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What We Can Still Learn from Kenneth Starr

Joe Conason on

For anyone who criticized the late Kenneth W. Starr in life, it might be prudent to observe the ancient Latin injunction: Say nothing but good of the dead. Or step silently by.

Yet the career of the former federal appellate jurist who served as Whitewater independent counsel and instigated the impeachment of President Bill Clinton invites rigorous attention, if only because it illuminates so starkly the hostility of the religious Right toward American women.

No doubt Starr would protest that assessment and instead call attention, as he so often did, to his pietistic moralism. He always peppered his speech with phrases like "as we say in the New Testament," and once sent forth a flack to inform Washington reporters that as he jogged along the Potomac River every morning, he sang hymns.

That posturing achieved full display after he was forced to abandon the Whitewater probe, which a panel of right-wing Republican judges had named him to oversee for obviously partisan purposes. Whitewater was in fact a dry hole, because the Clintons had lost money on the ill-fated land deal and done nothing wrong.

Having promised to bring down both Bill and Hillary, he tried to resign -- and then was forced by outraged conservatives to resume the hunt. It was not long before he started searching for a way to shape the prurient gossip about Bill Clinton into a criminal prosecution.

At that point, Monica Lewinsky fell into his clutches, thanks to a vindictive "friend" and a scheming literary agent -- and he mercilessly exploited the young woman who had entered into an affair with the feckless president. Rather than accept a plea deal fashioned by his own prosecution team, Starr tormented Monica (and her mother!) for months with threats of prison. He concluded the investigation by humiliating both her and the foolish Clinton with the publication of The Starr Report, described aptly by book critic Renata Adler as "a voluminous work of demented pornography."

By then, Starr's overzealous invasion of what many Americans regarded as private behavior had turned the public decisively against him. His inquisition crashed, along with his lifelong yearning for a seat on the Supreme Court.

In the ensuing episodes of his life, Starr confirmed all the suspicions aroused by the Lewinsky debacles. His professed concern with morality and the protection of womanhood easily gave way to the less uplifting priorities of profit and power.

 

In 2007, Starr joined the defense team of Jeffrey Epstein, the wealthy pedophile who had raped many underage girls and later committed suicide in a Manhattan jail cell. He arranged for Epstein obtain a sweetheart plea deal from U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta, who had worked with him at Kirkland & Ellis, Starr's longtime law firm. When exposed, this revolting scheme forced Acosta's resignation from his Trump administration post as Secretary of Health and Human Services. It is hard not to wonder how his "morality" accommodated this lucrative and depraved bit of work.

Even so, a few years later Baylor University, a Texas religious institution, named Starr as its president and chancellor. The university had reason to regret that choice when Starr was revealed to have repeatedly concealed an epidemic of rapes at the school between 2012 and 2016. The Baylor regents bounced him from the presidency after an independent investigation of his conduct, and he subsequently quit his posts as chancellor and law professor in disgrace.

When Starr returned to the public stage as a lawyer for former President Donald Trump during his first impeachment, nobody could still pretend to be surprised by his hypocrisy. Untroubled by Trump's history of boastful adulteries and serial abuse of women -- including his first wife, who accused him of marital rape and other violence -- Starr liked to talk about how proudly he had cast a vote in 2016 to prevent a Hillary Clinton presidency. Naturally Trump eulogized him as "a great American patriot."

But how did his perverse style of conservatism, supposedly motivated by biblical rectitude, inform his patronizing and ultimately dangerous attitude toward women? It is impossible to find in this reactionary figure even a trace of respect for female equality.

And now we know just how deeply embedded his pious misogyny is in the modern Republican Party that still admires Ken Starr.

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