Ken Starr: A changed man or politically correct?

The recently appointed dean of the Pepperdine School of Law talks about what he learned from his experiences.

By David Wallace/Special to The Malibu Times

Time can change perceptions, at least when it comes to Kenneth Starr, the former Whitewater independent counsel.

Interviewed recently on the telephone, the high baritone voice of Pepperdine’s newly appointed law school dean, who became a lightning rod for the emotions raised during the Clinton impeachment process, sounded warm, ebullient, and, well, friendly.

Has Judge Starr changed? (His title derives from a 1983-89 stint as a U.S. Court of Appeals judge). Or is he just being politically correct?

When asked if Whitewater and its aftermath changed him, his response sounded both sincere and politically correct. “It was sobering and sad to go through that and for the nation to go through that time,” he said. “I learned a lot, especially the need to be very dutiful and conscious of doing one’s utmost with complete integrity and candor.”

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Nevertheless, judging from the reaction to his appointment, Starr remains divisive.

In announcing his appointment, Pepperdine President Andrew Benton said, “Ken Starr has served with grace and with distinction throughout his career-in the classroom of America’s finest law schools, clerking for a Supreme Court Justice, as a partner at two of the nation’s most prestigious law firms, serving as a federal judge, presenting cases as our nation’s Solicitor General, and illuminating the law as a scholar and author … His career has exemplified the highest ethical standards and unqualified personal and professional integrity. He will serve as a role model not only for our students, but for the entire Pepperdine community.”

Yet Robert Weiner, head of a Washington, D.C. political consultancy firm who served for six and a half years as communications director for Clinton’s “drug czars,” passionately disagrees. He and his wife were subpoenaed by Starr’s grand jury, apparently seeking to find efforts to discredit Linda Tripp, a suburban Maryland neighbor of the couple.

Weiner suggests in a letter to the editor in The Malibu Times that, under Starr’s leadership, “… law students at Pepperdine will learn from the top that it is all right to investigate consensual sex when no one complains, tape friends’ conversations without permission … secretly subpoena home phone records of innocent witnesses and force them to testify in front of grand juries about private conversations with friends … and claim you are doing all this for the good of the nation despite virtually all precedents protecting privacy and First Amendment rights.”

Retired Judge Ralph Erickson, president of the Malibu Democratic Club, said, “Until he took over the Whitewater/Bill Clinton sex investigation, Mr. Starr had an impressive record. Unfortunately, he went to extremes and demonstrated a prurient interest in matters that were really not relevant to President Clinton’s constitutional responsibilities.”

Starr is aware of the controversial nature of his appointment, and, Weiner asserts, he has long sought to rehabilitate his reputation. When asked his feelings about being surrounded in Malibu by many Clinton supporters, Starr ducked. “Malibu is a diverse community,” he said, and then quickly changed the subject. “It is a homecoming in a way for Alice (his wife of 34 years) and me. We’ll be returning to Southern California where I began law practice [with Los Angeles’ Gibson, Dunn and Crutcher firm] 30 years ago this fall.”

Although Starr said, “I love the classroom,” he will, in fact, spend less time teaching at Pepperdine than evangelizing. “My prime focus will be to spread the word,” he said. “In my judgment, the school, although young, is exceptionally fine. I plan to help make it even better. I’ve had a growing relationship with Pepperdine (since 1991 he has lectured occasionally at the school). And, over time, I’ve developed friendships within the Pepperdine community.”

He will not be giving up his partnership in the Kirkland and Ellis law firm, where he is, according to Salon.com, a “million dollar a year lawyer.” His salary at Pepperdine is unknown, but similar positions are compensated in the low six-figures. Starr said he would keep his present Washington clients and take on new ones “to the extent that is practicable.”

He has long juggled teaching and law practice. “I see them as complimentary,” he said. “Teaching constitutional law (his specialty, which he is presently teaching part-time at Chapman College in Orange) is helpful in focusing on Supreme Court matters where I work.” As Solicitor General (1989-93), Starr argued 25 cases before the court, the most famous of which was the 1990’s first “right-to-die” case involving a Missouri woman named Nancy Beth Cruzan. “It was very difficult and very sensitive,” he recalled. “All of us in the Solicitor General’s office has to struggle with the sensitivity of the issue and the anguish of the family.”

Starr’s responsibilities begin on Aug. 1, and he hopes to be settled in Malibu well before that time. “We haven’t begun looking for a house,” he said, and “would prefer something near the campus.

“There are various options,” Starr added when asked if the house was part of his arrangement with the school, as is often the case. The couple’s three children will not be coming to Malibu; the eldest, Randy, works for a commercial real estate firm in New York; the middle child, Carolyn, is married and teaches elementary school in Walnut Creek, Calif., and the youngest, Cynthia, is a freshman at Vanderbilt University.

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