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Starr and Foster: The Increasingly High Price of Public Service

March 02, 1997|Susan Estrich | Susan Estrich, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a law professor at USC. She served as campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis in 1988

Kenneth W. Starr finally issued his own report on Vincent W. Foster Jr. last week, concluding, as did his predecessor, that the former White House aide committed suicide, and there was no foul play and no cover-up surrounding his death. The Foster tragedy makes painfully clear how high the cost of public service can be. But it is Starr's own decisions in the last two weeks that drive home the other half of the lesson: While the costs have never been higher, the expectations have never been lower.

A respected lawyer in Arkansas before coming to the White House as deputy counsel, Foster was plainly out of his element in the cannibalistic culture of Washington, where every misstep is fodder for partisan ridicule. Foster was pilloried for his role in the White House travel-office firings; ironically, Starr's investigations into those firings, also reported last week, concluded there had been no criminal wrongdoing. Too late for Foster. He took his life because of mental illness, but public service took its toll. The target of conservative editorials in life, in death Foster became the centerpiece of conservative conspiracy theorists. They could not believe the obvious: Foster killed himself. Did they think it was just a game? He was not even allowed to rest in peace.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday March 9, 1997 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 2 Opinion Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
Kenneth W. Starr's report on the death of Vincent W. Foster Jr., referred to in Susan Estrich's March 2 article, has not been officially released. The article was based on leaked reports.

Most people only get killed figuratively. Public service brings with it a level of scrutiny and vulnerability that far exceeds what is imposed on top corporate leaders. To be a friend of President Bill Clinton or, worse, a former partner of his or his wife's, is to be an almost certain target of permanent investigation.

In this partisan search-and-destroy game, anyone close to the president must have a lawyer, and so must anyone who takes on the president. Mid-level White House aides have six-figure legal bills. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's will be higher than that. Henry G. Cisneros, former housing and human development secretary, cited the costs of defending himself against a still-pending independent investigation of how generous he was to a former mistress as one reason he could no longer afford to serve in public office.

Elective office is even more brutal. What is most shocking about the latest round of disclosures from the White House is that, with everything the Democrats did to raise money for the '96

campaign, the Republicans still raised more. To run for office in America, for all but the very rich, is a commitment to a life of panhandling in fancy neighborhoods, using or being used.

To be sure, Senate seats are not going wanting, and the Cabinet is full. But if you look around this nation, look around any state or even any city, with too few exceptions, the most talented people are not in public service. My best students don't aspire to careers in politics or public service--not because they don't care, but because most of them are far too sensible.

In some respects, Starr seems to be an exception to this rule. He is, by all accounts, a brilliant lawyer. But unlike many of his predecessors, he is not a distinguished elder above the fray; he is, rather, a political comer, a favorite of conservatives and a much-mentioned Supreme Court possibility. He was appointed by a three-judge panel with close ties to his conservative patrons; the panel had been expected to reappoint his predecessor, the distinguished and more senior Robert B. Fiske Jr., and Starr's surprise appointment was hailed as a victory for the right.

If ever there were an independent counsel who needed to make clear that he was indeed independent--not only of the White House but also of its political opponents--it was Starr. Instead, against the advice of his predecessors and his own ethics counsel, he continued to represent private clients who were actively opposing the administration's policies. This past year, while investigating the president, he reportedly was responsible for $1 million in billings for his firm.

President Richard M. Nixon could never have gotten away with having one of his political henchmen attack Archibald Cox as James Carville did Starr, but that is not because of ideological bias. Cox was above reproach. Starr didn't try to be. Not only did he continue his private practice, but he played the same game as Carville, taking to the stump on Pat Robertson's home turf to debate Carville's charges.

Is it too much to expect that an independent counsel be independent of all sides? Is it too much to ask that he give full time to his investigation of the president and first lady, and sacrifice his private practice? Is it too much to hope that he would--at least while serving--put public service ahead of career?

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