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

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These days the tortoise is looking a little more relaxed. He seems to have won the race, at least for the moment, while the hare is still trying to dodge his way through heavy traffic. It's Saturday, Dec. 12, and the House Judiciary Committee has just approved the fourth article of impeachment springing from Starr's investigation of Clinton. Starr acknowledges a small sense of vindication. The impeachment articles represent "a vote of confidence in the legitimacy" of his work, he says, and he feels a great deal of relief that the matter is now "the responsibility of the elected branch of government" and that his role has become "decidedly secondary in nature."

To get to this place, he had to go slow. To nail a politician as elusive as Clinton, he had to be maniacal in pursuit of the facts. To turn lowlife behavior into high crimes and keep going when a majority of the public wanted him to hang it up, he had to be not just dogged but extremely confident--many would say far too confident--of his own fairness and judgment. "A lot of prosecutors would have stopped at some point because they didn't have those qualities," says John Bates, a former Starr deputy.

Starr believes his reputation died for Clinton's sins. White House attacks, he says, left him "transmogrified." He had been a Washington wise man, a respected former federal appeals judge (he still wears those robes in his mind) who always avoided conflict and fancied himself the soul of civility and old-school judicial restraint. But now a great many people see him as the commissioner of the sex police, the instrument of a G.O.P. plot to overturn two national elections. "It's been thoroughly unpleasant, and especially difficult for my wife and children," he says. "But beyond that, I won't whine...Matters of faith are very helpful and a source of encouragement to me that life marches on. And I guess I have enough self-discipline...to preach to myself, 'Keep your hand on the plow, and keep moving forward...If you're looking backward, the plow ain't going to work. You have got to look straight ahead and be doggedly determined to just keep plowing until you get to the end of the field."

CHAPTER ONE: STYLE AND SUBSTANCE

Starr's office is just six blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House, but the views from inside the two places could not be more different. The windowless conference room where Starr and his team hashed out some of their decisions is stark and impersonal; it could be anywhere in America. An electric fan pushes stale air around the room as Starr, dressed in Saturday-casual jeans and a plaid flannel shirt, settles in for the second of three on-the-record interviews with TIME--his only wide-ranging conversations with any print publication this year. Sometimes defensive, occasionally disarming, always excruciatingly proper and polite--"bullpuckey" is as close as he comes to a curse--he is careful not to discuss subjects that remain under Judge Norma Holloway Johnson's seal. But he does offer a fresh and often startling account of his own decision-making process, one that TIME has corroborated, to the extent possible, with other sources. And for the first time, he shows how well he understands the great brawl he set off in the land between the right of privacy and the rule of law.

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