Profile: Kenneth Starr: Clinton's nemesis prays on

David Usborne on the man who is putting the President on the spot over the Lewinsky affair
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The Independent Online
WHEN Kenneth Starr takes his morning jog down to a stream near his home in Maclean, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington DC, he likes to stop for a moment to sing a hymn and pray a little. What, we might ask, will he be asking for this weekend? "God, please let there be sexual fluids of the President on Monica's dress", or, "God, please let Monica's dress be free of all stains and protect our President"?

Hopefully, the independent prosecutor will not burden the Lord with the details of his investigation into the allegations that Bill Clinton carried on an affair with Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern, especially not right now. But what is it that Mr Starr is after exactly in his probe in the President? What motivates him, after four years, to pursue every conceivable lead, the darned dress among them, is something that all Americans are entitled to wonder at. What outcome does he really hope for?

And wonder they do. The rush of headlines last week, notably covering Starr's victories in assuring that both Lewinsky and the President will at last offer their own testimonies, brought the potential consequences of his toils back into focus. This moon-faced man, about whom they know little, may be on the verge of toppling their leader and bringing untold shame and political turmoil on to their country. And all because of a quickie with a consenting female, albeit a young one, that Clinton then fibbed about.

Starr, who has just turned 52, has implied that he would prefer that his investigation would eventually exonerate the President. "For the sake of the nation, we hope for the best," he said in a speech last month. Maybe he meant it, but - and this we know - he is not the kind who will leave any stone unturned.

Whence such doggedness? The most popular theory is that Starr has become fixated by Ms Lewinsky because he has not been getting enough lately. Get laid good or take a cold shower is the advice from Main Street. Popular anger at Starr is fanned by the perceived extravagance of his venture. With a budget that has no limits, he has, by the last count, spent no less than $40m, all of it supplied by taxpayers.

The other scenario, which the White House has avidly sought to spin, is that Starr's probe has nothing to do with the law and everything to do with politics. The First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, said it herself in a television interview back in January when Lewinsky burst on the scene. She lambasted Starr as a "politically motivated prosecutor who is allied with the right-wing opponents of my husband".

About Starr's sex life we mercifully know nothing. (If only that were true about the President.) He has a wife, Alice, who works in a Virginia estate agent's, and three grown-up children. Psychologists may pause over confessions from his mother, 90-year-old Vannie Maud Starr, that she often used to give her boy a good spanking to keep him in line. "I think that spanking paid off, made a man out of him," she said recently. And then there was that picture that surfaced in the National Enquirer last March of Starr togged up in a dress. But apparently that was only a family snap of him appearing in drag in a school play.

For sure, Starr is no raver. While he and Clinton spring from the same post-World War II era - they were born within a month of each other in 1946 - and share the same backgrounds as children of the poor rural South, their life curves since have sharply diverged.

There was no dabbling in anti-Vietnam protests for Kenneth Starr, and surely no experimenting with marijuana, inhaled or not. It has been a life of conservative beliefs and apparently unerring rectitude. If Clinton is a philanderer, Starr is a moraliser, who still today volunteers to teach Sunday School and who paid his way as a student selling Bibles door-to-door. His hobby as a teenager, his mother recently told Time magazine, was, wait for it, "polishing shoes".

Kenneth Winston Starr - Vannie was an admirer of Churchill - was born in the Texas flatlands town of Vernon. His father was a preacher, who worked as a barber part time to supplement the family income. Most of Kenneth's earlier years were spent in Thalia, about 21 miles away, before his family upped sticks to San Antonio where he spent most of his childhood. It was an upbringing of churchgoing and strict values. Cursing was banned in the Starr home, as it is today in the independent prosecutor's offices in Washington. And so, of course, was drinking and smoking.

Starr's first higher education began at Harding University, in Searcy, Arkansas. Affiliated with the ultra-conservative Church of Christ, Harding has been described as the cradle of the radical Right in the United States. After two years, however, Starr transferred to George Washington University in Washington to study law. While the hippie movement was flourishing all around him, Starr persisted in attending all classes in jacket and tie.

Supporters of President Clinton today often argue that Starr's battle with the White House stems from this period: it is the cultural battle of the 1960s still playing out. And Starr was a keen supporter of the war in Vietnam. Like Clinton, he was never drafted, although in his case he was declared medically unfit because of chronic psoriasis.

Quickly absorbed by politics, Starr's first affiliations were, in fact, Democrat. At George Washington, he belonged to the Young Democrats and campaigned for Lyndon Johnson. In later years, however, he switched camps. In 1981, he went to the Justice Department, accompanying William French Smith, a colleague in the law firm he then belonged to, whom President Reagan had chosen as US Attorney General. Then, in 1983, Starr was elevated to the US Court of Appeals, becoming, aged 37, the youngest person ever to reach the appeals bench.

For President Bush, Starr served as the country's Solicitor General and started to be thought of as possible US Supreme Court material. The course of his career was suddenly redirected in 1994, however, when he was appointed to replace Robert Fiske as the independent prosecutor.

Critics of Starr have among their complaints the alacrity with which he has expanded a probe that, when he first inherited it, was still focused on a 20-year-old land deal in Arkansas called Whitewater. He has repeatedly extended the boundaries to investigate everything from the sacking by the Clinton White House of its travel staff, to the suicide of White House legal counsel Vince Foster, and the rifling through FBI files on officials from the old Bush administration.

Complaints that Starr is politically biased continue unabated. To support their claim that he is engaged in a political vendetta, his detractors point not just to his unrelenting zeal, but also to the sometimes surprisingly aggressive methods employed in his investigation. There has, for instance, been the veritable torrent of subpoenas that Starr has unleashed on Washington, forcing everyone from a tearful Marcia Lewis, Monica's mother, to members of the President Secret Service detail to appear before his grand jury.

There was also the decision to wire Linda Tripp for a meeting with Lewinsky in January, and his quest to discover what kinds of sultry books the former had been purchasing . At times, it has seemed as if Starr has been pursuing a godfather of the Mafia rather than an elected president.

Harold Ickes, the former White House aide, has been among the most outspoken of the anti-Starr camp. The prosecutor, he said recently, is simply, "out to get the President at any cost. Any means justify the end."

Friends of Starr dismiss such attacks out of hand. They depict a serious man without political grudges who is intent only on completing the job assigned to him. It is to uncover any illegal activities perpetrated at the highest level of government, up to and including any conspiracy by the President to conceal an affair with Ms Lewinsky by suborning perjury and obstructing the course of justice. That this is an honourable and necessary mission is beyond argument to Starr. If the pursuit of that truth means burdening the country with personal and occasionally sordid details of the little-blue-dress variety, then so be it. Starr himself explained this in a speech delivered in Texas in May. "The point of criminalising false statements and perjury in the first place is that lies and half- truths corrode our system of justice," he said. "If we look the other way, as citizens and as lawyers, then we allow our weightiest disputes to be resolved on skewed information - and the full story never gets told."

The irony is that Starr is among those who thinks the whole system of independent prosecutors, set up by Congressional statute in 1978, is wrong and should be reined in by reform. But, for now, the position exists and is his - a position that arguably this weekend is the most powerful in the nation's capital, because on its labours depends the future of the President himself and, indeed, of the office of the President. Vannie Starr recalls that as a boy, Kenneth used to play dominoes alone.

Now he is engaged, reluctantly or otherwise, in a different kind of dominoes game, the toppling variety.