How Starr Sees It

Probing the prosecutor: a TIME investigation and Starr's first major print interview

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Karin Cooper / Gamma Liaison for TIME

One day in 1979, a young lawyer named Kenneth Starr stepped into an elevator in the Hyatt Regency hotel on Capitol Hill. A former clerk to Chief Justice Warren Burger, Starr was 33 and rising: he was helping to open a Washington office for a big California law firm. He was two years away from being named counselor to Ronald Reagan's Attorney General and four away from becoming one of the youngest judges ever to sit on the U.S. Court of Appeals. Starr had checked into the Hyatt to cram for the D.C. bar exam, but the National Governors' Association was meeting there, and the elevator was crowded with political people. Among them was a newly elected Southern Governor whom Starr couldn't help recognizing. "He was quite robustly self-confident... He had to be the youngest Governor in the country at that time...and I just remember him as being very attractive," says Starr. "There was a buzz about him in the elevator. Here was a very accomplished person with all these fabulous credentials: Georgetown and Rhodes, an Oxonian, and then Yale Law School, and here he was, you know, a very young Governor of a state that I had spent some time in, and so I had that sense of connection."

When Starr talks about Bill Clinton, a hint of envy creeps into his voice, and his words betray a lifelong preoccupation with resume, intellect and reputation. As a young man fresh out of Sam Houston High School in San Antonio, Texas, Starr spent two years at Harding College in Arkansas and eventually came to realize that he and this charismatic Clinton fellow had moved along the same track to Washington--except that Clinton was always ahead. Clinton was at Georgetown when Starr was at George Washington University; Clinton was a Senate aide when Starr was a House aide; Clinton landed a Rhodes scholarship, Starr missed a Marshall. "So there were sort of remarkable and I guess, in retrospect, noteworthy coincidences of activity," says Starr, "although he went on in a much more distinguished way."

Growing up in the South, each must have known people like the other: the golden boy for whom everything came easily and the grind who worked himself to the nub. The one who cut corners and the one who squared them. The one who never got caught and the one who never did anything worth catching.

"It must be nice to have that kind of I.Q.," Starr says wistfully. "Doing well academically...but not having to spend all that terribly much time doing it. You know the tortoise and the hare? I'm the tortoise, moving along slowly, and hopefully getting across the finish line without getting run over." Then the independent counsel chuckles, gives one of his mild, impenetrable smiles and adds a few quiet words that make it clear this tortoise-and-hare business involves more than study habits. "It is dangerous crossing the road, isn't it?"

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