September 14, 2022 | Reading Time: 6 minutes

Ken Starr, janus-faced moral hack, is finally dead

In short, Starr’s feelings about sexual crime depended entirely on whether he liked the person who committed it. 


Share this article

Here’s the simplest way to describe Ken Starr. When it fit his interests to talk about “morality,” he did so. When it fit his interests to defend the greatest moral reprobates in this country, he did so. 

That it was always Democrats whom Starr found morally deficient and Republicans he defended maybe isn’t so surprising. 

But given his witch hunt against Bill Clinton in the 1990s that he followed by being the greatest possible supporter of admitted sexual assaulter Donald Trump just sums up so much about today’s right. 

Starr showed no sense of boundary. He was determined to get Bill Clinton. It’s almost hard today to understand just how culturally divisive Clinton was. Yeah, he didn’t go to the Vietnam War but then neither did Starr. But he smoked marijuana when he was young and he enjoyed sex. In the 1990s, these things were outrageous.

Moreover, Starr himself oversaw one of the worst sexual violence scandals in contemporary college sports, when as president of Baylor, a conservative Baptist institution, he routinely overlooked serial rape committed by players because they won football games. 

He defended Jeffrey Epstein. 

He defended Donald Trump. 

In short, Starr’s feelings about sexual crime depended entirely on whether he liked the person who committed it. 

Born in 1946 in Vernon, Texas, Starr grew up in the town of Centerville and in the milieu of white backlash to civil rights. 

His father was a Church of Christ minister, making the family far-right, even for Texas. They moved to San Antonio before Starr went to high school and then he was off to Church of Christ affiliated Harding University. He got a draft deferment due to, um, bad skin. 

He transferred to George Washington University where he majored in history. As a historian, I issue an apology to the world on behalf of my profession, even though I wasn’t born yet when he graduated in 1968. Then it was onto Brown and Duke law schools. 

Starr clerked for David Dyer on the Fifth Circuit after his graduation from Duke. Then Warren Burger brought him on as a clerk. By the time Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, Starr was on the fast path. After a few years at a prominent Los Angeles law firm, Attorney General William French Smith brought Starr on as a counselor. Then Reagan appointed Starr to the US Circuit of Appeals for the District of Columbia, which has long been a place for rising young judges. 

At first, Starr wasn’t quite seen as conservative enough for the truly far right people in the Reagan administration. He fixed that problem. 

By the early 1990s, he was a conservative attack dog. 

That made him very useful to George HW Bush, who brought him on board as the US Solicitor General. But the real rightwingers weren’t convinced by his credentials. So when a Supreme Court nomination opened up, there was talk about Starr. Instead, Bush nominated who thought was a more reliable conservative – David Souter. 

This is a great irony given that Justice Souter became a traitor to the rightwingers for putting constitutional principles above partisanship. 

You never had to worry about that with Ken Starr! 

Disappointed, Starr considered running for the the Senate in Virginia in 1994, but did not want to run against fellow rightwing operative Oliver North. What a choice that would have been …

In 1994, Starr became the lead investigator of Bill Clinton’s Whitewater scandal when it was going nowhere. This was one of the many questionable attempts by Republicans to get Clinton. 

I do not want to excuse Clinton’s activities. I will never forgive his inability to control his personal demons and the shift of his presidency to defending himself rather than pushing policy. 

But many of the attempts to get Clinton were bogus and Starr was there for all of them. With Whitewater, there wasn’t anything there. Most certainly, there was nothing Starr could prosecute Clinton for. 

Starr showed no sense of boundary. He was determined to get Bill Clinton. It’s almost hard today to understand just how culturally divisive Clinton was. Yeah, he didn’t go to the Vietnam War but then neither did Starr. But he smoked marijuana when he was young and he enjoyed sex. In the 1990s, these things were outrageous. 

These “crimes” meant that Republicans would stop at nothing. Did Ken Starr push forward the idea that Hillary Clinton might have killed Vince Foster? Oh, you know he did. Starr would promote any lie that any enemy of Clinton from any small Arkansas town would tell. It didn’t matter. Starr didn’t care. He just wanted to take down Clinton. 

And who was Starr’s deputy in all of this? 

A young lawyer named Brett Kavanaugh. (More on him later.) 

That brings us to Monica Lewinsky. Again, I do not forgive Bill Clinton for this. But the idea that his relationship with an intern was impeachable was absurd. It was the most naked, disgustingly partisan moment of the late 20th century. It also failed miserably. 

Starr was an attack dog. He pushed the most sensational claims and engaged in repeated bouts of unethical behavior to get Clinton.

But despite what he and Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole thought, the massive overreach by Starr created sympathy for Clinton and allowed Democrats to hold on to the Congress in 1998, helping to end Gingrich’s revolting career as speaker of the House. 

Starr became the guy that the worst people in the world would come to for legal help. That includes Jeffrey Epstein. Starr became his fixer.

In 2008, he used his enormous influence to pressure federal prosecutors to let Epstein off, condemning many more girls to rape by Epstein and his friends. Starr was indirectly and knowingly responsible for letting off a disgusting criminal and while I think everyone deserves a legal defense, that’s different from working to get a sex criminal off because his friends are rich and powerful.

That Starr would defend one of the worst sexual predators in America explains his second career as president of Baylor University. 

He took the job at Baylor after a run as dean at Pepperdine School of Law, the far-right evangelical school known for its incredible campus and horrific basketball team. Training new generations of far-right lawyers? Now that was a project Starr could throw himself into!

Baylor, a Southern Baptist school as closely identified with far-right politics, saw in Starr a natural leader, especially given as they wanted to upgrade their own horrible athletics. Starr was cool with that. 

So when it turned out that a lot of the football players recruited by Baylor were engaging in sexual assault, you might have thought that Ken Starr would have had some sort of principles here. 

And he did, I guess – if the sexual activity doesn’t serve my interests, I go after it and if it does serve my interests, we will cover it up. 

That’s exactly what he did. 

When head football coach Art Briles found out that Baylor football players were raping other students, he chose to cover it up. 

Starr was indifferent to all of this, happy to participate in the cover up. As president, Starr had heard about the rumors of rape, but he simply refused to investigate. He didn’t care. The team was winning. 

Starr led in a culture of indifference to sexual assault in service of good football. This was the leadership of the once moral scold of Democratic presidents’ sexual peccadilloes. It was utterly disgusting and it finally caused Baylor to push Starr out of his job in 2016. 

Even so, Starr still remained someone the Washington press corps would talk to in order to get a “conservative” viewpoint on issues. This went far to demonstrate that there’s almost nothing conservatives can do to be banished from elite media appearances. 

During the Trump administration, I could not listen to NPR. It was too depressing. But my wife likes All Things Considered on the way to work. So once, I said OK, we can try. We turn it on and the first thing we literally hear is Steve Inskeep saying, “I’d like to welcome our next guest, Ken Starr.” I immediately turned it off. Just revolting that such a hypocrite and overseer of sexual assault could retain his media profile, not to mention a media mostly consumed by liberals. 

In fact, The Atlantic, the once great magazine today turned into a place for hot takes and rightwing fears about “cancel culture,” gave Starr a forum to discuss what he considered proper behavior of Robert Mueller in the impeachment of Trump. Of course, the answer was completely devoted to whatever Trump needed, completely ignoring Starr’s own history. Then Starr went farther, becoming part of Trump’s legal team in 2020 during the second impeachment. 

To the end of his life, Starr showed up wherever there was room for one to excuse sexual assault if it was committed by a Republican. 

When it seemed his former protégé Brett Kavanaugh might have his own Supreme Court nomination derailed by the sexual violence of his past, who was there to stand up for him? Ken Starr! 

Starr even got involved in defending child molesters who had nothing to do with the contemporary Republican Party, such as pushing for a lighter sentence for a convicted child molester in Virginia. It turned out there was no limit to unacceptable behavior.

Finally, let us revisit the greatest Starr reference ever made. This was the “Treehouse of Horror” episode in Season 10 of The Simpsons. In this, the aliens Kang and Kodos fly off to kill every politician. As their spaceship flies out, Bart yells out, “Don’t forget Ken Starr!” 

Indeed, Bart. Indeed. 

Erik Loomis is the Editorial Board's obituarist. An associate professor of history at the University of Rhode Island, he's the author most recently of A History of America in Ten Strikes (New Press). He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money. Find him @ErikLoomis.

Leave a Comment

Want to comment on this post?
Click here to upgrade to a premium membership.