By Howard Kurtz
"I just think that's such a massive conflict," said presidential assistant Paul Begala. "He conveyed a sense of independence and objectivity that I now think is fraudulent. I just think it's an outrage."
Taylor turned down the Starr offer Monday, and in recent days he has talked about the prosecutor on "Nightline," "Imus in the Morning," MSNBC's "The Big Show" and Brit Hume's "Special Report" on Fox News Channel. In his National Journal column yesterday, Taylor heaped praise on his would-be employer: "He is everything that Clinton is not: honest, principled, and utterly inept at spin. But the facts in Starr's report will pop the rivets in Clinton's fragile ship."
What readers weren't told is that the job offer, first disclosed by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, was for Taylor to advise Starr on that very report, which could lead to House impeachment hearings. Taylor, who is also a Newsweek contributing editor and a regular on "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," told his National Journal bosses when a close friend of Starr first approached him on March 7.
"I'm not embarrassed in the slightest by it, even though some people think I should be," Taylor said yesterday. "Did I owe it to my readers to disclose it? I didn't think of it. I don't think anything I've done here has affected the opinions I've expressed in my columns, with one exception: I know Starr and his people better than I did before and have a better basis for evaluating his good faith . . .
"To anyone in journalism who thinks I'm not acceptable because of this, I don't want anything to do with them anyway."
Taylor says he "regretfully" turned down the offer after his friends, his father and his wife told him it would render him "unemployable" as a columnist. "I wanted to do it," he said. "I thought it might do some good in trying to get the important thing, the truth, on the table."
"As far as we're concerned," said John Fox Sullivan, National Journal's publisher, "Stuart played it by the book. In hindsight, do we think it should have been disclosed? In all candor, I don't know."
Taylor says he turned down the initial feeler but that Starr called him on March 13 and asked him to reconsider. He had a couple of meetings with Starr and called him on March 26 to say he was seriously considering the offer. He took that week off and did not write his weekly column.
Taylor says he would have been a dollar-a-year adviser, guiding Starr on major prosecutorial decisions, press relations and the timing and content of his final report.
On the morning of March 30, Taylor read Starr a letter saying he was worried about being seen as a "compliant mouthpiece." He said if his advice was "disregarded" on major decisions or he concluded that Starr had been "less than candid and honorable," he would resign and publicly explain his reasons for doing so. Starr said fine. But at 11 p.m., Taylor called again and told Starr he was "chickening out."
Eric Effron, editor of Legal Times, which reprints Taylor's column, says he would not have run the columns if he had known of the Starr discussions. "There hasn't been enough disclosure about this," he said. "I would've been uncomfortable running the column without indicating to readers that these talks were going on."
Ironically, while he generally praises Starr's performance, Taylor once called for the prosecutor's resignation on grounds that his Republican Party background and outside speaking activities had created the appearance of partisanship.
Clinton allies have long been wary of Taylor, who changed the skeptical media climate surrounding Paula Jones's sexual harassment lawsuit with a lengthy essay in the American Lawyer. "Mr. Taylor staked his journalistic reputation on what a strong case Paula Jones had," said presidential pal James Carville. "That was just slightly off the mark."
Carville said it was revealing that Starr "is looking for a Clinton critic to write a report. He's not looking for somebody objective. It's just another of 1,000 pieces of evidence that Starr's out to get the president."
Begala was especially irate over Taylor's recent TV appearances. "How many places booked him without knowing that while he presented himself as an independent journalist -- who investigated the matter and concluded Starr was great and Clinton's a liar -- that he was negotiating for a job with Starr?"
ABC producers did not know about the job talks when Taylor was booked for tomorrow's edition of "This Week," but still plan to put him on -- with the appropriate disclosure, a spokeswoman said.
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