Special prosecutors: ‘An impossible job’

Kenneth Starr

John Dean and Kenneth Starr, both well known for their parts in White House political scandal, talk about the subject of special prosecutors.

By Lesley Lotto/Special to The Malibu Times

Two controversial, political figures were the subject of NPR’s “Justice Talking” series, which was hosted at Pepperdine University Feb. 9.

John Dean, former counsel to Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, and Kenneth Starr, former special prosecutor during Bill Clinton’s Whitewater scandal and now Dean of Pepperdine’s School of Law, sat down with NPR radio host Margot Adler to discuss “From Watergate to Whitewater” and the subject of special prosecutors.

About 200 people attended the standing room only presentation.

The conversation alternated between the political scandals Watergate and Whitewater and included the ballyhooed Lewinskygate. The Reagan Iran Contra affair was also briefly covered, but only as an example of another investigation. Since this was a radio program, the producers played audio of news interviews during each era that will be interwoven into the show for air at a later date.

At age 31, Dean became counsel to the White House. When speaking, he recalled dates, times and places with clarity, and described specific moments in history. Dean painted Nixon as a paranoid man who lusted after power with the fervor of a rabid dog. Nixon, Dean said, wanted undying faith and loyalty from everyone around him while secretly conspiring behind the backs of many. Some students in attendance listened intently to his first-hand look at history and others rolled their eyes and shook their heads. Dean said he didn’t know he needed criminal law experience for his new job at the White House.

Dean spoke of the “Saturday Night Massacre” (Oct. 20, 1973: Nixon Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox was ordered by the president not to subpoena anymore White House tapes. That order set off several firings and resignations and the sealing off of several government offices.) and recalled how he told Nixon “there was a cancer growing on the presidency, and if the cancer was not removed, the president himself would be killed by it.” Dean was sentenced to four months in prison for his part in the Watergate cover up.

Dean said he did his best after prison to keep a low profile. When Clinton’s fall from grace became public fodder, Dean was summoned by MSNBC to be an “Anchor Buddy,” as he called it. He said even though he was passionate about remaining a private person, he soon became a public “expert” on the matter, sitting next to a news anchor all day giving his opinion.

As for his part in political scandal, Starr said he had no idea that when he went to Littlerock, Ark. to investigate “Travelgate,” he would be there as long as he was. He said he was shocked to find out there was more than one investigation (Whitewater) into Clinton when he arrived. He said special prosecutors have it rough, “even when they think they’re honorable and thorough, they will still be perceived as political and monomaniacal.”

In one audiotape played for the audience, President Clinton said, “I believe that fighting Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, Ken Starr and all those guys when they tried to take our Constitution away and invalidate the ’96 election was a worthy and noble cause.” Starr calmly recounted that the whole affair would have been over in a couple weeks if the players involved had just been forthright and honest from the start.

Audience members were allowed to ask questions of the two men, which mostly swirled around the Lewinsky affair. Adler tried to steer away from the topic, but without much success.

One audience member asked Starr “why was Monica Lewinsky treated the way she was?” Or in other words, “dragged” lawyer-less into a hotel room for hours of questioning.

Starr said she had the opportunity to get a lawyer and refused, reminding the audience that it wasn’t that bad, “this was not the most difficult place to be, the Ritz Carlton in Arlington.” He also said they followed “standard FBI procedure” and that he didn’t want to get Lewinsky involved, but the statute of law required it.

Starr said being a special prosecutor is “an impossible job,” and that he and his staff found the whole Clinton investigation “aesthetically displeasing.”

“The last thing we wanted to do was have some kind of official investigation into the sexual activity of the President of the United States,” Starr said. “This all had to do with that civil lawsuit with the individuals in Arkansas that the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously concluded could go forward against President Clinton.”

Starr further said, “1998 was a perfectly wretched, miserable year” and that he’s not an advocate of impeachment. (It was Starr’s investigation and subsequent report, according to CNN in a story online dated Sept. 11, 1998, that outlined “in damning detail … a case for impeaching President Bill Clinton on 11 grounds, including perjury, obstruction of justice, witness-tampering and abuse of power. The report offers lurid details of the sexual relationship between Clinton and ex-White House intern Monica Lewinsky.”)

Another audience member asked both men “what can be done when the president has a close, personal relationship with the attorney general.” Starr responded that if there is trust in a relationship, you still have to hold anyone accountable for his or her actions. Dean agreed.