It was Thursday, Jan. 15, 1998, and I was feverishly trying to nail down what I expected would be the biggest political scoop in Washington in years. I had learned that independent counsel Ken Starr had launched a secret investigation into President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.
That afternoon, I confronted Starr’s top aides in their office and told them I would need them to comment — one way or another — in the next two days, in time for my deadline at Newsweek. After some tense discussions, I headed out, but took a detour for the men’s room.
It was there that I ran into Ken Starr himself — washing his hands in the sink, a conspicuous ink stain on his white shirt, and as cheery and amiable as they come.
“Mr. Isikoff, good to see you,” he said with a broad smile on his face.
It was a surreal encounter to say the least. Did Starr even know what I was talking to his top aides about? A few moments of awkward, irrelevant conversation ensued, during which Starr never lost his bonhomie. As I later wrote in “Uncovering Clinton,” my book about the Lewinsky matter: “If Starr had the slightest idea that he was about to plunge the country into a political crisis, he didn’t show it. The affable prosecutor seemed oblivious.”
There were lots of twists and turns during my reporting on all this, including a last-minute decision by Newsweek editors to hold my story a few days later — a journalistically inexplicable move that Matt Drudge soon blasted out to the world.
But the bizarre bathroom scene came to mind Tuesday night, when I read about Starr’s death from complications during surgery at the age of 76.
Starr had many accomplishments during his long career — serving as a federal Court of Appeals judge and a U.S. solicitor general among them. At one point, he was on the short list for the Supreme Court. But he will always be most remembered for his tenure investigating Bill Clinton — a politically fraught assignment for which he was singularly unsuited.
Starr had no prosecutorial experience when he was tapped by a three-judge panel to serve as independent counsel to investigate Bill and Hillary Clinton’s involvement in an obscure Arkansas land deal known as Whitewater. The investigation dragged on for years, driven in part by the determination of some of his senior aides to nail the first couple, for what they were convinced was a massive cover-up of fraudulent dealings from years before Clinton even became president.
Despite some early successes (Starr did convict the Clintons’ Whitewater business partners of fraud, as well as the governor of Arkansas), the investigation hit a roadblock, and Starr’s probe seemed to be winding down. Then, through the back door, Starr’s aides got the Lewinsky allegations — explosive to be sure, but far afield from the land deal he was assigned to investigate.
More savvy and experienced prosecutors, with a better feel for the real-world political fallout from their actions, might have hesitated and questioned whether launching a full criminal investigation to get to the truth of this particular matter, using the full resources of the FBI, was warranted. But when it came to politics, Starr was a babe in the woods. He breezily went along with his staff’s decision to launch the probe and then relentlessly pursued it in the face of ferocious attacks by Clinton’s defenders.
In the end, of course, Starr proved his case. A DNA test of Lewinsky’s semen-stained blue dress showed that she and Clinton did indeed have a sexual affair that began during a period she was a White House intern. But for many Americans, the seemingly ham-handed efforts by Starr to nail Clinton seemed the bigger crime — and forever tarnished his reputation.
What toll it took on Starr himself is hard to say.
During the height of the attacks on his character and conduct, Starr — a man of deep faith — would console himself every night with prayer, bucking himself up for the next day’s combat. But as always, he was just as he was in the bathroom on that fateful day I encountered him: upbeat, cheerful and completely out of touch.