Tales from the Inquisition The Prosecutor

Kenneth W. Starr in the tangled web of right-wing extremists, paranoids and big money

bill clinton 1998
Diana Walker/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
President Bill Clinton during a press conference in Washington, DC.
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I mean, just . . . convict the son of a bitch in the press. That's the way it's done.
Richard Nixon, July 1st, 1971 to Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, on Daniel Ellsberg

According to Webster's, to "conspire" means "to plot or contrive." Ever since Bill Clinton announced his intention to run for the presidency in 1992, there has been no shortage of people contriving his downfall. The secret recordings made by Gennifer Flowers were simply the first in a long series of dirty tricks that have been committed against Clinton, tricks that his own personal weaknesses have encouraged. For decades, the right wing has complained about a "liberal establishment" that controls the media, the courts, the universities, the large philanthropic institutions. With the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency, the far right began to build its own establishment a powerful network of journalists, scholars, publishers, lawyers and former government officials who could support one another's efforts. Today, groups like the Heritage Foundation, the Christian Coalition, the Federalist Society and the American Enterprise Institute wield enormous influence within the Republican Party. Interlocked through common board members and sources of funding, these groups have a variety of agendas. But for the past six years they have shared at least one goal and have eagerly collaborated to achieve it. They have sought to destroy Bill and Hillary Clinton.

The American right has always demonized its political opponents, accusing them of being not just wrong, but traitorous and un-American. You would think, on the basis of the anti-Clinton literature, that the man was the Antichrist, the head of the American Communist Party or even a liberal. In reality, Bill Clinton has been the most conservative Democratic president since Grover Cleveland. He has cut welfare, built new prisons, expanded the death penalty, escalated the war on drugs and offered the nation's first balanced budget in thirty years. His policies have more closely resembled those of Ronald Reagan than those of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The right-wing war against Bill Clinton has been driven by anger at his liberal past, by outrage at how the slogans and policies of the Republican Party have been usurped. Most of all, it has been fueled by an obsession with his sex life. From the filing of a civil suit by Paula Jones to the use of Linda Tripp's secret recordings, the far right has waged a well-funded and well-organized campaign to bring down the president. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, Kenneth W. Starr has helped implement the right wing's dirty tricks.

While an army of photographers was waiting for Monica Lewinsky to emerge from her mother's Watergate apartment in Washington, D.C., a few weeks ago, the twenty-fifth annual Conservative Political Action Conference was being held at a Marriott not far from the Pentagon. The event featured appearances by Newt Gingrich, Jesse Helms and Charlton Heston, among many others. Oliver North sat at a table near the escalators, broadcasting his radio show live and posing for photographs with his fans. At booth after booth in the exhibition rooms, President Clinton's fíercest opponents distributed literature that outlined his sins. The Christian Action Network handed out a pamphlet warning that the year 2000 is the "target date" for the establishment of a One World Government, as foretold in the Book of Revelation, and that "some kinds of birth control, such as Norplant" might in fact be the mark of the beast. The Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Washington Times gave away copies of its weekly magazine. The Federalist Society had a booth manned by earnest-looking young men in suits and ties. The society was founded as an alternative to the "liberal" American Bar Association. "One of the reasons people join the organization," its executive director, Eugene Meyer, later told me, "is to meet other likeminded individuals." At an upcoming Federalist Society conference in New York, one of the main topics of discussion will be "Undoing the New Deal."

I bought a copy of Gary Aldrich's best seller, Unlimited Access, at the Regnery Publishing booth, as well as The Secret Life of Bill Clinton, by British reporter Ambrose Evans-Pritchard. Aldrich is a former FBI agent who worked at the White House. In Unlimited Access, he claims that Hillary Rodham Clinton constantly shouted at her husband and ruthlessly bossed him around. Aldrich describes the first lady's hiring practices as "an affirmative-action program that favored tough, minority and lesbian women, as well as weak, minority and gay men." He claims the first lady ordered her staff to decorate the White House Christmas tree with crack pipes, syringes, heroin spoons, roach clips, cock rings and clay figurines with "large erections." He claims that gay male staff members were caught screwing in a White House office; that lesbian staffers were having sex in the White House showers; and that "Clinton staffers . . . [passed] bad checks to the handicapped man who ran the Secret Service gift shop." The new Evans-Pritchard book alleges that Bill Clinton battled an addiction to cocaine, covered up the murders of at least half a dozen people in Arkansas, secretly helped the CIA to arm the Nicaraguan Contras alongside Oliver North, and frequently visited the apartment of a former Miss Arkansas, where Clinton liked to "smoke a joint of marijuana and play old songs from the 1950s on the saxophone . . . [and] cavort around wearing her black nightdress."

Many of the right-wing groups have names with a slightly Orwellian quality. The Independent Women's Forum, for example, is an anti-feminist organization. Another thing these groups share is a wealthy and reclusive benefactor who seems like the villain of an Oliver Stone movie: Richard Scaife, a sixty-five-year-old billionaire and an heir to the Mellon fortune, who lives in Pennsylvania. His three nonprofit foundations dispersed almost $113 million between 1988 and 1994 (the years for which I have seen records), most of the money flowing to right-wing causes. Two years ago the Wall Street Journal hailed Scaife as "the conservative movement's most valuable asset . . . nothing less than the financial archangel for the movement's intellectual underpinnings." Scaife provided the funds that helped launch the Heritage Foundation in the 1970s. He has bankrolled the major groups that are seeking to destroy the Clintons. And he has become fixated on the idea that White House lawyer Vincent Foster did not commit suicide in 1993 but was murdered.

Between 1988 and 1994, the Carthage, Sarah Scaife and Allegheny foundations, controlled by Richard Scaife, gave $695,000 to the Federalist Society, more than $2 million to the American Enterprise Institute and more than $7 million to the Heritage Foundation. During that same period, Scaife's foundations contributed $1.6 million to the nonprofit entity that publishes The American Spectator. The magazine is known for its vicious attacks on the Clintons, including a notorious article that claimed Bill Clinton had once received oral sex on the playground at his daughter Chelsea's elementary school. Scaife recently cut off funding for the Spectator, angered that its editor would no longer promote the theory that Foster's suicide had been faked. Scaife's newspaper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, has published dozens of articles raising questions about Foster's death. The author of these articles, Christopher Ruddy, now thinks that Ron Brown, the secretary of commerce who died in a 1996 plane crash, may have been murdered, too.

Although groups funded by Richard Scaife have expressed moral outrage at some of Clinton's fund-raising practices, the behavior of their secretive patron has not been above reproach. During the 1972 presidential campaign, Scaife was one of the largest individual donors to Richard Nixon's Committee to Re-elect the President. Scaife gave more than $1 million to CREEP, providing the money in 334 separate gifts of $3,000 in order to avoid campaign-finance reporting laws. Scaife also secretly donated $47,000 to the Townhouse Operation, a slush fund that President Nixon established in 1970 to blackmail candidates in his own party. Nixon hoped to gain political leverage over Republicans who accepted these illegal contributions; a Texas senatorial candidate named George Bush received $112,000 from the fund. Richard Scaife has worked hard to avoid the sort of public scrutiny that his organizations devote to others. In 1981, Karen Rothmyer, then a teacher at New York's Columbia University School of Journalism, approached Scaife outside a Boston club and asked why he supported so many right-wing outfits. Richard Scaife had a blunt answer: "You fucking communist cunt – get out of here."

The current presidential crisis began not with the arrival of young Monica Lewinsky at the White House but with a December 1993 article in The American Spectator purporting to reveal Bill Clinton's sexual behavior in Arkansas. Among the episodes it described was the procurement of a young woman named Paula by Arkansas state troopers. When Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee and an aspiring actress, read the article, she assumed that "Paula" referred to her. Jones did not immediately sue the Spectator for defamation of character or invasion of privacy. Instead, her attorney tried to contact the White House through an intermediary, threatening to embarrass President Clinton publicly with the story – unless Paula Jones and her husband received money from Clinton and help finding jobs in California. "Bill's got lots of Hollywood contacts," her attorney said. After the intermediary, an Arkansas businessman, refused to relay the message, noting that the payment of hush money was illegal, Paula Jones carried out her threat and publicized her tale of sexual harassment. The forum she picked for the explosive announcement – that Bill Clinton had allegedly dropped his pants and requested oral sex from her in an Arkansas hotel room – was hardly a nonpartisan occasion. Paula Jones first told the world her story at the twenty-second annual Conservative Political Action Conference in February 1994, not long after the president's State of the Union address.

Three months later, Jones filed a civil suit against the president, claiming that the incident – which had allegedly occurred three years earlier – was the source of "severe emotional distress." A number of right-wing organizations supported Jones. Accuracy in Media (financed by Scaife) placed ads in mainstream newspapers describing the woman's plight and attacking the media for ignoring it. The Landmark Legal Foundation (financed by Scaife) offered to assist her attorneys. Judicial Watch (financed by Scaife) subsequently challenged President Clinton's use of insurance payments to cover his own legal fees. And the Independent Women's Forum (which received its first grant from Scaife that very year, in the amount of $100,000) consulted a private attorney named Kenneth W. Starr about some of the legal issues in the Paula Jones case. Starr had worked in the Justice Department during the Reagan administration and had served as solicitor general under President Bush. He planned to write an amicus brief on behalf of Paula Jones, and he advised her attorneys on at least three separate occasions. But before Kenneth W. Starr could become immersed in the Paula Jones case, he was appointed independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation, a job that by law was meant to be free of any "political conflict of interest."

The story of how Kenneth W. Starr became the independent counsel investigating the president has been labeled the "un-immaculate conception" by one of Starr's associates. The first Whitewater special counsel, Robert B. Fiske Jr., was a moderate Republican appointed to the post in 1993 by Attorney General Janet Reno and endorsed by Sen. Bob Dole and Sen. Al D'Amato. A year later, Congress passed legislation that gave a panel of federal judges the authority to appoint an independent counsel with broad powers to conduct nonpartisan inquiries. On July 1st, 1994, Reno asked the judges on this panel to keep Fiske on the job; he was in the middle of his Whitewater investigation. The following day, Sen. Lauch Faircloth, a conservative Republican from North Carolina, attacked Reno's request, claiming that Fiske's re-appointment would be "highly improper." Right-wing organizations were infuriated by Fiske's recent conclusion that Vincent Foster had indeed committed suicide. Faircloth argued that Fiske's work was tainted by conflicts of interest and that the panel should appoint "a new, truly independent counsel that will enjoy the confidence of those who seek truth and justice, regardless of party."

Two weeks later, Lauch Faircloth and his fellow Republican senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms, joined the presiding judge on the Independent Counsel Panel for a private luncheon. Judge David Sentelle, also from North Carolina, had been appointed to the U.S. Court of Appeals by President Reagan at Jesse Helms' request. Sentelle is a conservative, to say the least. His refusal to resign from private clubs that did not admit blacks or women had delayed his Senate confirmation for months. And Sentelle had written a curious essay on country music for a book called Why the South Will Survive, published in 1981. "The main appeal of the music of the South," Sentelle wrote, "is found among . . . the long-historied, little-loved descendants of the people who built half the civilized world – the Anglo-Saxons."

A few weeks after these three Republicans had lunch, the Independent Counsel Panel fired Fiske and named Kenneth W. Starr to replace him. Judge Sentelle's decision to remove Fiske was backed by the other conservative Republican on the three-man panel, Judge Joseph T. Sneed. The move took the Clinton administration completely by surprise. Judge Sentelle later said that his luncheon with Faircloth and Helms had been dominated by talk about Western wear and old friends. "To the best of my recollection," Sentelle claimed, "nothing in these discussions concerned independent-counsel matters." In 1990 Judge Sentelle had helped overturn the conviction of Oliver North. Sentelle often attended meetings of the Federalist Society, as did Kenneth W. Starr.

Previous independent counsels investigating the president have either resigned from their law firms or taken a leave of absence to prevent the slightest appearance of any conflict of interest. Kenneth W. Starr, on the other hand, continued to represent clients for his firm, Kirkland and Ellis, while serving as independent counsel, earning more than $1 million a year in legal fees and privately working closely with groups that vehemently oppose the Clinton administration – such as the tobacco industry, the Landmark Legal Foundation (financed by Scaife) and the Institute for Justice (financed by Scaife). Starr continued to serve on the advisory board of the Washington Legal Foundation (also financed by Scaife), which had called for Fiske's resignation. Prior to the current scandal, one of Starr's most overtly partisan acts in office was the issuing of a subpoena to Hillary Rodham Clinton. Starr had already interviewed the first lady several times at the White House. In January 1996, however, Starr demanded that she testify about the Whitewater scandal before a grand jury, an unprecedented move. Hillary Rodham Clinton's subpoena gained an enormous amount of publicity – no other first lady had ever been called before a grand jury – but it did not lead to an indictment. The independent counsel's subpoena was issued a few days before President Clinton's 1996 State of the Union address.

Kenneth starr's behavior in recent months has also set a number of unfortunate precedents. Starr is the first independent counsel ever to use a hidden microphone during an investigation of the president; he is also the first to threaten a president's alleged mistress with prosecution for failure to discuss her sex life. And he is the first to threaten the mother of an alleged presidential mistress.

Starr's decision to have Linda Tripp make secret recordings of her "friend" and his subsequent attempt to make Lewinsky tape the president have been defended as routine prosecutorial tactics. There is some truth to that argument. The number of federal wiretaps each year has more than doubled since Bill Clinton took office. Friends and family members are often forced to collect evidence on one another in federal drug cases. It is remarkable, however, that an independent counsel would contemplate a "sting" operation against the president of the United States in order to investigate sexual acts.

Most of the news reports concerning Monica Lewinsky have thus far been based on second- or third-hand sources. Much of the information – and disinformation – has been leaked by the independent counsel's office and by the attorneys representing Paula Jones. The many conflicting accounts have made it impossible at this point to know what actually happened. But the close relationships among many of the key figures surrounding Starr's investigation imply a good deal of discreet collaboration. Or perhaps it's just a coincidence that the Lewinsky story broke a few days before the president's 1998 State of the Union address.

The available evidence suggests that Kenneth Starr and the attorneys representing Paula Jones have been working closely together since the summer of 1997, if not longer. In July, Starr's office conceded that Vincent Foster had committed suicide, a blow to conspiracy theorists on the right. At about the same time, FBI agents employed by Starr began to investigate Bill Clinton's sex life in Arkansas – a subject irrelevant to the independent counsel's official mandate but of enormous interest to the attorneys trying to establish a pattern of sexist behavior in Paula Jones' civil suit. Starr's FBI agents even hunted for information about Clinton and Paula Jones. The president of the United States was going to be interrogated about his sexual history during the Jones case. Her civil trial would provide ample opportunity to embarrass the president and confront him with any lies about his sex life.

Linda Tripp has known Kenneth Starr since at least 1994, when she met him during the Vincent Foster investigation. Tripp happens to be a friend of Unlimited Access author Gary Aldrich, the FBI agent who claimed to have seen the cock rings on the Clinton Christmas tree. Aldrich's publisher, Alfred Regnery, has been friends with Kenneth Starr since their days together at the Reagan Justice Department. Tripp's attorney, James Moody, attended meetings of the Federalist Society and did work for the Landmark Legal Foundation, as did Kenneth Starr. Tripp's literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, has known Alfred Regnery for years. None of these facts proves the existence of any hidden conspiracy. Nevertheless, when it comes to the far right, it's an awfully small world.

One of the crucial questions that Kenneth Starr will have to answer is, How did the independent counsel's office learn what Monica Lewinsky said in her affidavit for the Paula Jones civil suit? This affidavit was sealed by order of the court. How did Starr learn that Lewinsky had denied under oath having an affair? On January 16th, Starr detained Lewinsky for questioning. A day later, Clinton gave his deposition in the Paula Jones case. Without having direct knowledge of what Lewinsky and Clinton said under oath, Kenneth Starr had little basis for launching a perjury investigation. Charges of perjury are rarely considered before a case has gone to trial. Starr's actions suggest an ongoing exchange of information between the independent counsel's office and the attorneys representing Paula Jones. The timing of President Clinton's deposition makes the whole thing seem like a trap: If Clinton denied the affair with Lewinsky under oath, Starr could charge him with perjury – and if Clinton admitted to the affair, the attorneys representing Paula Jones could embarrass him with that admission in court.

John Whitehead, one of the lead attorneys in the Jones case, is shocked, absolutely shocked, that anyone would make accusations about any collusion or conspiracy. "As far as us being partisan . . . that's the spin . . . just the spin that people are putting on it," Whitehead told Geraldo Rivera in a recent interview. "We're not playing politics . . . And no one – no one sat around and planned, 'Well, we're going to go out and do something to Bill Clinton,' you know? No one wanted to see this happen." John Whitehead is president of the Rutherford Institute, which is paying Paula Jones' legal expenses. The Rutherford Institute calls itself "a civil-liberties group." Whitehead used to be the head of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority Legal Defense Fund. When Falwell disbanded the Moral Majority in 1989, he promised that its work would be carried on by other organizations, such as the American Family Association and the Rutherford Institute. The Rev. Falwell has sold tens of thousands of copies of a video called The Clinton Chronicles, which claims that Bill Clinton has in the past been a drug addict, a drug smuggler and a murderer. Falwell has also distributed literature to his followers that warns: "Bill and Hillary Clinton have a dirty little secret . . . Clinton-appointed bureaucrats are using your tax funds to promote deviant homosexuality – In every major branch of the federal government! . . . Homosexuals training as FBI agents! . . . Taxpayer-funded gay research! . . . For your gift of any amount . . . I will send you the entire 'Special Report' on this Homosexual Invasion of our government!"

It is difficult to predict how this latest presidential scandal will end. Many of the facts of the case have yet to come out. By focusing on allegations regarding the president and oral sex – allegedly performed by one woman, refused by another – the independent counsel has sacrificed a great deal of bipartisan support that could have been put to better use investigating allegations of much more important crimes. The charges of Clinton-administration influence-peddling and illegal fund-raising have been largely forgotten amid the media frenzy about the president's sex life. Unless the independent counsel can establish presidential wrongdoing more serious than adultery and an effort to conceal it, Kenneth W. Starr will most likely retire to his Scaife-financed deanship at the Pepperdine University Law School, in Malibu, California, as a figure of ridicule and disgrace. The political discourse of this country has already been lowered a few more notches. The Deep Throat now haunting the White House is not a pseudonym but the real thing. And all the sad, sordid details of this fin de siècle Watergate – with friends secretly recording one another and a Sunday-school-teaching independent counsel who uses the FBI to interrogate women about their sex lives – seem to confirm that at least one theory of Karl Marx's might be true. History always repeats itself, Marx wrote, "the first time as tragedy; the second time, as farce."

This story is from the March 19th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 782: March 19, 1998
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