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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"Without conceding that there might be any discomfort with me whatsoever--you're not believing those polls, are you?" (he giggles nervously at the attempted joke)--"I do think that these issues cause a fairly sharp ambivalence between weighty and competing sets of values. I think I had better stay out of that debate." But since he started it, he can't help himself. "The American people tend to have a strong libertarian sense," he continues. "We are a revolutionary society, after all; we did not depart quietly and peacefully from the mother country...Part of [our] ethos is that of the rugged individualist and getting the government off the backs of the people...Great themes of individual liberty do cause people across the spectrum to take to the barricades and to say, 'We're here to fight.'"

So he understands why so many loathe him, and it bothers him that they do. "The whole thing is terrible," Starr says at one point. "You can put that on the record. This whole thing is terrible, for all of us." He knows that where he finds a criminal conspiracy to obstruct justice, millions of others find nothing more than a frantic effort to conceal an affair. "But it would have been illegitimate," he says, his soft voice growing louder, "to try to think [about] how this would be perceived at a broad public level. We don't know what the future will bring in terms of public attitudes. Will they shift, or will they continue to be guided by libertarian, anti-invasion kinds of values? It was left to us the unhappy task of ferreting out information in these arenas that are so very personal." In other words, the statute made me do it.

During his interviews with TIME, Starr's basic civility was always on display. His detractors tend to view this refined manner as gaudy camouflage for fanaticism. But Starr's elaborate politesse runs deep: it is both a key part of his self-image and a buffer against the world. He insisted that his prosecutors refer to Clinton as "the President" even as they gathered evidence to impeach him. And his response to verbal assaults (such as Clinton lawyer David Kendall's promise that if Starr questioned Clinton about embarrassing sexual details, "I will fight you to the knife") is often nothing more than a knitted brow--a defense, a rebuke, a way of reassuring himself that he's made of better stuff. Starr wants to disagree without being disagreeable. During a flag-burning case before the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Starr once tried to have a nice chat with his opponents, raggedy members of the Revolutionary Communist Party. (They wanted nothing to do with him.) In the same way, the practiced cadences of Starr's speech--each thought qualified, calibrated, modified by one or more careful subordinate clauses--is an elegant and pre-emptory shield.

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