The Saturday Profile: Mr Right goes to Washington

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WHEN AMERICA chose Bill Clinton as President, it represented a political and personal defeat for Kenneth Starr. Early in his career, this middle-aged Republican lawyer had set his sights on the Supreme Court, but Clinton's election meant that the chances of another hard-line conservative sitting on the court's individually crafted leather chairs were slim, not to say non-existent. Years of careful work in the corridors of courthouses and the White House had been, it seemed, all for nothing.

The ascent of Clinton to the White House turned out to be far more complicated for Mr Starr. For it was he who was chosen as Independent Prosecutor to investigate the President's misdemeanours, first in the Whitewater affair and now in the Monica Lewinsky case. This weekend, as President Clinton prepares to give his video-link testimony to the grand jury in Washington, the tables are, in theory, turned. It is Starr who now stands as the President's nemesis. Yet he, too, has seen a previously unflawed record tarnished.

He may appear now as an outsider, a man seeking to dent the walls of privilege. But his record shows that Kenneth Starr is a quintessential insider, one of those Washingtonians by adoption who will for ever inhabit the swiftly-revolving office doors of Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street. Over the last 20 years his experience in the White House under Reagan and Bush, and as a judge, has put him at the centre of conservative political and legal power. It was this that made Republicans see him as the ideal candidate to head the assault on the White House. Yet, in some ways, it is precisely this experience that has hampered him - and may still see all his endeavours come to naught.

The trajectory of Kenneth Starr's career traced a fine upward curve until the Clinton election. After graduation, he joined Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, the oldest and most devoutly Republican law firm in the West. He spent a year as a clerk at the Supreme Court with Chief Justice William Burger, and was paid the compliment of being asked to return. He was about to be made a partner at Gibson in 1980 when his mentor, William French Smith, was appointed Attorney General to Ronald Reagan. Starr followed him to Washington. He was swiftly appointed to the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, the second most powerful court in America and the waiting- room for Supreme Court justices. George Bush plucked him out again, making him Solicitor General - the man who pleads cases for the Administration in the Supreme Court.

Throughout these years in Washington, Starr seemed set for yet greater things. When a Supreme Court opening appeared in 1990, after Justice William Brennan retired, Starr saw his chance. But instead the post went to David Souter, a little-known but less controversial judge from New Hampshire. Starr was bitter, but another chance came with the retirement of Thurgood Marshall. Again he was disappointed. The place of the liberal judge - the first black man ever to serve as a justice - was taken by Clarence Thomas, a black conservative lawyer who became embroiled in his own saga of sexual harassment over Anita Hill. "Clarence Thomas has Starr's job," said one lawyer.

When Bush was booted out by the voters in 1992, Starr, then 46, could still have expected great things. He was relatively young, and had friends throughout the conservative legal establishment and a matchless record. He returned to private practice, this time at Kirkland & Ellis, with an office that looked out over 15th Street towards the White House and the man whose election had blocked his advance. It cannot have been too painful a retreat; he was, after all, being paid $1m a year. He was "the most valuable property to come on to the Washington legal market in well over a decade," gushed American Lawyer magazine at the time, "poised to become the Washington legal colossus of his generation." But the path to the Supreme Court was, for four years at least, blocked by the robust figure of Bill Clinton.

Ironically, the two, who face each other across the video-link between court and Oval Office on Monday, have much in common. Kenneth Winston (after the British prime minister) Starr was born on 21 July 1946; William Jefferson (after the American president) Clinton on 19 August. Both came from small southern towns - Clinton from Hope in Arkansas, Starr from Vernon, just 300 miles up the Red river in Texas. Neither served in the military during Vietnam; Clinton because he managed to wangle his way out, Starr because psoriasis classified him unfit for service. Both chose the law and politics as their method of ascent from working-class backgrounds, their career paths tracing familiar trajectories. Both are possessed by driving ambition; both made friends in high places quickly and used them to good advantage. They even graduated in Washington in the same year, 1968: Clinton from Georgetown, Starr from George Washington University, just a few miles the other side of Rock Creek Park.

Yet it is unlikely that they met in the rowdy college bars of M Street, in that year of revolution and rampage. Despite their ages, there is a very visible generation gap. Starr, in many respects, seems to have grown up in the Fifties rather than the Sixties. While Clinton was failing to inhale, travelling to Oxford and working with the civil rights movement, Starr was on a much more conservative course politically, socially and personally. "He was a good boy, not one of those who ran around at night," his mother told the Dallas Morning News earlier this year. "By the time he got to junior high, his hobby was polishing shoes," she told Time Magazine. "He polished his shoes every night, and his daddy's shoes too, just sitting down on the floor in front of the TV."

Starr, like Clinton, met President John Kennedy - the day before he was assassinated. Unlike Clinton, he never shook his hand. "I really identified with Nixon because of his rather humble roots and the way he worked his way up," he said. "I admired that really; I thought that was very much an American dream." What separates Clinton and Starr is not just a few hundred yards of Connecticut Avenue, or the wall between the judge and the politician, or even 300 miles of the Red river. Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr are divided by two visions of America, and of life itself. Both are highly religious, but in very different ways. Clinton is a Baptist, and his religion seems to be about forgiveness, tolerance of faults, and inclusiveness. Starr's faith is that of the fundamentalist Church of Christ of which his father was a minister. It is a religion that sees no leadership in men, only in God and scripture. Starr, legal colleagues say, takes a similar view of the law.

It was precisely that strict approach which brought the call to arms in 1994. The Whitewater investigation into the President's financial affairs seemed becalmed under the direction of Robert Fiske and the Congressional right wanted to kick-start it. Judge David Sentelle, another paragon of the conservative bench, chaired the three-man panel that chose special prosecutors, and he settled on Mr Starr. His ideological credentials were firm, but not so rigid that he would appear to be just an attack dog. Even his enemies could find few harsh words when he was appointed. They admitted that he had always been courteous, and played by the rules. His record was not uniformly conservative. He had, for instance, backed the Washington Post in a high-profile libel case. And he had legal experience in government that was unmatched on the political right.

Yet Starr lacks many of the key skills to negotiate the dangerous waters of an investigation. He quickly attracted criticism for what some regarded as errors of judgement and others called tactical mistakes. His office has been repeatedly attacked for leaking information, and may even have to answer questions about this in court. He has sometimes seemed to overstep the judicial mark, repeatedly extending the bounds of the investigation from the original Whitewater financial scandal - all the way to the present questions of Presidential infidelity. His methods - the wiring of Linda Tripp, for instance - have sometimes been questionable. Legal experts point out that for all his experience, he has no prosecutorial background. His record is as a litigator, a counsel and a judge.

Although his supporters say that he has always been legally correct, they concede that he has weaknesses. He has, says one Washington lawyer, "a tin ear for politics" a significant failing in the high-pressure atmosphere of Washington. He continued in private practice after accepting the job, taking leave of absence only earlier this month, and took on high-profile cases that set him against the administration: the tobacco industry, for instance. In January 1997, he almost resigned after accepting a position at Pepperdine University in California. Not only did it appear that he lacked conviction, but Pepperdine receives financial support from Richard Mellon Scaife, the millionaire arch-foe of the Clintons.

The political skills that Starr has accumulated are those of the legal pad, the late-night telephone call and the conference call. He is "a genuinely sweet and ingratiating personality that radiates credibility, integrity, judiciousness and gentility," said American Lawyer when he moved back into private practice. "He can work a room with rare aplomb," it added, describing him as the ideal "boardroom counsellor". By contrast, his opponent in the White House has spent 20 years campaigning, and knows about people. Perhaps this should not matter. After all, Mr Starr is a legal officer, not a politician. Yet the reality is that he is now in politics.

The probe into Clinton has long since left behind Whitewater. Indeed, it now seems that the only topic upon which Mr Starr will report is the Monica Lewinsky affair. If he is to succeed, he must persuade not just the grand jury of Bill Clinton's guilt but also the Congress - and, by extension, the American people. And that he has so far failed to do, for all the leaks and counter-leaks. Most remain unconvinced that the President has done anything wrong. Nearly half of citizens polled have "very little faith" that Starr's report to Congress will be fair and impartial. Few believe that infidelity alone would justify legal action against the President.

Starr will return to legal practice, perhaps as soon as next month. He will not be short of offers and is likely to become a semi-permanent figure on the Washington legal scene. He will be rich and powerful; firmly within that small coterie of Washington lawyers whose every word is money. But he won't get his Supreme Court seat. Not now.

Andrew Marshall

Life Story

Origins: A southerner, born 21 July 1946, in Vernon, Texas

Vital Statistics: Aged 52. Married to Alice Mendell, in 1970. One son, two daughters

Influences: His father was a bible-bashing barber who served as substitute minister of the local Church of Christ. His mother Vannie, now 90, brought him up strictly ("He thrived on spankings because we spoiled him")

Weaknesses: Earl Grey tea. He has never smoked nor drank, nor has he been known to swear

Career: A rapid rise as a favoured Republican lawyer. Youngest ever judge on the US Court of Appeal (1983)

By his mother:

"I sure don't think he's ever cheated on his wife. That's adultery, and he doesn't believe in that

By his enemies: "I don't think Ken Starr is out to get the truth. I think he's out to get the President." James Carville, former Clinton consultant

By himself: "I have a great faith in facts. I have a great and enduring faith in the law. Facts and law, that's what we deal in."