The Magazine

TRASHING KENNETH STARR

Jun 29, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 41 • By TUCKER CARLSON
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WHEN JAMES CARVILLE first announced his plans to launch an "all out" public-relations war against independent counsel Kenneth Starr, official Washington seemed almost shocked. An attack by a president's campaign manager on a sitting independent counsel was, the Washington Post pointed out tartly, "unprecedented." Carville immediately drew sharp criticism from prominent Democrats and longtime friends. Democratic elder Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan dismissed Carville's anti-Starr rhetoric as "nonsense." The White House, meanwhile, worked hard to simulate official disapproval. Clinton, said spokesman Mike McCurry, was "not in a position to dissuade Mr. Carville."


That was in December 1996. A year and a half later, all pretense has disappeared. White House employees routinely go on television to denounce Ken Starr personally and by name. In a Larry King appearance the other day, presidential adviser Paul Begala casually described Starr's behavior as criminal, not to mention "frightening," "absurd," and "unfair." Last week a number of administration officials, including the previously restrained Mike McCurry, called for a Justice Department investigation after an overheated magazine article alleged that Starr had "leaked" grand-jury information to reporters. The White House no longer even pretends to consider Starr's investigation legitimate, and James Carville is proud to have started the trend. "Very seldom does a man have a chance to say he was a prophet," Carville says.


Carville may have been the first Clinton partisan to attack the independent counsel publicly, but it's clear that the anti-Starr propaganda machine had been under construction for some time. As early as 1995, says former Clinton confidant Dick Morris, George Stephanopoulos and other administration strategists were devising ways to discredit Starr. From the beginning, the model was the trashing of Al D'Amato, chairman of the Senate committee then looking into Whitewater. White House spinners portrayed D'Amato as out of control, a "bully" on a partisan crusade to destroy the president. The attack worked, and D'Amato's poll numbers plummeted. Years later, D'Amato, running for reelection in New York, still bears the scars. A White House aide cheerfully cites a headline that ran in the Washington Post just last month: "D'Amato Shows Foes He Survived Whitewater." In other words, it was D'Amato, not Clinton, who suffered politically from the Whitewater investigation.


In Starr's case, tracking polls used by the White House showed the independent counsel particularly vulnerable to charges of partisanship. It was obvious, says Morris, what to do next: "Take Starr off the pedestal as a prosecutor and make him a partisan adversary, change him from a special prosecutor into a Republican U.S. Senator, so he essentially becomes a D'Amato whom you can discount, as opposed to an Archibald Cox whom you can't." Starr's efforts to defend himself, the occasional flashes of anger during his impromptu driveway press conferences, couldn't have been more effective if they had been scripted by the White House. "By baiting him into attacking back," Morris says, "it created the tit-for-tat which brings him down to the level of a partisan and away from the level of an impartial investigative counsel. We used to refer to it as 'lift and loft' -- lifting Clinton above the fight."


Destroying a person's reputation is messy work, and not everyone in the White House enjoyed it. "Whenever I went off the facts and into attacks on Starr, I felt very uncomfortable," says Lanny Davis, who must have spent much of his tenure as special counsel to the president feeling uncomfortable. Nevertheless, the strategy worked. By the time Monica Lewinsky became famous, Starr's approval ratings were below even D'Amato's.


Strictly speaking, poll numbers shouldn't be relevant to a criminal investigation, but in this investigation they are. Starr's unpopularity gives Clinton rhetorical cover for continuing to refuse to testify before a grand jury -- Why, his supporters will ask, should the president participate in his own political lynching? -- and it cannot help but weaken the independent counsel's hand as he negotiates with Monica Lewinsky's new lawyers. The target audience for the administration's attack on Starr, however, is Congress, which will receive Starr's final report on the investigation. "I'm going to be there to diminish the political impact of the report," James Carville says bluntly. "That's been my strategy from Day One. On the day Starr releases that report, the stronger the president is and the weaker he is, the better we are."