Exit Stage Right

Press Winks As Starr Tries To Dodge Accountability

Last week, as the newspapers spilled tons of ink on the latest sparring between the Republicans and the Clintons, independent counsel Ken Starr quietly launched a rehabilitation tour, speaking to students and business leaders and granting selected interviews. The tour, and the PR spin that has accompanied it, seem designed to pave the way for Starr to return to the private sector before his investigations to the private sector before his investigations are complete— a move he hopes to pull off with his credibility intact. But will the media let him do it?

The New York Times and The Washington Post have been mum on Starr's latest exit strategy, but there may be reasons why. In August, when the news broke that Starr wanted to go back to his lucrative law practice, both papers called on him to stick around and complete the job he started. And last week, the editorial boards had something more concrete to tackle: the news that a federal appeals court had cleared Starr's office of leaking grand jury information to the Times.

On September 15, a Post editorial leaped to Starr's defense, declaring that the unfounded leak allegations were just one more aspect of a "coordinated smear campaign" against him. The next day, the Times adopted a more neutral tone, concurring with the court ruling and advising the White House not to appeal it. The response boded well for the independent counsel (IC).

But Starr watchers are waiting for the other shoe to drop. There has been no official word on the status of a related investigation, launched last year by special master John Kern III to determine whether Starr's office had illegally leaked information that appeared in 24 news articles and broadcasts. The Post may know more than it is letting on, because its September 15 editorial speculated that "at least some" of those 24 leaks "may be found not to have involved grand jury material after all." That hunch was corroborated by The Washington Times, which reported on September 16 that Kern had already delivered his report, clearing Starr's office on all charges. The source for this scoop was anonymous, but if it's true, Starr certainly has new cause to swagger.

Still, few pundits are defending the man's comments of last week. At a Town Hall meeting in Los Angeles, Starr repeated his long-held conviction that the law that created his office is unconstitutional. He confessed that it was a "serious blunder" on his part to have taken on Filegate and Travelgate, and that in retrospect, "I think it would have been much better for the country for the Lewinsky matter to have been handled by another independent counsel."

The speech was covered by the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, but didn't get much play on the East Coast. The only comment on Starr's attempt to deflect responsibility for Monicagate came from Washington Post columnist Al Kamen, who quipped, "Now he tells us." The quip turned up in a tiny item in the Sunday Daily News, but no one called Starr on his hypocrisy: If he truly thinks the IC law is unconstitutional, how does he justify spending five years and $50 million only to come up empty-handed? Now that Congress has canned his impeachment effort and left the IC law for dead, why can't he take a hint, hunker down, and issue a final report?

Absent pointed critique, at least some media outlets are charting Starr's movements. The Los Angeles Times reported that Starr recently spoke to students at Yale University and that, after the Town Hall meeting, Starr met with editors of that West Coast newspaper. Two days later, Fred Graham interviewed Starr for DC Insider, a new show on Court TV. Appearing from Palo Alto, Starr again said he was sorry he took on the Filegate, Travelgate, and Lewinsky investigations. He brushed aside his image as a rabid partisan, blaming it on the IC law, whose structure had inadvertently "personalized" these matters.

After the interview, Graham posited that Starr was trying to "take some of the sting out of the allegations that he had a vendetta." Two of his three panelists didn't buy Starr's defense, but The National Journal's Stuart Taylor did, saying that Starr's decision to take on multiple investigations had allowed certain people to "demonize" him, including Hillary Clinton and James Carville. (Taylor is hardly a neutral commentator, having discussed taking a job as Starr's adviser in 1998.)

There is more evidence to support the proposition that Starr has launched a coordinated PR campaign. On September 19, the New York Post ran an editorial on the leak allegations, declaring that Starr had been "unjustly vilified." The Post blamed Clinton's attorney David Kendall for trying to "delegitimize" the Lewinsky investigation. And on August 30, The Washington Post business section ran an article that read as if it had been planted by Starr supporters. The article asked how Starr's partisan image will affect him when he returns to private practice— the question that matters most to the partners at Starr's former law firm, Kirkland & Ellis. The answer, according to the Post: Starr will once again rake in the corporate clients, both because he won most of his court cases as IC and because of his reputation as a schmoozer and strategist. Indeed, it appears Starr's failed impeachment bid actually "enhanced his marketability."

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