Briefing

The complicated legacy of Ken Starr

Was the former solicitor general a hero who took on 'an indecent president' — or a 'sex-obsessed Inspector Javert'?

Ken Starr, who once served as U.S. solicitor general but made headlines in the 1990s as the independent counsel whose investigations into President Bill Clinton led to his impeachment, died on Tuesday at age 76.

In 1994, Starr became the independent counsel investigating Clinton and the Whitewater real estate deal that dated back to his time as the attorney general and governor of Arkansas. There were no charges filed, but Starr "significantly expanded his mandate," The Washington Post writes, and he began investigating allegations of sexual harassment made by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, and the affair between Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

At the end of his probe, Starr submitted a report to the House of Representatives about the sprawling investigation, stating that during a sworn deposition in January 1998, Clinton lied under oath and attempted to obstruct justice. The report contained graphic details about physical encounters between Clinton and Lewinsky, and Peter Baker of The New York Times writes that at the time, Starr was "a hero to his admirers for taking on whom they considered an indecent president who had despoiled the Oval Office, and a villain to his detractors, who saw him as a sex-obsessed Inspector Javert driven by partisanship."

'A tremendous patriot' 

Many of Starr's fellow conservatives praised him on Tuesday after hearing of his death, including syndicated radio host Mark Levin, who tweeted, "America just lost a tremendous patriot. And I lost a wonderful friend … What a truly great loss to the nation."

In his remembrance, attorney Jonathan Turley said Starr's "brilliant career left an indelible legacy as an advocate, a judge, an independent counsel, and an academic. He was a deeply principled and gracious person. ... He was someone who loved the law and never stooped to the level of his critics as he carried out his professional duties. Ken truly believed that 'Truth is the bedrock concept in morality and law.' That remained the North Star of his career and there are few careers that can match his impact on our legal system."

'Set us on this nightmare path'

During his investigation, Starr was accused of being politically motivated — a charge he denied — and fanning the flames of divisiveness in the country. Today, many believe he ushered in the current aggressive political climate. "I celebrate no man's death; the 'bell tolls' argument resonates," political commentator Keith Olbermann tweeted. "But Ken Starr helped set us on this nightmare path in which the corrupt brand themselves as holy, turn trivia into monumental distractions, and destroy the fabric of this nation for personal gain and power."

Lewinsky previously said that during Starr's investigation, his prosecutors threatened her with prison if she did not cooperate with the probe. The investigation, scrutiny into her personal life, and mockery she received from the public left her with post-traumatic stress disorder, Lewinsky revealed in 2018, and she tweeted on Tuesday that "as I'm sure many can understand, my thoughts about Ken Starr bring up complicated feelings ... but of more importance, is that I imagine it's a painful loss for those who love him."

Coming full circle

A native Texan, Starr returned to the state to serve as president of Baylor University from June 2010 to May 2016. He was dismissed from his post after an investigation found the school mishandled several reports of sexual assault made against members of the football team. This wasn't mentioned in a Tuesday statement from Baylor University President Linda A. Livingstone, who applauded Starr for being "a dedicated public servant and ardent supporter of religious freedom that allows faith-based institutions such as Baylor to flourish."

Writer Meredith Shiner saw parallels between Starr's work as an independent counsel and as president of Baylor, tweeting, "Ken Starr was an incredibly powerful person whose power was so intertwined with his hatred of women that he built multiple careers on ruining young women's lives. You might not think Monica Lewinsky deserved better (she did!) but countless women of Baylor also deserved better."

Starr was also involved in negotiating the 2008 sweetheart deal between federal prosecutors and billionaire sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, and in 2020 was one of former President Donald Trump's impeachment lawyers. This came more than 20 years after his report was instrumental in getting Clinton impeached by the House in 1998. "A presidential impeachment is tantamount to domestic war, albeit, thankfully ... a war of words," Starr told lawmakers. "It's filled with acrimony and it divides the country like nothing else."

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