Ken Starr, who died at age 76 in Houston on Tuesday as a result of complications from surgery, was known for his righteousness. But if his life contains one lesson for the rest of us, it is a reminder that right and righteousness are different things. Sometimes, by happy coincidence, they overlap. But Starr’s outward piousness allowed him to rise to positions in which his moral blind spots enabled him to do real damage.
Starr showed great promise. Born in 1946 in Vernon, near Wichita Falls, the son of a Church of Christ minister, Starr attended law school at Duke before becoming involved in the conservative legal circuit. He was appointed in 1983 by President Ronald Reagan to serve on the influential D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, where he was a contemporary of Antonin Scalia. He then served as the George H. W. Bush administration’s lawyer in front of the Supreme Court, where his unfailing politeness and geniality earned him the nickname “the solicitous general.” When he stepped down in 1993, he had accomplished more than most lawyers do in a lifetime, and he was set to earn fabulous riches or while away his time as a conservative legal luminary in an ivory tower. If he had, he would have died Tuesday in relative obscurity.
Instead, he is notable primarily for three episodes in the back half of his life. He is most famous to Americans for his role as independent counsel during the Clinton administration, and later on for his legal defense of the billionaire pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. In Texas, he is also known for his time as president of Baylor University, an office he was forced out of amid revelations the school had failed to respond adequately to endemic sexual assault among students. In each case, Starr argued that he had done what he was supposed to do, what was required. But throughout, he showed an incuriosity about the implications of his actions.
Today, some like to paint Starr as a right-wing hack who set out to get the Clintons at all costs when he was named an independent counsel in 1994, tasked by some federal judges with continuing an investigation into Whitewater, the colloquial name for a cluster of allegations of financial impropriety by the Clintons and their allies in Arkansas in the 1980s. Under Starr, the independent counsel’s office became a little justice department with a team of dozens whose remit kept expanding and expanding until one day it seemed to encompass everything.
But what is perhaps most interesting about Starr’s role is that it did not start out that way. True, his investigations into mostly forgotten allegations of impropriety—Travelgate, the Madison Guaranty case—proceeded at a snail’s pace, but they uncovered some actual wrongdoing on the edges of the Clintons’ circles. (Fifteen Arkansans either pleaded guilty or were convicted as part of the Whitewater investigation for financial crimes related to real estate transactions, though none were especially close to the Clintons.) Starr was willing to exonerate the president in other cases even if he took a long time to do so. When his office issued a 137-page report finding that friend of the Clintons and deputy White House counsel Vince Foster committed suicide (and was not murdered, as the right suggested), Starr was lambasted by right-wing media for going easy on the Clintons and perhaps even being part of the cover-up himself.
Then, in 1997, Starr actually tried to quit. In some ways, it was the great inflection point of his life. He was offered a post at sunny Pepperdine University, and new leads in the Whitewater case seemed to be drying up. But the backlash was immediate and harsh, and not just from the right. In the pages of the New York Times, the nation’s premier conservative columnist, William Safire, called Starr a “craven counsel” who was surrendering to the Clintons prematurely. The paper’s editorial board called his decision to leave “irresponsible and a disservice to the nation.”
Starr pledged to stay. If his critics wanted blood in the water, that’s what he would give them. He began to sound, and act, more zealous. Starr was ambitious—he had even at one point considered running for Senate, and he dreamed throughout his career about a seat on the Supreme Court—and it was important to keep in good standing with the movement. A New York Times profile from that year called him “trapped,” noting that “as if to defy his critics, Starr has become increasingly combative toward the White House in the months since his aborted resignation.”
Along came Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky, as a 22-year-old White House intern, had an affair with the president, and Starr’s office caught wind of it. Clinton had lied about the relationship in a sworn deposition in an unrelated case, which opened up the question of perjury. After years of rooting around the archives in Little Rock, Starr’s office had been handed exactly the kind of thing his critics had been pining for.
Plenty of court battles in American history have been called the “trial of the century,” but we can perhaps call the Clinton impeachment the trial of the end of the century, America’s fin de siècle. The 453-page Starr Report, which set off the impeachment, is one of the most singular documents the American government has ever produced. It found that the president had committed impeachable offenses. But it was also an unnecessarily exhaustive accounting of a 22-year-old’s affair with a very powerful man that related almost minute by minute what orifice was used when and how, what objects were inserted where, and the instances of “oral-anal contact.” It was rendered in graphic detail that seemed designed to humiliate the woman and, indirectly, the president, which is no doubt why some 12 percent of Americans were estimated to have read part of it, downloading the report from the early internet. It was a circus for a bored and self-indulgent nation. This exceedingly strange and prurient document, whether Starr knew it or not, represents the summit of his career in public life.
In the quarter century since the scandal broke, there has been a minor reckoning about the contemporary treatment of the scandal’s only sympathetic party, Lewinsky. While Starr and the White House battled, they seemed to agree on one thing, a conviction they shared with the nation’s late-night TV hosts: Lewinsky was a slut undeserving of empathy. The Clinton White House slimed her through back channels, while Starr and his team subjected her to unimaginable indignity in their effort to prove the president had lied.
Starr would often say the Lewinsky case had been misunderstood by nearly everyone. It was not about sex, he said, but about lying. And though he’s right, in the strict sense that the impeachment trial concerned the charge of perjury and obstruction of justice, the wider scandal, as with everything in America, was obviously about sex. The case was the ritual humiliation of a powerless young woman for the sins of a very powerful man, for the political benefit of other powerful men. Starr led and directed it, and his actions helped ensure that it turned out that way.
Clinton survived impeachment, and public opinion turned against the independent counsel’s office. In 1999, Starr stepped down. In the years after, Starr took up a number of high-profile cases. He did some good, defending several men on death row that he felt were wrongly convicted. (Years later, he also joined Donald Trump’s legal defense team during his first impeachment trial, arguing that the mechanism of presidential removal had become overused, a truly remarkable turnaround.) But his most significant role was as part of Jeffrey Epstein’s defense team. Starr helped Epstein, a child sex trafficker who had abused dozens of underage girls over decades, obtain a shockingly lenient secret plea deal in 2007 that shut down an ongoing FBI investigation and saw Epstein sentenced to thirteen months of work release in a private wing of a Palm Beach jail before going about his merry way.
Crucially, the plea deal would be secret—with Epstein’s victims not told that he had received it. According to Julie Brown, the reporter who helped crack open the Epstein case in later years, Starr was a “fixer” whose political connections were essential to Epstein’s victory. Starr waged a “scorched-earth” campaign that leveraged his relationships with high-ups in the Justice Department to halt the efforts of those trying to go after Epstein.
Because America has an adversarial system of justice, there’s a strong norm that we don’t hold defense lawyers accountable for the crimes of their clients. That’s especially important to uphold when the accused are outcasts who are in need of good representation, perhaps because they face a strong social stigma. But defense lawyers do not receive blanket immunity from moral accounting. Starr chose to join Epstein and leveraged not just his legal brain but his own political connections to help Epstein avoid true accountability, an accomplishment for which he was doubtless well compensated.
In 2019, Starr spoke about the case to a friendly audience on Laura Ingraham’s Fox show. He said he had come on board Epstein’s defense only to argue “constitution federalism points,” the question of whether the Feds had the right to prosecute what he argued were more properly state crimes. Everyone involved had acted properly, he said.
But his relationship with Epstein persisted. In 2021, Judi Hershman, who advised Starr when he was independent counsel and was his friend for decades, wrote that Starr approached her in 2010 to ask whether she would be willing to offer her media consulting services to a “very wealthy, very smart businessman who got himself into trouble for getting involved with a couple of underage girls who lied about their ages.” When Hershman asked Starr why he was defending Epstein, she recalls Starr saying that “everyone deserves representation, Judi,” adding that “he promised to keep it above eighteen from now on.” Of course, Epstein didn’t, and he used his years of freedom to traumatize more girls. America’s foremost moral inquisitor of the 1990s had, in effect, become an enabler of the twenty-first century’s most famous sex criminal.
In 2010, the same year Hershman says she was approached, Starr was named president of Waco’s Baylor University, the nation’s great Baptist college. Under his tenure the school outwardly prospered, most notably building a $266 million football stadium. In 2016, he was fired as president by the board of regents amid revelations his administration had suppressed and covered up reports of rapes and sexual misconduct. He said it was not for cause and resigned his chancellorship. It was effectively the end of Starr’s public life.
Texas Monthly, among others, covered the heartbreaking and difficult details of the Baylor case. Fifteen women sued the school, charging that the university had done little in response to their reports of sexual abuse. A report authored by the law firm Pepper Hamilton found that students were sometimes intimidated or retaliated against for reporting crimes. Staff with the football program sometimes met with victims who alleged rape against members of the team, but then neglected to report the allegations to anyone else at the college.
In a carefully reported story for Deadspin, Jessica Luther and Dan Solomon (now a Texas Monthly senior editor) noted that Baylor, which has long defined itself by its adherence to a strict moral code, had a depressingly venal reason to cover for the football team. Baylor’s ambitions—to become “the Baptist answer to Notre Dame”—required ever more money, and a successful team meant happy donors.
Starr consistently argued that he had been behind a “veil of ignorance,” unaware of any problem until shortly before his dismissal. But what Starr did and said after the scandal was over is revealing. Soon after his departure, he was interviewed by Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith. Starr stood accused by Baylor’s critics of having been complicit in the immiseration of dozens of young women, either through culpability or inaction. He recognized the seriousness of this charge and sought to defend himself. But he remained consistent in his belief that he and his career had been the main victims of the episode. When Smith said the scandal had been Christmas for journalists, Starr sourly said that he had received “a lump of coal.”
Starr denied acting to protect the football team, and he would not concede that Baylor had any problem with sexual assault more severe than what amounted to the “background level” at American colleges. He picked apart Smith’s questions, attacking their premises or dodging them entirely. He sounded a bit like . . . well, Bill Clinton, whose depositions famously included ruminations on the meaning of the word “is,” among other matters. Starr said he had always been concerned by the more-general issue of campus safety. But as to the questions about systemic sexual assault at the school and the enforcement of applicable federal laws, he said “it had not been raised; it had not been brought to my attention” and had not surfaced as a “question of policy.”
This, he seemed to think, was exculpatory. But as the leader of the institution, particularly an institution that prides itself on providing a safe space for often-sheltered young Christian students, he had a moral obligation to take an interest in these matters even if no one was actively flagging them. His expressed lack of curiosity about rape on Baylor’s campus was especially galling in the Smith interview, as he followed it by demonstrating a detailed knowledge of what had happened to Baylor’s sports teams during the period.
Elsewhere, Starr famously said that he had been relieved of command because “the captain goes down with the ship.” That’s one version of what we expect from leaders. The more righteous aphorism is “the buck stops here.”
“Truth is a bedrock concept in morality and law,” Starr used to say as a prosecutor.
On June 1, 2016, he sat for an interview with KWTX, a local news station in Waco. In tow was a woman Starr identified as a “family friend.” The reporter showed him an email a different woman had sent Starr with the subject line “I was raped at Baylor.” Had Starr seen the email when he was president of the university?
“I honestly may have. I’m not denying that I saw it,” he said. The “family friend” interrupted the taping to ask that the answer not be used. The reporter said no, so the friend, actually a crisis-management PR professional who previously worked in the Reagan White House, took Starr out of the room. When he returned, he gave a different answer. “I’m honestly going to say, I have no recollection of that.” He turned to his consultant and asked on camera, “Is that okay?” He then gave a third answer. “The president of the university gets lots of emails,” he said. “I believe that I would remember seeing such an email,” he said, but said he didn’t.
The tragedy of Starr’s life, indeed, is what he didn’t see. In some quarters, Starr’s problems at Baylor and his defense of Epstein are set in opposition to his role in the 1990s—a moral crusader who later failed to uphold his own values. But looked at another way, there’s a common thread. Starr didn’t really see young women at Baylor, or Epstein’s young victims, as deserving his full consideration, in the same way that he didn’t seem to see Lewinsky as deserving of it—at least, relative to the needs of men. In each case, there was something else that grabbed his attention—his turn in the spotlight, his wealthy client, the football team.
Starr was doubtless kind to women in his life. But there was something crucial missing in his vision. At some point long ago, he lost sight of what was right.