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CLINTON UNDER FIRE

In Public's View, Starr Is Falling

Reaction: Polls and talk-show comments indicate that many feel his probe is driven by politics. Lawyers close to the inquiry say that is unfair.

January 30, 1998|DAVID G. SAVAGE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The investigation of alleged sexual misconduct within the White House is being reflected in damaging poll results and angry calls to radio talk shows around the nation.

At the moment, however, far more Americans are saying they are upset with independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr than with the target of his probe, President Clinton.

By margins of roughly 2 to 1, those surveyed in several polls taken during the last week say Starr's investigation is driven more by "partisan politics" than an impartial search for the truth. The poll respondents report that they are especially troubled that his office wired Linda Tripp to secretly record Monica S. Lewinsky's tale of an affair with the president.

In calls to radio shows and letters to newspapers, meanwhile, the prosecutor is being denounced as a conservative zealot who is trying to redeem his failed $30-million investigation of the Whitewater real estate deal by snooping into the private life of the chief executive.

Although Starr has been sharply criticized by supporters of the president for four years, the outcry against him has grown much louder and appears to be winning converts.

Some of the assault on the prosecutor is being orchestrated by the White House itself, notably by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. Earlier this week, she criticized Starr as being "politically motivated" and linked to a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to bring down the president.

But much of the venom directed at Starr appeared before the first lady spoke out and is coming from ordinary Americans who say they resent the relentless investigation of the president and strongly oppose prying into the private lives of public figures.

Venom Is Not a Surprise, Lawyers Say

Lawyers who are close to Starr's investigation say the poll results and national dialogue via talk radio are neither surprising nor fair.

"The forces at play [are] working the media and the public to attack the prosecutor, so it doesn't surprise me," said Starr's former deputy, John Bates. "But is it valid? No."

Bates noted that Starr's team was checking into whether the Clintons had arranged jobs for their Little Rock, Ark., friend and former Justice Department official Webster L. Hubbell to prevent him from disclosing information about the Whitewater affair. The president's friend, Vernon E. Jordan Jr., played a key role by recommending Hubbell for jobs.

On the secret recordings, Lewinsky allegedly says that both Jordan and Clinton had urged her to lie in a sworn statement about the nature of her relationship with the president.

"The facts [involving Lewinsky] were brought to Ken Starr, and he looked at them and determined they were related to something already in his investigation," Bates said, pointing to Lewinsky's link to Jordan. "He's doing what any prosecutor in that setting would do."

Both Atty. Gen. Janet Reno and the three-judge panel that oversees independent counsels approved the expansion of Starr's probe, noted Theodore B. Olson, a former Reagan administration attorney.

"I think it is a desperate, Nixonesque tactic to attack the prosecutor for doing his job," Olson said.

But quite a few prominent lawyers, including former friends of Starr's, have lambasted his recent moves.

"He's become a bottom feeder," said former White House counsel Abner J. Mikva, a onetime colleague of Starr's on the U.S. Court of Appeals. "I think Judge Starr is behaving in an outrageous manner that will leave a bad mark on his name in history."

Mikva said Starr should not have leaped to pursue a criminal case involving "gossipy talk between two young women."

He added: "I don't expect good judgment from a 21-year-old intern. I do expect better judgment from a former judge and U.S. solicitor general."

Former independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, a Republican who led the Iran-Contra probe, has also publicly disputed Starr's pursuit of the Lewinsky case.

"I would not rush to start a prosecution" based on allegations of a sexual affair, Walsh said.

Some have praised Starr, 51, for appointing a cadre of experienced, nonpartisan prosecutors to lead the effort. Others, however, have faulted him for staffing the office with young lawyers affiliated with the Federalist Society, a network of conservative legal activists.

"I like Ken personally, but some of these things he has done make you scratch your head and wonder," said Carter G. Phillips, a Supreme Court advocate who, like Starr, got his first Washington job as a clerk for then-Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.

"If you hire a lot of ideological young conservatives, it's going to cast doubt on what you're doing," Phillips said. "It gives the impression you're less interested in ferreting out the truth than in making a political statement."

Charges Against Counsel Aren't New

The charge that Starr's office is conducting a politically motivated effort to get Clinton is not new.

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