• U.S.

Clinton’s Crisis: Ken Starr, Gumshoe

5 minute read
Margaret Carlson

Last week America learned there was probable cause to believe the President betrayed his wife, his daughter and his country. Whether or not it is finally proved that he had an affair with a 21-year-old intern and then tried to cover it up, he behaved irresponsibly enough to enable prosecutors to expand what started out as an investigation of an Arkansas land deal into a fishing expedition for intimate details of his daily–and nightly–life.

What gives this the overtone of Greek tragedy is how utterly avoidable it was, if the President had exercised the slightest bit of restraint. Already given a lot of slack by voters who believed he was an adulterer but elected him anyway, the President had only to comply with the minimal standard of presidential marital conduct: Don’t have sex in the White House with a woman not your wife (no one thought to add “intern”). In these sexually perilous times, we all know lawyers and businessmen who won’t meet in a hotel room with a colleague of the opposite sex. But Clinton, fighting accusations that while Governor he exposed himself to a female state employee, is now accused of behavior so reckless, so arrogant, so tawdry that if the charges turn out to be true, he should be ashamed to show his face, much less brag that he is going about “business as usual.” None of the rest of us can. We feel his shame.

Thanks to Clinton we have two other problems: having to explain to the kids over Cheerios not the significance of a visit to Cuba by the most famous celibate in the world but just why it is that a perky anchorperson is talking about something called oral sex. The second, perhaps more lasting problem is the legal precedent set by this ballooning investigation. Until last week, the criticism of independent counsel Kenneth Starr went largely to his unchecked power. Former Republican independent counsel Joseph diGenova calls the whole setup “a constitutional monstrosity.” Now we watch as a prosecutor gunning for a President uses tactics to dig up dirt that would make NYPD Blue’s Detective Sipowicz blanch. Starr not only pulled a sting on a former White House intern but reportedly planned to wire her to run one on the President himself, as if he were John Gotti.

Consider Starr’s response when Monica Lewinsky’s “friend,” Linda Tripp, brought him 20 hours of surreptitiously recorded conversations. He wired Tripp, listened in and then three days later instructed her to lure Lewinsky once again to a Virginia hotel for lunch. Instead of a sandwich with Tripp, Lewinsky, now 24, got a raft of agents swooping down on her. At 1 p.m. they took the stunned Lewinsky to a set of rooms and commenced an on-again, off-again interrogation that would last 10 hours. Starr’s office said she was free to leave at any time, but her lawyer, William Ginsburg, said she was “restrained by mental coercion. She was crying and screaming and yelling…They told her if she left she’d be subject to immediate prosecution. This kid was beside herself.” He described it as “a treatment for NYPD Blue.” Throughout this ordeal, Lewinsky had no lawyer present.

If a prosecutor appointed to unravel a land deal (remember Whitewater?) bootstraps himself into a civil suit and thereby compels testimony about the most intimate matters, we will soon have a government that can get to anyone. Everyone has something embarrassing to hide. When we aren’t all dealing with a President we’re ready to string up, this unfettered intrusion may be what haunts us most. What a Hobbesian choice: lie and face prison or tell the truth and face public humiliation. The perjury follows, even though the act–reprehensible though it might be–did not flow from official duty. No one should lie, but Big Brother shouldn’t ask. This all comes by way of a prosecutor who before he took the appointment was ready to file an amicus brief supporting Paula Jones. Now he’s her amicus, all right; the course of her case is in Starr’s hands as much as anyone else’s.

You don’t have to have a moment’s sympathy for the President to know that this convergence of Jones, Starr and the FBI is not right. No one is worried much about civil liberties when Sipowicz is browbeating the bad guy on NYPD Blue. But the latest Washington drama is for real. As Starr disgraces the Judicial Branch and Clinton the Executive one, things once lost–like respect for privacy, the presidency and proportion–cannot be retrieved. Next up: perhaps the Legislative Branch, to stage a trial blending the worst of Watergate and Melrose Place, a show so repulsive it might even shame Ken Starr.

–With reporting by Viveca Novak/Washington

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