The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ken Starr’s tragic misjudgment lives on in our politics

Journalists photograph Kenneth Starr, a member of President Donald Trump's impeachment defense team, as he leaves the Capitol in 2019. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Kenneth Starr, who died Tuesday at 76, helped to impeach one president, then led the impeachment defense of another. He is famous for his obsessive investigation of one case of sexual misconduct — but not for the allegations he failed to pursue with the rigor they deserved.

The life of this onetime pillar of the conservative legal establishment is evidence that age and time do not always confer wisdom and that it isn’t always pleasant to live in a world of one’s own creation.

Starr most famously served as the independent counsel appointed to investigate allegations about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s handling of their investment in a real estate development company gone bust. What started as a specific brief sprawled for years and began to look like an obsession.

Starr eventually uncovered real misconduct: the president’s unequal and disturbing sexual liaison with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Starr did force Clinton to finally admit he had lied under oath by denying the affair. Clinton’s conduct, both in private and on the witness stand, was shameful and sullied the presidency.

But none of that retroactively vindicated Starr’s pursuit of the president. Neither did the results of what became the first presidential impeachment in 130 years — just the second in the nation’s history — in which Clinton was acquitted.

Kenneth Starr, who led Whitewater probes into Clinton, dies at 76

In a memoir published in 2018, Starr tried to have it both ways. He wrote that he “deeply regret[s]” taking the probe down the Lewinsky path. But he still maintained, having had two decades to put his actions in perspective, that “there was no practical alternative to my doing so.” And he ultimately blames Lewinsky herself for what he and his colleagues put her through, writing: “In her fierce but misguided loyalty, Monica allowed herself to become a tragic figure.”

In 2020, however, Starr changed his tune — at least on impeachment. President Donald Trump had been caught on tape responding to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s request for military aid by saying he needed Zelensky to “do us a favor, though.” Trump wanted Zelensky to publicly announce a criminal investigation of Joe Biden, who was seen as the Democrat with the best chance of denying Trump a second term.

When Trump was impeached and put on trial in the Senate (for the first of his two impeachments), Starr was at the defense table. He had the conviction, or the gall, to denounce the advent of what he called “the Age of Impeachment.”

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If you believe Starr was right and had no choice but to plow forward with his investigation of Bill Clinton on the grounds that Clinton had abused his power over women he worked with, then it is logically impossible to believe the examination of Trump should have been more restrained. Trump’s attempt to extort that political “favor” from Zelensky threatened U.S. security — as Russia’s brutal invasion subsequently demonstrated.

Starr’s defenders could argue that the experience of one impeachment led him to believe in the inadvisability of the next. “Like war, impeachment is hell,” he said during Trump’s first trial before the Senate, at which Trump — like Clinton before him — was acquitted.

Was Starr nothing more than a partisan, political hack who thought that impeaching a Democratic president was fine but that a Republican president should be untouchable? This is how many people, especially progressives, will remember him. But Starr’s essence and legacy are more complicated — and more tragic for the lack of wisdom and growth they reveal.

Starr was, before he gained such notoriety in the Clinton investigation, a central figure in the conservative legal world who was seen as a likely nominee someday for the Supreme Court. Indeed, two current members of the court worked for him at various times — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., during the Reagan administration, and Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, during the independent counsel probe.

Starr retreated to academia after the Clinton impeachment. But in May 2016, he was removed from his post as president of Baylor University after an investigation found that the school had been lax in pursuing allegations of sexual assault that implicated, among others, some varsity football players. Starr said at the time that he was “profoundly sorry” to the “victims who were not treated with the care, concern and support they deserve.”

I wish he had expressed similar profound sorrow for his damn-the-torpedoes crusade against Clinton and his destruction of Lewinsky’s life or his see-no-evil blindness about Trump. Or both. And if this is indeed the “Age of Impeachment,” no one did more to make it so than Kenneth Starr.