First there was the special prosecutor of Watergate fame. Then came the independent counsel, of which there have been many, and now we have the energizer prosecutor, Ken Starr, who keeps going and going--unable to rest, it seems, until Bill Clinton admits his guilt. You could get better odds, anyone in Vegas will tell you, on Saddam Hussein converting to Judaism.
Starr not only knows this, he has said as much. Yet he persists in making the rounds of interview shows, editorial boards and breakfast meetings with reporters, saying Clinton ought to "get himself right with the law." This, he said, would vastly improve the president's historical reputation and--need it be said?--clear Starr of charges that he was a small-minded prig, a Peeping Tom with subpoena power. Even history--make that History--is not capable of that.
In the meantime, though, we have the spectacle of a prosecutor persevering even after he has left office. I do not know if this is unprecedented, but it is certainly rare and transforms Starr from a disinterested officer of the court, his former pose, to yet another right-wing circuit rider, unable to understand how this most yucky of presidents--a liar for sure--remains in office. The answer, it is becoming increasingly clear, has something to do with Starr himself.
"I would like the president to simply come to terms with what he did," Starr said last week. Not a chance, of course. But as long as the suggestion has been made, maybe it's Starr who ought to do that: consider how a smelly Arkansas real estate deal wound up with all of us sort of hiding behind the curtains, watching Clinton and Lewinsky. He should further ask himself if, looking back, he used disproportionate means to achieve a not very momentous end.
I refer to a recent New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin. He reports that the prosecutors originally asked Monica Lewinsky's lawyer, the voluble William Ginsberg, to allow his client to make "controlled" phone calls to Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan "and possibly, the president himself, in the hope that she would elicit damaging information from them."
Toobin also says that Starr's office threatened an IRS investigation of Lewinsky's father, a physician--an allegation denied by the prosecutor involved, Jackie Bennett Jr. Nonetheless, Starr's original agreement with Lewinsky to testify promised that neither her father nor her mother would be prosecuted.
Whatever the truth, prosecutors have enormous, sweeping powers and they can, if they wish, bring great pressure on potential witnesses for their loved ones. Mind you, in this case, we are talking about nothing more than lying about sex; lying under oath, to be sure, but the lie itself is about nothing much. The president had nuclear weapons at his disposal, but Starr had the really big guns--a staff of more than 50 professionals in Washington alone.
To compel the testimony of a dazed and heartsick young woman, Starr ordered her mother to the witness stand. Clinton, on the other hand, couldn't even keep Lewinsky on the White House staff. Nor could he avoid testifying about his most private moments. Think of what you would have done. Think about what a prosecutor can do even to a president. This is why Ken Starr remains important.
The last time I wrote about Starr, three of his one-time prosecutors composed a letter to the editor and took me to task. They said my arguments were "juvenile" and they pointed out that I had not mentioned that Starr had "obtained the convictions of Jim and Susan McDougal, of Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and of former associate attorney general Webster Hubbell."
I stand admonished and in awe of their achievement. To think that a prosecutorial team using the FBI, the IRS and maybe even Cub Scouts over the rank of Bear could plunge into Arkansas--not exactly Switzerland, mind you--and manage to jail all those people, a total of exactly four (and none for anything that implicated Clinton) takes my breath away. I regret my oversight.
Starr seeks the return of his good name. He once had it, and I, for one, wrote in his defense when the Clinton White House first opened up on him. But he went astray, conducted an inept investigation in which he lost his good judgment. He is the personification of a prosecutor run amok, a good example of why we need all those pesky civil liberties--Miranda rules, etc.--that he and his fellow conservatives so abhor. He would do well to shut his mouth, take some time off and ponder whether he was not more of a danger to us all than the president he pursued.