STARR by Benjamin Wittes


A Reassessment
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Washington Post editorialist Wittes takes a sympathetic second look at Kenneth Starr.

There’s little middle ground in opinions on the controversial special prosecutor. Depending on whom you ask, Starr is either the man who brought virtue back to Washington or a politically driven witch-hunter. Wittes, by contrast, argues that Starr is an intelligent, sincere, and not particularly partisan person who made significant if well-intentioned mistakes during his tenure as independent counsel. He came to that office with a stellar reputation and a publicly stated opposition to its existence. At the time of his appointment, it was thought that this opposition would lead Starr to a limited view of his role. Instead, ever the good soldier, he set aside his personal opposition to the law and moved forward aggressively. Wittes views this willingness to broadly interpret the role of the independent counsel as an inexcusable error that laid the groundwork for Starr’s later excesses, most important among these the mistaken understanding of his office as an American truth commission. Starr’s predecessors, Wittes claims, correctly understood that the unique power of their position required that they either bring charges or close up shop, whereas Starr felt no such pressure. As a result, he kept cases open longer than a prosecutor solely concerned with charging lawbreakers would have. In the investigations of the Vincent Foster suicide, the White House Travel Office firings, and the Whitewater case, exhaustive inquiries resulted in precious few arrests. Of course, Starr hit the jackpot with Monica Lewinsky, but this too, Wittes suggests, was mishandled. By focusing on the lurid details, he missed an opportunity to move forward at a time when he might have ended Clinton’s presidency. The author presents his case with admirable skill, but one cannot help but wonder if people will want to read about a man who exhausted their patience.

Great for anyone still interested.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-300-09252-0
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 2002


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