Past and Present: The Starr Report and Clinton Impeachment

The report was overly aggressive and proved a disaster for the GOP, but its effects linger.

Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr is sworn in to testify before the House Judiciary Committee for the impeachment inquiry of President Bill Clinton on Capitol Hill.

Kenneth Starr is sworn in to testify before the House Judiciary Committee for the impeachment inquiry of President Bill.

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On Sept. 9, 1998, Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr presented a long-awaited report concerning his investigation of President Bill Clinton to the Judiciary Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Two days later, on the afternoon of September 11—a decade ago today—the committee released the entire report on the Internet. Starr's presentation caused uproar and led directly to only the second impeachment trial of a U.S. president in the history of the nation, the first in 131 years.

The consequences of the Starr report included a tarnished legacy for President Clinton, an unexpectedly close presidential election in 2000, an early and ongoing discussion of impeaching Clinton's successor, and, most important, a widespread sense in the successor administration of George W. Bush that impeachment was a manageable threat rather than a serious restraint on presidential conduct.

Kenneth Starr had been rising in Republican legal ranks for two decades. A law clerk to Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, appointed a federal judge at age 37 by Ronald Reagan, solicitor general in the first Bush administration, Starr was chosen as independent counsel in 1994. He was selected by a conservative-leaning panel of three federal judges appointed by Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Having no experience as a prosecutor, he was regarded as a highly partisan choice to take over an investigation of Bill and Hillary Clinton's prepresidential Arkansas financial dealings with the Whitewater Land Co. The inquiry proceeded slowly and without result for four years until sympathetic lawyers involved in an unrelated sexual harassment civil case against Clinton received a tip from Starr's staff to inquire about a presidential affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton's deposition in the civil suit raised the possibility that the president could be charged with perjury. Starr and his staff pressured Lewinsky into admitting her relationship with Clinton and used what they learned to question him. In his August deposition and a subsequent address to a national television audience, Clinton admitted "inappropriate behavior" and called for an end to the political "pursuit of personal destruction." The appeal did not deter Starr from preparing a scathing report to the House Judiciary Committee.

More than 20 years earlier, lawyer John Doar was asked to present the case for impeaching President Richard Nixon to the same committee. He offered an evenhanded account of the arguments, pro and con. Only at the end of a six-week-long presentation and when pressed to do so by the chair of the committee did Doar reluctantly state that the evidence amounted to a compelling case for impeachment. Starr would not be so cautious.

The independent counsel's report delivered to the Judiciary Committee on Sept. 9, 1998, laid out a graphic account of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Had it been published 40 years earlier, it would have met the Supreme Court's existing definition of pornography. Quoting Lewinsky's extended descriptions of each of her multiple sexual encounters with Clinton, the report laid out a case that the president had committed perjury in denying the affair. It did so in a manner calculated to maximize his embarrassment and encourage a Nixon-like resignation to avoid impeachment. Not content with documenting admissions by Lewinsky that she and Clinton had engaged in conduct that he had denied, Starr's report described in vivid detail every instance of kissing, fondling, oral sex, and telephone conversations about sex between the two. The phone sex descriptions in particular were questionable evidence of the alleged perjury but unquestionably an effective means of undermining the president's public image. Unlike Doar's restrained and understated report on Nixon, Starr's report aggressively argued for Clinton's impeachment in the most inflammatory style.

Republican House leaders insisted on immediate Internet release of Starr's report, ignoring Democratic appeals for delay in order to allow the White House time to prepare a response. Reprinting of the document in major newspapers followed quickly. Soon after, a paperback edition appeared on national bestseller lists. The vivid accounts of Clinton's intimacies with Lewinsky quickly became the topic of countless conversations and sermons, myriad late-night-television jokes, and innumerable parental worries about what their children were learning.