Everyone's Talking Trash

Ken Starr now hopes to bring Monica back center stage, since last week's slugfest helped distract him in ways the White House could have only dreamed

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Every week the story has tried to find its muse: at first it felt like Sophocles, a tale of charges so dangerous that a second presidency in a generation might go up in flames; later it belonged to Danielle Steel, all heavy breathing and valentines, and by turns Dickens (Who else could have invented the bottom-feeding Mr. Drudge and the nosy Ms. Tripp?) and John le Carre (Starr is now investigating the White House for investigating Starr's investigation of the White House). Last week the City of Fear went completely haywire. A town of people who like to watch the quorum calls on C-SPAN finally just sat back on the couch and turned the story over to Jerry Springer.

The scene belonged on trash TV, full of staged bluster and righteous fury and lots and lots of diversions. There was James Carville, the President's alpha attack dog, daring independent counsel Kenneth Starr to subpoena him by mocking both his faith and his fervor. "He goes down to the Potomac and listens to hymns as the cleansing water of the Potomac goes by, and we're going to wash all sodomites and fornicators out of town," Carville said. There was Starr deploring what he described as an "avalanche of lies" that had paralyzed his investigation, by which he meant 30 phone calls he got from reporters trying to confirm allegations about one of his assistants. "Welcome to the club," said a White House spokesman. "We get that many in a morning."

For weeks Starr's operation had been exchanging fire with the White House over who was doing more leaking, lying, manipulating and stonewalling. Last week, after TIME reported that the White House had been waging a covert campaign to discredit Starr's deputies, perhaps with the help of private investigators, the prosecutor prepared to respond with some hardball of his own. But by subpoenaing White House spinmeister Sidney Blumenthal to probe his contacts with the press, Starr succeeded in undermining himself in ways the White House could have only dreamed.

While it looked as though he went after Blumenthal to defend the honor of the independent counsel's colleagues, there was actually a prosecutorial purpose as well, the shrewder minds at the White House quickly realized. "We don't think it's because Ken Starr is so thin-skinned he can't take a little criticism," said press secretary Mike McCurry. "This is an exercise about something else." The maligning of his staff looked to Starr like the work of professionals. In that light, the dirt digging provided him with an opportunity: Blumenthal and private investigator Terry Lenzner, also subpoenaed last week, might shed light on what prosecutors suspect is a network of gumshoes possibly hired by Clinton friends to protect the President in matters ranging from Whitewater to Monica.

The alleged White House "dirty tricks" campaign gave Starr a fishing license to look into all sorts of activities by all sorts of hired guns. Last week the independent counsel subpoenaed two private investigators in Arkansas to explain how they came to be checking out rumors for the National Enquirer that Starr himself was having an affair with a Little Rock heiress. As it happens, the Enquirer and Bill Clinton have the same lawyer: David Kendall. But they denied any investigative duet.

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