12/28/1998 at 01:00 AM EST
In his relentless investigation of President Clinton's financial and extracurricular affairs, Kenneth Starr has been compared to Torquemada, the ruthless leader of the Spanish Inquisition, and to Javert, the obsessed police inspector of Les Misérables. But he models himself after Atticus Finch, the Lincoln-esque Southern lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird who defends a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman—doing "what he thought was right when everybody was saying 'Why are you doing this?' " Starr told 20/20 in November. To be sure, the owlish independent counsel has been vilified for his four-year, $40 million probe, which began with the arcane Whitewater case and by the end of '98 had the popular Clinton enduring the shame of impeachment hearings for allegedly obstructing justice and lying under oath about his liaison with ex-intern Monica Lewinsky.
"The irony is that maybe the public came to believe Starr's investigation was a greater threat to our society than the President's irresponsible behavior," says Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, a public policy think tank. Widely viewed as partisan, the Republican Starr has seen his ethics—using Linda Tripp's taped chats with Lewinsky, and pressuring Lewinsky to cooperate with the investigation—called into question. Moreover, the Texas-born minister's son has been excoriated for the sexually graphic nature of his voluminous Starr Report—with its allusions to oral sex and the erotic deployment of cigars—which many saw as an attempt to humiliate Clinton into resigning. "He calculated that the nation would rise up in moral revulsion," says Jamin Raskin, professor of constitutional law at American University. "In fact, people were grossed out by the prurience and voyeurism of the independent counsel." But friends insist he's no gonzo Puritan. "He doesn't act precipitously," says ex-law partner Theodore Olson. "I think he took the job out of a sense of civic responsibility."
The youngest of three children, Starr, 52, had a strict upbringing in San Antonio—his parents, Vannie and William, a barber as well as a fundamentalist pastor, disapproved of dancing and going to movies (Starr now does both). Bookish but well-liked, he was voted president of his high school class, then attended Harding College in Arkansas and George Washington University. During a summer at Harvard he met his wife of 28 years, Alice, a public relations executive with whom he has three children and shares a home in McLean, Va. He earned a law degree from Duke, and over the course of his 25-year career has clerked for Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, sat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and served as U.S. Solicitor General. He was back in private practice when a three-judge panel named him Whitewater independent counsel. In 1997, Starr planned to quit the Clinton probe to become a dean at Pepperdine University—but his staff persuaded him to stay on, and he resumed his work with fresh vigor. Asked if he felt trapped into performing a thankless task, Starr told 20/20, "There's a book in Washington called the Prune Book, which is, you know, lousy jobs in government. And the point is, there are prune jobs, but the prune jobs have to be done as well."