The Starr Chamber and the Future of American Democracy

By Janette Rainwater

The Starr Report

         The dimpled darling of the Religious Right and Big Tobacco released his X-rated report to Congress.       In his zeal to "get" the President, he did not allow either Clinton or his attorneys any of the due process afforded Nixon and Reagan when they were being investigated for genuine abuses of power.   (No opportunity to preview the Report before its release----- even Gingrich was given a week to examine the ethics charges leveled against him.)

        Next Congress voted to dump this one-sided material onto the Internet before they had a chance to read it themselves, much less digest and evaluate it.  (Just curious:           I wonder how many of those voting YES on this also voted YES for that dreadful "Communications Decency Act" a few years back?)

        So now we all know the tawdry details of Bill Clinton's latest Zipper Problem---- from Monica's come-on display of her thong underwear to the two-minute blow-jobs in the bathroom to . . . .

        The ONLY reason for the release of this report with its many gratuitous pornographic details was POLITICAL.  The Republicans hoped that the American public would have such a collective knee-jerk reaction to the tawdry details that they would fail to analyze those eleven counts for impeachment and would then----
                    a) demand Clinton's departure by resignation or impeachment
                    b) stay home from the polls in November or vote Republican

    So far it's not working!  The polls indicate that 62-66%  want Clinton to remain in office at the same time that they certainly do not condone his personal  behavior.
(Nor do I.)

What happens if we let the Republicans get a landslide in November?

        God help what's left of our democracy if we allow the Republicans to keep their majority in the House and expand to a veto-proof majority in the Senate.  In that case we can expect:
                             ----  tax cuts for the wealthy
                             ----  welfare cuts for the poor
                             ----  increased spending for the military ----  Hello, Star Wars!
                             ----  less money for education
                             ----  more money for prisons
                             ----  privatization of social security
                             ----  curtailment of medicare
                             ----  repeal of Roe v. Wade   (Boxer's opponent has recommended this!)
                             ----  defeat of the handgun bill
                             ----  school vouchers
                             ----  death and burial of campaign finance reform
                             ----  reinstatement of offshore oil drilling
                                                (and other threats to the environment)
                             ----  abolition of birth control clinics
                             ----  abolition of the First Amendment separation of church and state
                             ----  a green light for the Tobacco interests

    Remedy:              GET OUT THE VOTE IN NOVEMBER. . . . VOTE DEMOCRATIC. . . .
                                                    Californians, keep Barbara Boxer in the Senate !

Does the Starr Report contain grounds for impeachment?

        Not for anybody who can read Standard English!  Sure Clinton lied to the American people.  (Not good, I don't approve.)  BUT lying to cover up a consensual sexual encounter is NOT in the same class as Eisenhower's lie about the U-2, Johnson's lie about Tonkin Gulf (which precipitated  our commitment to the Vietnam War, the death of 58,000 Americans. many times that number of Vietnamese and the expenditure of $120 billion, or Nixon's lies about_______ (not enough space to enumerate), the Reagan-Bush lies about mining the Nicaraguan harbor, aid to the contras (in violation of the Boland Amendment), etc.

        In the Rebuttal David Kendall makes a case that the very specific legal requirements to make a perjury charge stick will prevail thanks to Clinton's clever lawyerly answers to questions while under oath.  What makes sense to me is that perjury (if it can be proved) about a consensual sexual relationship (especially in a civil  suit that was subsequently dismissed) does not fall into the category of
that is prescribed in the Constitution.

         The most ridiculous and also the most infuriating charge that Starr makes is that of ABUSE OF POWER. And I urge you to read the White House Rebuttals on this one.       We’ve had real abuses of power by presidents in this century that have gone unpunished.  The one that sticks most in my craw is the Iran-Contra conspiracy. Its investigation by a much more fair-minded Independent Counsel, Lawrence E. Walsh, was completely sabotaged.  Remember how the felony convictions of Oliver North and John Poindexter were overturned on appeal because of the “tainted” testimony given to the competing congressional committee?  And who can forget when lame-duck George Bush pardoned indicted Caspar Weinberger and the already convicted four: Elliott Abrams, Alan Fiers, Clair George, and Robert McFarlane.  For an earlier administration, read Stanley I. Kutler’s aptly named Abuse of Power which contains the latest release of Nixon tapes and reveals him as even more corrupt than we knew at the time.

Sex, Lies and Now VIDEOTAPES

        As I write this (Wednesday evening, September 16, 1998), it seems likely that Congress (probably the same folks as last Friday) will vote to release selective excerpts of President Clinton's videotaped testimony to the Grand Jury.

                    This is beginning to sound more and more like the actions of a police state.
    First of all, the "evidence" given to a Grand Jury is supposed to be secret.  (But secret in this case means only what Kenneth Starr doesn't want revealed.  Such as the exculpatory evidence for the Clintons given by William Watt and others about Whitewater, or Starr's  attempts to prevent the prosecution of his prize witness, David Hale, for allegedly looting funds from a burial insurance company.)
    Secondly, we can expect that the excerpts will be only ones unfavorable to the president and, like all the salacious bits in the report, designed to embarrass him.
I imagine we will see angry outbursts, as well as some infuriating weasel-out answers.
But let's put it in context.
    I think most of us would be angry at this Inquisitor who has been mounting a four-year witch hunt (more about this below).  Any weasel answers would be self-preservation against a modern-day Inspector Javert who, if Clinton should admit to perjury, would be delighted to invoke the still-active Grand Jury to indict him.  Then in a worst case scenario----   jail time and disbarment?   You'd better believe Clinton had to answer very specifically and very carefully..

                If the pundits are correct, these excerpts will be available for Republicans to run in their campaign ads in November.  If so, we will probably see certain cuts as frequently as we have had to endure those damn shots of Clinton hugging Monica--- both the one with the beret and the one with the loose hair.

 Does this sound like fair play to you?

History of the Starr Chamber Proceedings
(or What He Has to Show for Four+ Years and $45 Million-and-Still-Counting)

        This is a long, sad and sordid story.  Too many details to give it all here, so I'm going to refer you from time to time to the excellent reporting by the on-line Salon Magazine.

        The witch hunt started back in 1992 before the election as a last minute attempt by the Bush  White House to instigate a bogus criminal referral about the Clintons and Whitewater, according to the Salon article, "Starr Chamber" by Mollie Dickenson.
Part of Starr's first actions after his appointment as Independent Counsel in 1994 was to cover up these improper and probably illegal shenanigans of the White House officials and Bush's attorney general.

        On June 30, 1994 Robert Fiske, the original Whitewater Independent Counsel,  filed a report that Vincent Foster had committed suicide because he was depressed over the "mean-spirited and factually baseless" editorials about him in the Wall Street Journal  ---- not because of anything to do with Whitewater and no one had murdered him.
On August 5th Fiske was fired by the three-judge panel and replaced by Kenneth Starr.
(The panel had been selected by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, originally appointed by Nixon, promoted to CJ by Reagan.)  Starr re-opened the Vincent Foster inquiry (imagine how painful that must have been for his family) and refrained from issuing his  yes-it-was-suicide report until after the 1996 election.

        As described by Bruce Shapiro in "Men in Black (robes)", there's an interesting history to Starr's appointment.     See
Rehnquist appointed Judge David Sentelle, a big buddy of North Carolina's two senators, Jesse Helms and Launch Faircloth.  Sentelle lunches with Faircloth (who had been working long time for Fiske's firing), then appoints Starr.    Starr belongs to the firm of Kirkland and Ellis whose principal client is the Tobacco giant, Brown and Williamson.  Starr continues to work for the firm (at $1 million a year) for most of his tenure as Independent Counsel.  North Carolina is a big tobacco-growing state.  In Clinton's six years much has been accomplished to prevent kids from learning to smoke and to make the tobacco companies liable for damages caused by their products.  Got the picture?

       Starr had other conflicts of interest that would have prevented a more honourable man from accepting the position.
1---   As Joe Conason and Murray Waas reported two and a half years ago in The Nation, at the time of his appointment his law firm was being sued for professional negligence by the Resolution Trust Corporation; Starr then investigated the very officials in the RTC responsible for instituting the suit against Kirkland and Ellis.

2---   Starr had advised the attorneys for Paula Jones.

3---   Starr later accepted an appointment to be dean of a new school at Pepperdine University which was funded by the super-conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife who also funded the clandestine Arkansas Project.  The function of this group was the promulgation of scurrilous rumors about Clinton---- murder, drug-running, you name it.   The Arkansas Project also paid money to convicted felon ex-Judge David Hale, Starr's prize witness in Arkansas, the man whose testimony was needed to indict Jim McDougal and Jim Guy Tucker.  See "The Road to Hale":

        Starr made life miserable for everyone in Arkansas who had ever had any contact with the Clintons, yet turned a blind eye to the probable perjuries and other felonies of four of his witnesses, as described by Gene Lyons in  "See Some Evil, Hear Some Evil":
On KPFK recently Lyons said Starr has "power and ruthlessness instincts that are close to totalitarianism".

        And yet there was NOTHING about Whitewater in the report Starr sent to Congress.  Nor Filegate.  Nor Travelgate.  Despite the many, many people he subpoenaed to appear before both the Arkansas and District of Columbia grand juries.    Despite the fact that he forced the Clintons to produce massive quantities of documents and every canceled check for the last fifteen years.  (According to a Reuters dispatch he even sent someone to search the private quarters of the White House, including Chelsea's underwear drawers, for some allegedly missing document.)   He obtained and scrutinized their telephone records for the same period.
        So Starr was coming up empty and possibly was close to giving up when he got that phone call in December from Linda Tripp.  He listened to the tapes, then sent a wired Tripp to interview her "friend" Monica.  Monica was then held without counsel for several hours by his investigators and threatened with criminal prosecution and  jail time if she refused to wear a wire and go see Clinton.   Isn't that called "entrapment"?
But she did refuse, so the next trap was set:   Some woman (most undoubtedly La Tripp herself) called Paula Jones' lawyers and filled them in on the questions to ask Bill Clinton about Monica Lewinsky in his deposition.   Clinton, believing Monica when she had told him she had told no one about their affair (HA!  Only eleven people!), walked right into the trap.

        Starr most deviously went to Attorney General Janet Reno and asked for an extension of his Whitewater mandate, citing obstruction of justice----- the so-called "talking points" that Bill Clinton was supposed to have given Monica to suggest to Linda.   You will not find anything about the "talking points" in the report!  Monica says she created them herself with some help from Linda.  Linda denies any part in their creation.  The grounds on which Starr obtained his license to invade Clinton's sex life turned out to be without foundation.

        It's against the law in Maryland to tape a person without permission.  But Linda is safe--- Starr gave her immunity from prosecution.  Also Monica.  Also Monica's mother.  Which I suppose means that Clinton could never be able to sue them to recover damages.
Starr's Perversion of the Grand Jury Procedure
            (or Alice in Wonderland Revisited)

        The way a grand jury is supposed to operate:  First a crime is committed.  There is a possible or probable culprit.  A grand jury is formed to subpoena witnesses, hear evidence, and decide whether there are sufficient grounds to indict the target for that crime.    The records are sealed because
                a) the target and his attorney have not had the opportunity to confront and cross-examine the witnesses
                b) there may be material harmful to innocent people
                c) the witnesses have been promised secrecy

            In this case first the target (Clinton) is named.  Two grand juries are formed with unlimited powers to go on fishing expeditions to find a crime.   Supposed statements of witnesses are leaked with regularity to several journalists favored by the prosecutor.   Clinton has not had the opportunity to confront and cross-examine any of the witnesses. First the verdict and maybe never the trial.

            What a monstrous perversion of the law!  Still it took over 4 years, over $45 million, a faithless friend, and a most determined prosecutor to produce this pitiful result.

            Maybe this injustice to Clinton will cause this country to start evaluating the function of grand juries.  When we inherited the concept from English Common Law, the grand jury was seen as a protection for the people against the government or powerful individuals.  Lately it seems to be used as a fishing expedition by over-zealous prosecutors with no Bill of Rights for the targets.  Great Britain abolished the grand jury several decades ago.

This is a CIVIL LIBERTIES issue.

            If this can happen to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the same could happen to you or me if our activities, influence, knowledge or opinions become inconvenient to those in power in any way.  We may be witnessing the decisive battle in the Culture War that has been going one for the last decade or so.  If the Religious Right and the Christian Coalition win this one, watch out!  Are we going to have privacy in the bedroom or will the government have the power to legislate what kind of sex is legal?  (Twenty-one states still have anti-sodomy laws on the books.)  Will Roe v. Wade  continue to stand or will its provisions be whittled away a month at a time?  Will we have an Istook Amendment to the constitution or will we maintain the separation of church and state?  The Religious Right is determined that THEIR ideas on what is RIGHT and MORAL must prevail and be the law of the land for everyone.  I urge everyone to write or e-mail all in Congress and express your indignation--- ask for censure of Starr, not Clinton.

The Sorry Role of the Media in All of This

            The mainstream media has been aiding and abetting Starr from the very beginning, especially The New York Times which started the Whitewater rumors and The Wall Street Journal.   Now the major players are literally screaming for his scalp.
It's hard to understand why they are so eager to get rid of Clinton since he has moved the Democratic party so far to the right and implemented so much of the Republican agenda--- deficit reduction, welfare "reform", harsher laws, etc.  But here are some possibilities:
1.  The media believe that sex sells copies and improves ratings.  They think we are titillated by details of the private lives of celebrities and Bill Clinton is our biggest celebrity.  (They may discover that sex ad nauseam repels readers and listeners.)
2.  If they can keep us diverted with scandals--- first OJ, now Monicagate--- maybe we won't notice that 8 out of 10 of us have less income than a decade ago.
3.  The big media names who are so hot to get Clinton--- Cokie Roberts, Sam Donaldson, Larry King, et al--- are not poor working stiffs like bygone reporters.  They are in the top 1% income category and out of touch with such things as the need for affordable day care, a living wage, or a health insurance program that will deliver when you need it.
4.  Reporters have become fat and lazy for the most part.  It's easier to write a story based on government handouts and leaks than to go digging.  Then when they find they missed out on the real story, it's easier to deny its veracity.  Who wants egg on the face?
5.  Most of the media are big corporations themselves now.  They scratch each others' backs.  Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post has said that Ken Starr can do no wrong---- because he was the lawyer that saved the Post from a $11 million libel suit.

Some major dirty pool that I have noticed:
1---  The Los Angeles Times printed what I believe to be all of the Starr Report but printed only excerpts from the much shorter Rebuttal, completely omitting David Kendall's excellent discussion of the Federalist Papers and the deliberations about impeachment by the writers of the constitution.
2---   Several radio stations cut off Vaclav Havel today as he was about to address the question about how he felt about the current situation.  Afraid he might say something supportive of Clinton?
3---   The tiresome repetitions of the huggings and of Clinton's different denials and confessions.  I'm sure we can voice-sync them all by now.
4---   The unbalanced choice of guests, mostly very hostile ones.  I have yet to see/hear any of the reporters from Salon Magazine on any mainstream program.
5---   Barbara Olson is a very frequent guest---- the woman with the long blond hair who is identified as a lawyer in the Reagan administration.  She also happens to be the wife of Theodore Olson---- the first meeting of the Arkansas project took place in his DC office.  Such insufficient identification is dishonest.
6---   Some of the most rabid of the pundits and anchors have rather shady sexual histories of their own.  (As do many members of Congress, including some who have been the loudest in calling for his impeachment or resignation.)  If you want to know names, log onto Salon Magazine.
7---   Those journalists who accepted the leaks and didn't report this violation of the law forfeited any claim to objectivity.  They were working FOR the prosecution.
8---   In the not-so-long-ago "old days" journalists would investigate all angles of a story and prided themselves on uncovering cover-ups.   Today the irony is that many of the journals talking about what STARR has done wrong are progressive ones---- The Nation, In These Times, Progressive Magazine, Mother Jones, etc.---- who have been critical of Clinton for his political plunge to the right !