By Howard Kurtz
"So, are you going to come visit me in Malibu?" Starr asked, referring to the venue of the law school deanship that awaits him when he steps down.
Few journalists are on joshing terms with the prosecutor who is doggedly pursuing allegations involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. But then, few journalists have taken such confrontational positions on the White House scandal in as many high-profile media outlets. With three regular gigs -- National Journal, Newsweek and the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer" -- and a spate of other TV appearances, Taylor has burst into national prominence as a lawyer, commentator and all-around wise man.
In the process, he has faced a nettlesome question: Can a careful journalist whose strength is meticulous research thrive in a medium that loves raw opinion, or does nuanced argument melt under the klieg lights?
"The primary reason for doing TV is vanity," says Taylor, 49, peering over half-glasses that give him a scholarly air. "I'm not exceptional in that regard. There are lots of rationalizations I can think of as to why it's journalistically useful. You run into people in studios you wouldn't talk to otherwise."
The danger: "Once in a while, because I don't watch TV, I stumble onto these gong shows populated by buffoons and airheads. I have a little bit of a temper and I don't suffer fools gladly."
Friends worry that Taylor, by so constantly and unambiguously assailing Clinton as a liar, may be tarnishing his hard-won reputation as a dispassionate legal analyst. The "NewsHour," concerned about the appearance of bias, has stopped using him to talk about Clinton and Lewinsky.
Says Taylor: "There's hardly anyone in the city of Washington who believes him. I don't see much point in pretending the evidence is in equipoise when it isn't."
Whatever Taylor's views on the scandal, few doubt the intellectual candlepower of a man who finished first in his class at Harvard Law School.
"He can take an enormously complicated question and answer it in three sentences that absolutely strips away all the baloney," says Stephen Smith, National Journal's editor. "Stuart's synapses fire faster than anyone else's and he gets to the nub of things faster than other people."
"He's one of the smartest people I know," says Steven Brill, who hired Taylor at American Lawyer magazine, where the columnist worked until last year. "He has really rigid, tough standards of how he attacks a story."
The case that boosted Taylor into the media stratosphere involved not Monica Lewinsky but Paula Jones. When the former Arkansas clerk first accused Clinton in 1994 of having dropped his trousers and propositioned her in a Little Rock hotel room, Taylor was skeptical: "I thought Clinton was not owning up to what happened but I couldn't believe he did the whole thing. That would be too crude. She was not the most believable person in the world."
But in the summer of 1996, Taylor began work on what would become a 15,000-word manifesto about the case for American Lawyer. Brill says they both believed that "this would be the quintessential frivolous-litigation story."
Instead, Taylor concluded that Jones had a far stronger case against Clinton than journalists had let on, in part because of "class bias" and "the mainstream media's manifest disdain for Paula Jones." It also took aim at what Taylor now calls "the really flamboyant hypocrisy of many liberal feminists."
The contrarian piece instantly transformed the conventional media wisdom about Jones's sexual harassment suit, which Taylor believes had been colored by liberal bias. "There was a huge, pent-up, Clinton-is-getting-away-with-too-much feeling in the press that was suppressed during the election, partly because they didn't want to elect Dole," he says.
Taylor had done what he does best, persuading people through the power of argument. A few months later, he notes, he wrote another piece about emerging weaknesses in Jones's case, based on new evidence "leaked to me by the Clinton side."
Similarly, Taylor has consistently defended Starr's aggressive tactics in an obstruction of justice investigation of whether Clinton had sex with Lewinsky and urged her to lie about it under oath. He has known and liked Starr since the early 1980s and once "wrote a puff piece on him for American Lawyer." But he declared last month that Starr should step down because his Republican background -- and some of his speeches and work for other clients -- have deflected attention from the central issue of the president's guilt or innocence.
"Whether you like the guy or not, someone whose popularity ratings are down with Saddam Hussein is not going to give the necessary bipartisan flavor to any impeachment referral," Taylor says.
Ink in His Blood
Taylor's career path may have been inevitable, for he was born into a journalistic family. Stuart Taylor Sr. was vice president of the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin, which was owned by the Taylor clan, and later moved his family to California when he began editing the Santa Barbara News-Press. The younger Taylor went to Princeton and joined the Baltimore Sun in the early 1970s before abandoning the paper for Harvard Law.
"Lawyers get paid better and have nice offices and secretaries," Taylor says.
The newly minted attorney signed on with Washington's Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, but found himself writing memos on such subjects as attorney-client privilege. These efforts left him disillusioned with the profession's situational morality. "Often your function is to cover things up as opposed to getting the truth out," Taylor says. "It was all very ethical: 'We can cover this up but we can't cover that up.' Of course, we didn't use words like that."
In 1980 he returned to journalism as a legal reporter for the New York Times, eventually covering the Supreme Court. But Taylor grew frustrated at doing prodigious amounts of research for pieces whose scope was limited by the requirements of daily journalism.
"I wanted to write longer and more opinionated than you can in New York Times news columns," he says.
Taylor quit in 1988 after deciding that he and his wife, Sally Lamar Ellis, a freelance photographer, needed to make more money for themselves and their two young daughters. "We were either going to go bankrupt or have to cut back dramatically on our lifestyle," he says. Taylor talked to Wilmer, Cutler about returning but instead signed on with Brill to write for American Lawyer and Legal Times; the latter still runs his column.
At first, says Legal Times editor Eric Effron, "if I had any criticism of Stuart, he was kind of a raging moderate -- on the one hand, on the other hand. As he found his own voice, he got very muscular and wound up as an influential columnist."
These days, with National Journal as his base, Taylor is not only a prominent pundit but a constant presence on such programs as "Meet the Press," "This Week," "Larry King Live," "Inside Politics" and "Imus in the Morning." He's even turned down an exclusive contract with ABC.
Television does provide a certain high-level entree. At a taping of CNBC's "Hardball With Chris Matthews" last week, Taylor chatted with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott for the first time. "Now if I need to call Trent Lott, maybe my call will be returned," he says.
At the same time, "you receive more nut calls. I haven't received enough nut calls to make me think I should stop going on TV."
But the very thing that makes Taylor attractive to bookers -- his vociferous criticism of Clinton -- has had repercussions. He kept it up even after "NewsHour" told him he had to cease and desist if he wanted to continue discussing the Lewinsky case on the PBS program.
"I just felt he had become an advocate of a certain scenario," Lehrer says. "Not necessarily that he was wrong, but we did not want to use him as 'Here's Stuart Taylor to give the anti-Clinton view.' He has some very strong views about it."
Taylor says that on "NewsHour," "they don't like to do Clinton scandals anyway. They are forced to look at this icky Monica story."
Still, the writer who is so meticulous in print quickly learned that television, with its need for brevity, packs a far greater wallop. "Because this story is so hot, just going on TV and saying the same things I write suddenly sounds like I'm a partisan," Taylor says. "I find I need to tone myself down."
After ABC's "This Week" paired him for two straight weeks with Democratic lawyer Richard Ben-Veniste, "I told the producer, 'I don't want to be the anti-Clinton to his pro-Clinton.' . . . Part of my self-image is I'm anti-Clinton when the truth is against him and I'm pro-Clinton when the truth is for him."
'Going to Say What I Want'
Several friends, however, have told Taylor he's gone too far and turned into just another opinion-monger.
"He gets agitated over the story," says a journalist who has worked with him. "He seems to be personally offended by the alleged behavior, convinced that Clinton and the people around him are very, very low."
Responds Taylor: "If the president had a sexual relationship with a 22-year-old intern and then lied to conceal it and got other people to lie, would I be offended? Sure I'd be offended. . . . If true, it's about getting lots of people to lie about lots of things to cover up lots of problems. It's that broader carnival of lies that's most offensive to me -- of course, alleged lies."
Clinton lawyer Robert Bennett says Taylor "draws conclusions sometimes that are not warranted by the facts. If I have a criticism of him, you'll get a fax from him with 20 questions -- like 'When did you stop beating your wife?' -- and you kind of make up your mind there ain't no way you're going to turn him around."
At the same time, says Bennett, "I do not question his journalistic integrity at all. He strikes me as an honorable man."
Thumbing through some file folders in his black attache case, Taylor shrugs off the slings and arrows that his new prominence has attracted.
"By and large I'm going to say what I want to say," he says. "If people want to call me a partisan, I can live with it."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company