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In TV Interview, Starr Lets the Questions Get Personal

Starr Independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr. (Reuters)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 25, 1998; Page D1

It will come as no surprise to most Americans, but Kenneth Starr says he doesn't approve of extramarital sex and has never engaged in it himself.

In a wide-ranging interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer to be aired tonight on "20/20," the independent counsel said, "The answer to the big question is no. I have not been unfaithful to my spouse. I try to, and I, you know, I'm not trying to pat myself on the back, but I've tried to live by what I believe is my obligation and my responsibility."

Asked during his first prime-time interview whether adultery is a great sin, Starr said that "at a moral level, it's each person's determination about what kind of life he or she is going to lead."

The hour-long program, drawn from 3 hours of conversation last weekend, is part of Starr's effort to refurbish his image after intense criticism from White House officials and congressional Democrats. He had been discussing the possibility of a Sawyer interview, even before the Monica Lewinsky probe began, with ABC producer and veteran Whitewater reporter Chris Vlasto, but did not give final approval until after his 12-hour testimony before the House Judiciary Committee last Thursday.

Participants in the session, for which Sawyer beat out rivals both at ABC and other network shows such as "60 Minutes," describe Starr as defensive at times, candid at others, and emotional when discussing his staff.

While shedding little new light on his investigation of President Clinton's relationship with Lewinsky, Starr did acknowledge problems in the handling of Linda Tripp, Lewinsky's onetime friend, who brought her secret tape recordings to Starr's office in January and later wore an FBI wire. Starr was asked about Tripp being allowed to leave his office and, hours later, speak to attorneys representing Paula Jones in her sexual harassment suit against the president.

"I think we could have had better control of her," Starr said.

"Should have?" Sawyer asked.

"Yeah," said Starr, adding that his staff had been unaware of the contact with Jones's lawyers.

Sawyer said yesterday that she was "surprised he was as accessible on the personal questions as he was, talking about his views of extramarital sex." When she gently broached the subject of whether she had the right to inquire into his sex life, "he took me off the hook [by answering]. I was fully expecting him to say, 'Do I have a right to ask you?' I was prepared to debate it." Sawyer says the subject was legitimate because "in the political arena, as he knows, there is a constant questioning of hypocrisy."

Starr gave no on-the-record interviews during his four years on the job until he spoke last spring to Brill's Content magazine, touching off a furor by acknowledging that he had talked to reporters on a not-for-attribution basis, including Jeff Gerth and Stephen Labaton of the New York Times. Starr felt it was not "appropriate" to give major media interviews until after his House testimony, says his spokesman, Charles Bakaly III.

Bakaly said the prosecutor may do more interviews but "is not trying to run some media campaign. He doesn't feel a need to vindicate himself. I think he just recognizes there is a public interest. He is a public figure and he's trying to meet that need."

Bakaly himself has carried the Starr message in recent days on "Larry King Live," "Today," "Meet the Press," "This Week" and "Fox News Sunday."

"20/20" is a high-rated show on which Sawyer has chatted up the likes of Boris Yeltsin, Tony Blair, Michael Jackson and the Duchess of York. Tonight's broadcast, for which five of Starr's prosecutors were also interviewed, gives him a high-profile forum to combat the perception that he is, as Sawyer put it, "a moral crusader," "self-righteous," "sanctimonious," "a puritan" and "the sex police."

Such critics are wrong, Starr said, because Attorney General Janet Reno approved his request to examine whether crimes were committed in the Jones suit. "Were crimes committed? Not 'Gee, what really happened in that hotel room at the Excelsior?' Forget that. And you know what? The whole idea of equal justice under law means that you've got to play by the rules. It has nothing to do with the underlying subject matter. You just tell the truth."

Starr also defended the content of his 453-page report to the House, saying his staff made a "professional judgment" to include the graphic sexual detail about Clinton and Lewinsky. When Sawyer questioned the report's tone, he shot back: "Diane, don't fault career prosecutors for telling the truth."

Starr admitted he would still like to serve on the Supreme Court, "but I also know that there's a time and a season, and I think that time, had there been one, has long since passed."

Asked what he personally thought of Clinton, the prosecutor described him as "extraordinarily talented, wonderfully empathetic." But his tone was very different when Sawyer asked what would happen to the legal system "if Bill Clinton is allowed to get away with this."

"I think perjury let me say, lying under oath and encouraging lies under oath does go to the very heart and soul of what courts do," Starr said. "And if we say we don't care, let's forget about courts and we'll just have other ways of figuring out how to handle disputes, let's abolish the judiciary. But as long as we have the courts and I think any judge worth his or her salt would say, 'We cannot tolerate perjury.'"


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