The Magazine

WHAT'S THE FREQUENCY, KENNETH?

Mar 3, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 24 • By TOD LINDBERG
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FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS NOW, the investigation of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr has occupied a huge place in the Washington imagination. The investigation itself has been largely impenetrable, conducted in secrecy before grand juries in Little Rock and Washington by prosecutors who have kept their lips buttoned. Those not privy to the probe's inner workings felt free to speculate at will, ascribing to it whatever directions, goals, or motives they wished in a kind of political Rorschach test.


For many Republicans, the independent counsel's inquiry had become the repository of all the dark secrets of Clinton corruption. To be sure, it did not yield those secrets up in time for the 1996 election, when an angry electorate might have arisen to throw the lot of the Clinton crowd down the ethics sewer. But the day of reckoning was surely coming. Kenneth Starr, independent counsel, was the deus ex machina who one day would ring down the curtain on a fundamentally illegitimate and corrupt political machine.


And last week, the deus ex machina came crashing to earth with the announcement that Starr was leaving his job on August 1 for . . . Malibu, where Pepperdine University holds some very attractive real estate and where Kenneth Starr signed up to serve as the dean of two graduate schools. Conspiracy? Corruption? Coverup? Hey, surf's up, dudes.


Then when Starr announced, at week's end, that he was postponing the singing of "California, Here I Come" until date uncertain, the surprise and confusion that had swept through Washington reached new heights. Twice in five days, all the elaborately constructed conceptions of the investigation were smashed to bits. In perfect keeping with virtually everything that came before them in the inquiry, Starr's announcements were utterly opaque. No one knew what the hell it all meant.


At first, Democrats were gleeful; surely this meant that the independent counsel was not going to indict the president and first lady. Republicans were angry; surely this meant that the independent counsel was not going to indict the president and first lady. To quell the speculation, Starr took the occasion of a speech he was delivering near Washington to announce that it was dangerous to draw any conclusions about the investigation from his decision to leave it. Naturally, this only fueled the speculation. Was he implying, then, that the president and first lady were not off the hook?


Meanwhile, Starr continued to be vague on when, exactly, he was formally leaving -- or even if he was, although it sure seemed he was -- and whether he would be writing a report on his investigation before his departure, or even after. The law requires an independent counsel to issue such a report at the completion of his investigation. But would the investigation be complete? How could it be, with former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker, whom Starr convicted last year, up for a second trial in September?


What about other possible indictments? What about an interim report or reports, as the law allows? How could Starr walk away from the investigation without delivering his judgment on possible criminal wrongdoing on the part of the Clintons themselves? Didn't he owe that to the office of the presidency? Did he take his service as an independent counsel investigating the president so lightly?


Maybe so. Starr has never devoted himself full-time to his independent counsel duties. He has continued his private law practice (as the independent counsel statute allows). He continued to give speeches (nothing in the statute said he couldn't) at such venues as Liberty University, the progeny of Clinton arch-enemy Jerry Falwell. He even (again, nothing says you can't) gave money to Republican candidates for office in the past election cycle.


But then came the second announcement, the one in which he said he would stick around after all.


Starr does not exactly have a reputation for being mercurial or prone to flights of fancy. Yet his behavior had all the earmarks of self-indulgence and unseriousness, which are hardly attractive qualities in a public figure. This man is a highly successful barrister, a former appeals-court judge, a former solicitor general Was he, all of a sudden, a toothy, four-eyed flake? What was the story with this guy.