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A Conversation with Ken Starr

He added the phrase “Independent Counsel” to the national vernacular. His name is associated with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
Yet Kenneth W. Starr says he never sought the place on the national stage that became his as special prosecutor during the Clinton years. His role began in 1994 with a request to investigate Whitewater, an Arkansas real estate deal, and gained international notoriety as it came to involve Lewinsky.
But for Starr, such duties — which extended for years — were unasked, unsought.

The investigation unearthed details of the president’s private life, yet Starr’s own roots and spiritual convictions remained outside the spotlight. Born in Vernon, Texas, he earned a law degree at Duke University, Durham, N.C., and was clerk to Chief Justice Warren Burger from 1975-77.

Starr argued 25 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court as solicitor general of the United States from 1989 to January 1993.

While his credentials may have put him in the role of independent counsel for five investigations, Starr says it was his faith and daily time in the Bible that carried him through “the recent unpleasantness,” as he terms it.

After the investigations ended in 1999, Starr resumed his legal practice and focused on writing. Released in 2002, his book, First Among Equals: The Supreme Court in American Life, explains key decisions made by the nation’s highest court. In August 2004 he began his tenure as Dean of the Law School at Pepperdine University, Malibu, Calif. Starr and his wife, Alice, have three children — Randy, Carolyn and Cynthia.

What are your ties to churches of Christ?

My father went to Freed-Hardeman (University) for two years. Throughout his life, he was a minister and plied his trade as a barber in Texas and Oklahoma.

He was a member of the church in Clayton, Okla. I went to Harding (University) for a year and a half. However, I felt I needed a place with broader horizons and transferred to George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

I was guided there by a former member of the Harding faculty, Gene Rainey at American University.

While at George Washington, I worshiped at the 16th and Decatur church and taught the high school Sunday class. As the years went on, I moved into evangelical Christianity. I worshiped for many years at the McLean, Va., Bible church. Now we are worshipping at the University church on Pepperdine’s campus, which we love. I am thankful to be worshipping again in the churches of Christ.

Were you naturally drawn to the law as your profession?

I was. I was tempted at George Washington to go off to some divinity school, and I thought I might be called to ministry. I wanted to do it in a kind of “Abe Malherbe at ACU fashion” and then go to Yale or Harvard divinity school. It was a close call between that and law school.

What was your situation when you were called to be special prosecutor?

I was minding my own business. By virtue of the election of 1992, I had lost my job as solicitor general of the United States under President Bush. After Clinton’s victory I was invited to leave, so I left my responsibility at the Justice Department on Inauguration Day, 1993.

I resumed the private practice of law, and taught as an humble adjunct professor in the school of law at New York University.

So I was minding my own business, and the call came in the summer of 1994.

What can you tell us about your role as investigator?

The task was an unwanted one. I didn’t seek it, but it had to be done under the law — “it” being, first, the Whitewater investigation, which ended unhappily for Arkansas with the conviction of a sitting governor, the conviction of James and Susan McDougal, the conviction of Webster Hubbell, who was associate attorney general under President Clinton, and a number of others. I had hoped I would find in Arkansas the remains of a failed land deal in which the president and First Lady lost money, and that would be the end of the story.

But it was not to be.

As time went on, I was asked by attorney general Janet Reno to take on additional investigative responsibilities: the travel office investigation, the FBI files investigation, and then, of course, the Lewinsky phase of the investigation — by far the most deeply controversial for the country.

How were you able to weather such a difficult time?

At the end of the each day, I would come home and try to be a dad. In addition to helping the kids with homework, I would spend time in the scriptures. I think I was more dutiful in being daily in the Word as a result of that time and the challenge. I started doing the one-year-through-the-Bible readings. I began systematically reading Psalms and Proverbs, and the book of James. I spent a lot of time in Acts, to compare my very simple plight with that of the apostle Paul.

I was strengthened by prayer and said, “This is way over my head, so far above my pay grade that I have to ask you for wisdom and guidance.”

How did the investigations and media attention affect your family?

Well, my children grew up on me. All three were at home when I began the investigation in 1994. My son, our oldest, was a sophomore in high school.

Our daughter (and middle child) was in junior high. She graduated in 1998 from high school. Those last months were unhappy months for the entire family because the Lewinsky phase of the investigation had begun. Cynthia, our youngest, was in elementary school when it began and in high school when it was over.

I am very thankful that our family came through it so well and so strong. The person most physically daunted was our middle child, Carolyn, who was under a death threat. The FBI and U.S. Marshall service were very good at ferreting these things out, but she had to have round-the-clock security for a full year.

Did it ever shock you that you were suddenly a world figure?

I tried not to think about it and only to stay focused. I never walked around the office or went to the courthouse or anywhere else without being upbeat — like Teddy Roosevelt — when the going gets rough, we get going. For the sake of the country, my view was “let’s get this thing over with.”

Why did you choose Pepperdine when you could have gone anywhere?

It’s a Christian university with a wonderful mission and vision. In 1991, when I was solicitor general, the phone rang and it was the attorney general. He asked me to go to Pepperdine and handle moot court finals, and I did. I fell in love with the entire community.

Part of the current opportunity is that Pepperdine is poised to have a marvelous impact globally. One thing we have done is emphasize resolving disputes through less expensive and less rancorous means, such as mediation.

What are your dreams? Do you aspire to the Supreme Court?

I will gladly welcome an open door that God sees fit to open, but having said that, I am content in all things and do not have an aspiration in the sense of an ambition to serve, given all the circumstances — including the very divisive investigation.

My dream is to be a servant leader of the law school, to help build and edify the Christian mission of the law school and Pepperdine.

What is your bedside reading?
The One-Year Bible, C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, which I read every couple of years, and The Screwtape Letters. I love A Severe Mercy. Also Charles Dickens. I love biographies — like the just-published Joseph Ellis biography of Washington.

Is the realm of faith changing in the nation, or is the change momentary?

Inherent in the human condition is the search for meaning and purpose. The social isolation factor is increasing, the workplace is increasingly demanding, and so that search for meaning and purpose will have its outlet somewhere.

Increasingly, studies are showing that those in higher education want to feed the soul. The dean of Memorial Church at Harvard has said there are more evangelical Christians at Harvard than at any time since 1775. Something is going on that is very powerful, and you sense it.

Filed under: Dialogue Staff Reports

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