The Back of Virtues

The Back of Virtues

The Back of Virtues

Nov. 27 1998 3:30 AM

The Back of Virtues

How good people do bad things: The lesson of the Starr investigation.

During the past year, public opinion about Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's investigation of President Clinton has polarized into two schools. The right holds that Starr has valiantly defended justice and the rule of law against a scoundrel president. The left dismisses Starr as a duplicitous, right-wing assassin bent on destroying a president who serves the people. It took Starr months to discredit the first school. It took him a single day to disprove the second.


It's impossible to dismiss Starr's testimony before the House Judiciary Committee as the performance of a villain. Through hours of hectoring, cheap shots, and generally ill-mannered behavior from the committee's Democrats, Starr kept his composure and courtesy. He absorbed the questions seriously, answered them in a straightforward manner, and offered clear explanations for nearly every aspect of his conduct that was brought into question. He seemed honest, kind, thoughtful, and fair--a perfect independent counsel.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

And yet, Starr's investigation has been a moral disaster, the equivalent of a high-speed chase in which an armada of police cruisers crumples dozens of cars and injures scores of pedestrians in pursuit of a rowdy teen-ager. Gazing back at the wreckage, the interesting question is not the crude choice posed on political chat shows--"Ken Starr: Hero or Villain?"--but the subtler mystery more often explored in novels: How did such a good person do such bad things? How does virtue become vice?

Starr's essential virtues are his dedication to the truth, his respect for the law, and his solid moral convictions. When Clinton speaks, he looks like a confidence man trying to figure out which line to feed you. When Starr speaks, he looks like a man with nothing to hide. If I were Clinton's lawyer, I'd never let him take a polygraph test. If I were Starr's lawyer, I'd pay for one. For nearly a year, Starr has searched doggedly for the truth about the Monica Lewinsky affair, while Clinton and his henchmen have obstructed him.

What we've learned from this search is that Clinton had a shameful affair with an intern and covered it up--but also that the truth wasn't worth the search. In pursuit of the truth, Starr's agents wired Linda Tripp to record her young "friend." They confronted Lewinsky, told her she could go to jail, and suggested she would be unwise to call her lawyer or her mother. Starr tried to make a bookstore cough up records of her purchases. He sought to abridge the attorney-client privilege by commanding Vince Foster's lawyer to divulge what Foster had told the lawyer before committing suicide. He compelled Secret Service agents to testify about the president's trysts. Starr's hunt for the truth trampled privacy, loyalty, and security. At last week's hearing, he conceded that his agents had investigated whether an unhelpful witness might be obliged legally to give up her adopted child. "My investigators work very hard and diligently to find relevant evidence," Starr offered.


S tarr saw the black-and-white of truth and falsehood but not the spectrum in between. He accused Clinton of perjury--a felony--in part for playing silly word games in his grand jury testimony. Never mind that Clinton had confessed to the essential points: that he had engaged in an inappropriate relationship with Lewinsky and had tried to hide it from Paula Jones' lawyers. Convinced there could be only one truth, Starr overlooked others. He failed to see how what looked to him like a conspiracy to silence a witness in a sexual harassment case could look to the participants like a slapdash scheme to hush up an affair. And his report presented sexual truths that serve no decent purpose.

Starr's confidence that he was obeying the law insulated him from examining his behavior in moral terms. Pressuring Lewinsky to secretly tape-record Clinton, Vernon Jordan, and Betty Currie was distasteful but legal, so Starr's agents did it. "This is all traditional prosecutorial activity," Starr asserted at the hearing. Forcing Secret Service agents to testify about the president's sex life was indecent and reckless but constitutional, so Starr did it. And leaking to--or, as Starr put it, "briefing"--reporters about the case on condition of anonymity was sneaky and unfair, but Starr decided it was OK because it was legally defensible. When Clinton's lawyer David Kendall challenged the propriety of these briefings, Starr dismissively replied, "You're asking [about] press policy as opposed to constitutional issues."

By all accounts, Starr is a man of firm convictions. But firm convictions also inhibit doubt, self-criticism, and learning. The moral confidence that kept Starr admirably untroubled in the face of partisan insults during his testimony left him equally untroubled by his own genuine errors. Should he have quit the Whitewater investigation after temporarily accepting a job at a university funded by a notorious Clinton hater? Gosh, no. So pure was Starr's heart that he hadn't realized it would look bad. Later, when he sought approval to investigate the Lewinsky affair, should he have disclosed that his law firm had been contacted to represent Jones and that he had spoken to Jones' attorneys several times about constitutional aspects of their case? "It just did not occur to me," Starr candidly told the committee. Should he have disclosed months ago that he had found no evidence of wrongdoing by Clinton in the FBI files matter? Golly, said Starr, he hadn't thought it was necessary to say so.

Where Clinton invokes false subjectivity ("It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is"), Starr invokes false objectivity. His favorite cloak is "professionalism." Confronted with questions about the loaded language of his report, Starr told the committee it was "a professional product." Unable to distinguish his ego from his credo, he accused Clinton of obstructing justice by asserting executive privilege against Starr's investigation. "It's our professional judgment that the president engaged in abuse of his authority" by so doing, Starr testified. Given that Starr and his professionals were right, anyone who saw things differently was wrong. When Lewinsky's lawyer suggested that Starr's agents had detained his client improperly, Starr issued an equally one-sided press release portraying the encounter as a joint shopping and dining excursion. "I felt duty-bound to provide public information that I thought was appropriate," Starr testified. Likewise, his team often briefed reporters on background because "we have the duty to engage in a proper public information function," particularly "to combat misinformation." When Kendall asked why Starr's team conducted these briefings on background rather than on the record, Starr explained, "We do not want to in any way be part of [the] story." It wasn't necessary to disclose that the "information" had come from Starr's office, since his office was above reproach.

Starr's critics think these excesses and failures make him a bad man. But this inference oversimplifies Starr, just as he oversimplified the scandal. If conservatives are wrong to preach that the lesson of the year was the unraveling of a morally bankrupt president, liberals are equally wrong to preach that the lesson was the unraveling of a morally bankrupt prosecutor. Starr's failures stemmed not from evil but from errant good. That lesson won't suit either side's assumptions. But then, that's the point of lessons.

There is another side to this paradox. Just as Starr's virtues turned vicious, Clinton's vices sometimes turn virtuous. Lacking Starr's faith in absolute truth, Clinton sees every side of every issue. That's how he absorbed and finessed Israeli and Palestinian demands in the Middle East peace process. Lacking Starr's confidence in the law, Clinton sees where the law is too blunt an instrument to honor and promote good values. That's why his views on abortion and homosexuality emphasize religious belief and personal responsibility rather than legislative prohibition. Lacking Starr's moral certitude, Clinton recognizes his own worst instincts and is capable of transcending them. That's why he resisted the temptation to bomb Iraq Nov. 14, when the political case for it was open and shut, but the moral case was dubious. To heed the better angels of your nature, you must know the devils first.