls to the politicians and the spin doctors. We are officers of the court who live in the world of law."

    But a lot of America doesn't see it that way. The strange genius of President Clinton is to embody the weakness of the national flesh, to persuade America to forgive his moral (and legal) transgressions.

    "It's the schism between popular culture and prosecutorial culture," notes Jamin Raskin, an American University law professor and a lifelong student of Washington mores. "The language of popular culture regards Clinton and Lewinsky as a predictable event in human affairs. But prosecutors don't think about underlying human drama."

    As the day winds down, it's clear that Starr's day can be divided in two. The morning, the set indictment of the president, has gone swimmingly. He ticked off the points of his indictment with crisp efficiency, voice keening with indignation from time to time. By lunchtime, few doubted that he'd more than bloodied the president's credibility.

    But the afternoon and evening offer a testier time. The Democrats poke and prod, and slowly they scrape the paint off his painful politesse.

    Starr's "May I take, I must say, gentle issue with you?" gives way to "That is utterly incomplete and grossly misleading." His attempts at irony edge toward the mocking, as when he inquires if Abbe Lowell, the Democratic counsel, is suggesting that he should have treated Lewinsky – "a person who may have committed a felony and who was trying to commit another felony" – with, perhaps, the gentleness of a hotel concierge.

    There is, as the Judiciary Committee members take over the questioning with all of their partisan harmonics, an immediate temptation to parse this day for the pop cultural moment. The confrontation. High Noon at the Rayburn Office building.

    Or not.

    There's no obvious candidate, no "Sir, have you no decency?" epiphany. Maybe this is just another nondefining moment in a low-rent impeachment scandal. Maybe it will slide from committee to House floor and so to the Senate, in defiance of polls and election results and Clinton's phenomenal luck.

    If it does, Starr seems certain to be there with his beatific smile and his legal certitudes, set for battle.

    "Mr. Chairman," Starr says in concluding his prepared testimony, "my office and I revere the law. I am proud of what we have accomplished. . . . I thank the committee and the American people for their attention."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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