IN 1966, LOU BUTTERFIELD WAS A sophomore at Harding College, a small Christian school in Arkansas, when his roommate, a soft-spoken Texan, broke the news. He was transferring to George Washington University in the nation's capital—the better to pursue a career in politics. "Well, how far do you expect to go?" asked Butterfield. "As far as I can," said Kenneth Starr.
That has proven to be so far, in fact, that Starr, 51, now stands poised on the threshold of the Oval Office—though not in the way he might have imagined. As the independent counsel charged with investigating alleged law-breaking by Bill and Hillary Clinton, Starr has pressed his search along a tortuous path that has led him to the gamy boundaries of the President's sex life. Now, after 3½ years of sleuthing, Starr may be on the verge either of bringing down the President or seeing his own $30 million inquiry end in failure.
Ironically, Starr, who has helped introduce the subject of oral sex to the national discourse, is a straitlaced minister's son who eschews foul language and R-rated movies. "Kenny is the last person I could imagine in the middle of all this," says family friend Ellen Field, who runs the chamber of commerce in McLean, Va., where Starr lives in a modest two-story house with his wife, Alice, 48, and daughters Carolyn, 17, and Cynthia, 13. (Son Randy, 20, is a sophomore at Duke.) "He would just die if you told a dirty joke in front of him."
But Starr has persevered. Appointed in 1994 to investigate Whitewater, the Clintons' alleged links to illegalities surrounding the 1989 failure of an Arkansas S&L, he has gradually expanded his inquiry to encompass such matters as the 1993 dismissal of White House travel-office employees, the misappropriation of politically sensitive FBI files, and now Clinton's alleged dalliances. "It's like one of those sponges," Little Rock lawyer Bill Watt says of the investigation that once numbered him among its targets. "The more water you put on it, the bigger it gets."
As Starr's investigation has grown, so has the chorus of critics who see him as a relentlessly political figure in a position that is supposed to be independent of politics. Long a contributor to Republican campaigns, Starr, only three months before being appointed independent counsel, gave legal advice to a group backing Paula Jones's sexual-harassment suit against the President. Even while working as special counsel, Starr has made more than $1 million a year serving clients including the giant tobacco companies that have long been at odds with Clinton. "Ken Starr is a fiercely partisan man whose purpose is not to get the truth but to get the President," insists Clinton attack dog James Carville.
Yet many who know him consider Starr evenhanded and scrupulously ethical. "He doesn't act precipitously or carelessly," says Theodore Olson, a former law partner. Observes Samuel Ostreicher of New York University law school, where Starr is an adjunct professor: "He's not an ideologue. He represents what the Republican party once was—skeptical of government."
Starr, like Clinton, grew up poor but driven to succeed in hardscrabble southern towns. He is the youngest of three children of the late Willie Starr—a Church of Christ minister who supported his family as a barber and sold the family cow's milk in the north Texas hamlet of Thalia—and his wife, Vannie, now 90. Like his father, young Kenneth did some barbering on the side to earn money for college after his family moved to San Antonio when Starr was an adolescent. But at Sam Houston High he is better remembered for his political prowess. Nicknamed Heap Big Boss Man in the school yearbook, Starr "was president of his class for the last two years of high school," his mother proudly recalls.
During a college summer, Starr sold bibles door-to-door and was good at it, says Lou Butterfield. "He came across as real sincere and honest. I don't think he would have sold somebody something they didn't want. But after Ken got finished with them, they'd always want whatever he was selling." An editor on the college newspaper, Starr defended the rights of antiwar protesters, with whom he disagreed, yet didn't stray himself from the straight and narrow. "None of us drank or swore or ran around," says Butterfield. "But Ken was even more conservative than a lot of us." At George Washington, as the campus ferment of the '60s reached its peak, Starr wore ties and jackets to class and supported the Vietnam War—though he flunked his draft physical because he had psoriasis. During a summer session at Harvard he met his wife, Alice, whom he married in 1970. She is now a public relations executive with a McLean commercial development company.
After excelling at Duke law school, Starr clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger before going to work in the Washington office of the prestigious Los Angeles law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. In 1981 his mentor there, William French Smith, became President Ronald Reagan's Attorney General and brought Starr along as a top aide. Two years later, Reagan named Starr to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, making him, at 37, that influential court's youngest judge ever. He resigned in 1989 to serve as President George Bush's Solicitor General, representing the government at the Supreme Court.
Starr was just settling back into private practice in Washington when a three-judge panel chose him as special counsel, a job in which he has had unusually high visibility. "Normally, independent counsels keep quiet until their report is finished," says Charles Lewis, who runs the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity in Washington. "He doesn't." Starr's biggest successes to date are the May 1996 fraud convictions of former Arkansas Gov. Jim Guy Tucker and the Clintons' two Whitewater business partners, Jim and Susan McDougal. (When Susan McDougal refused to answer questions aimed at implicating the President, Starr had her put in prison on contempt charges, and she has remained there for 17 months.) But his investigation of the Clintons stalled, and last February, Starr announced he was quitting to accept two deanships at Pepperdine University in California. After a public outcry that he was abandoning his responsibilities and columnist William Satire's charge that he had brought "shame on the legal profession," Starr reversed himself and announced he would stay.
He might have regretted it until last month, when an aide took a call from the now-celebrated Linda Tripp, who claimed she had evidence of the President's affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. On Jan. 21, Alice Starr was shocked to read the Lewinsky allegations on the front page of The Washington Post. "So that's why you've been getting home at 1:30 in the morning," she said to her husband as he rushed off to the office. Since then TV crews have kept a nearly constant vigil outside the Starr home. Not the kind of attention Starr covets, but as he sees it, he's just doing his duty. "My job is to chop the wood that is before me to chop," he said once, explaining his role as a public servant. The question now is who will end up in the woodshed.
JANE SIMS PODESTA, MACON MOREHOUSE and MARY ESSELMAN in Washington, JOSEPH HARMES and KATE KLlSE in Little Rock, J. JENNINGS MOSS in New York City, JEANNE GORDON and JOHN HANNAH in Los Angeles and BOB STEWART in San Antonio
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