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

(10 of 11)

Much has been made of the premium he places on truth as the bedrock of the legal system. He was mocked for sounding like Moses last April, when he declared that "there's no room for white lies" in court. Clinton's enemies see Starr's fealty to the facts as a handy weapon, but to Starr himself, the truth seems to be something more basic, less tactical. It's an attitude that was shaped, he says, by a traumatic moment in preadolescence.

As a sixth-grader in Floresville, Texas, Starr was moving down the lunch line in his primary school cafeteria when a teacher pointed at him and yelled, "You didn't pay!" All eyes turned to Kenneth. "It lasted probably for three seconds, but it was so horrifying that here I would be accused, wrongly, of trying to sneak through, and not paying, literally, 25[cents]," Starr recalls. "It was the public humiliation to be wrongly accused of this very petty offense." The incident, he says, taught him that lies are weapons, and that the truth is one of life's "great virtues." And while "it might be more convenient to do something treacherous or dishonest," he says, "don't do it...The truth is way up there in that pantheon of important things that must be well served."

When he likened himself to the tortoise, Starr may have been revealing more about himself than his steady style. This tortoise has traveled so far, and taken so many hits along the way, that his shell is hardened and scarred. The toll of this year displays itself in small, self-lacerating asides, such as his remark about how the Justice Department document appointing him as independent counsel "will hang in infamy." But at other times, Starr seems to lack perspective on himself, either missing or willfully ignoring his own mental connections. He loved Saving Private Ryan, and he refers to Jan. 16, when his agents first intercepted Lewinsky, as "D-day," yet he says he's never thought of any parallels between Ryan's platoon and his loyal band. He's also a Churchill buff--his middle name is Winston--but he waves off any comparison to the British leader so famously rejected by his countrymen and so thoroughly vindicated by history. "I try to keep my feet very much on the ground and not to draw any wild and grandiose comparisons," he says. But a few seconds later, he's drawing this one: "I love the Lincoln-Douglas debates...[But] had Mr. Gallup been running around the countryside [taking polls], he would have been guiding Mr. Lincoln not to give the House Divided speech. It was not as well received by as much of the populace as was necessary in order to be elected to the U.S. Senate. But he gave it...Why was it the right thing to do? Because it was grounded in a very fundamental sense of right and wrong, which was in the fullness of time broadly shared by at least a substantial part of the American electorate. And then, of course, there's the stuff of marble monuments to remind us that there is right and there is wrong and that a nation cannot endure based on wrong, which was his fundamental message." Then he seems to bring the riff back to Clinton. "And this is wrong. So."

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