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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Starr admits to being a political innocent. ("Clearly. Absolutely. How do I measure the ways?") He admits to being "a slow learner," to committing "boners and goofs," to failing to realize that "even though one is carrying on a legal function, one's activities are going to be viewed through the prism of...appearances and politics." But underlying these admissions is a sense that, as his mentor, Attorney General William French Smith, used to say when Starr was Smith's counselor in the Reagan Justice Department, Washington is "not merits-oriented enough. He would say, 'You've got to get past this huge layer of appearances, then a huge layer of politics. And then finally, perhaps as a distant third, you will get to the merits of the issue." And so Starr's remarks about p.r. ineptitude appear to be both a defense--the errors were about surfaces, he insists, not substance--and a form of vanity, as if he operates on a higher plane and can't be blamed for losing a war of perceptions with Clinton.

CHAPTER THREE: THE ROOT OF IT

Starr's probe of The President has been so bruising that it seems fair to ask what kept him going. Averse to conflict, he has slogged through the most disagreeable year imaginable. Why take the job? Why put up with the abuse? Many have assumed he did so because he was on a moral crusade, or carrying water for the Republican Party. But when it comes to Starr, nothing is quite so simple.

Some who know him point to an odd combination of ambition and naivete as fueling his decision to become independent counsel. While serving as George Bush's Solicitor General in 1990, Starr made the short list for nomination to the Supreme Court but was passed over. After he left the Administration and returned to private practice, he shelved his dreams of becoming a Justice, ran the Washington office of his new firm, Kirkland & Ellis, but seems to have been looking for a way to become a player again. He toyed with the idea of politics, considering and then rejecting a run against Oliver North in the 1994 Republican primary for Virginia Senator because he didn't have anywhere near enough chits to cash in among the state's pols and was considered too soft, untested--and moderate--to compete.

Then he was offered the independent counsel's job. His closest friends thought him crazy to consider it. "Starr wasn't under any illusion that this would make him popular," said William Kelley, a former Starr law clerk who later became a consultant in the Lewinsky probe. So why accept the post? "Because he was asked," says deputy Bittman. Duty, sacrifice, public service--these were values rooted in Starr's early years as the son of a Fundamentalist preacher in South Texas. From the Scriptures, he says, he learned the value of serving others, of raising the soul by diminishing the self. In college his studies in political science drew a bridge to the real world, where Starr came to know the "importance of institutions" and the role of law in upholding them.

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