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These days, Kenneth Starr pursues service and conscience in the law.

December 30, 2007|Jim Newton | Jim Newton is editor of The Times editorial pages.

This is the seventh in an occasional series of conversations with Southern California activists and intellectuals. The series and videotaped interviews with the subjects are collected at


To meet Kenneth Starr is to question the anger of his most partisan critics and the ardor of his most ideological admirers.

As few have forgotten, Starr's pursuit of President Clinton endeared him to Clinton's enemies but also made him, for some, a modern Inspector Javert, sneeringly derided in one publication as a "pious lawman." His report on the Clinton-Lewinsky matter is a relic of that era; its descriptions of sex in the Oval Office were so graphic that it came with a warning for children to stay away, a first in the annals of such investigations.

And yet, here Starr is, atop the law school at Pepperdine University, cheerfully imagining a culture of engaged and conscientious young lawyers, wistfully harking to a time when the nation was less divided and acrimonious.

His critics might be surprised, but Starr is neither monster nor prude. He is genial, reflective and easygoing, lighthearted even. Committed to public service, he speaks most eloquently on the notions of service and compassion. One is reminded that he is, after all, a man passed over for the Supreme Court because he was believed to be too liberal by some conservatives. Starr is, in short, much of what liberals love, notwithstanding that he was responsible for the impeachment of a president many of them so dearly miss.

A conversation with Starr in his Pepperdine office is framed by his interests. Law papers and journals are scattered around the room; outside a window behind his desk lies the Pacific Ocean. He speaks glowingly of California and brushes aside any suggestion that Los Angeles -- with its liberal billionaires, politicians, lawyers and movie stars -- is in any way an uncomfortable home for such a noted Republican.

"I've not been mistreated a single time," he says. "People have been very gracious."

Throughout the conversation, Starr takes pains to emphasize his connection to this place. He praises the area's leading figures, those of the left and those not so left, among them former Mayor James K. Hahn, a Pepperdine alum who teaches at the school, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who beat Hahn in 2005. Starr is similarly gracious toward Eli Broad and Warren Christopher, leading and longtime figures in Los Angeles' Democratic political and cultural establishment. Starr admires Broad's commitment to education and Christopher's devotion to public service.

Starr worked in Los Angeles early in his career, and his law practice brought him back here frequently over the years. He came to know many of the city's legal luminaries and happily offers up his appreciation for them too. Starr once, for instance, served as co-counsel in a case with Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. "Talk about a great lawyer," Starr says with evident admiration.

For Starr, partisan politics has not exactly disappeared, but it has palpably receded. He speaks now of service and community, of engaging students in the affairs of their communities and of the world. He once considered running for the U.S. Senate in Virginia. Today, he describes himself as "an encourager and a facilitator," referring to that role as "perhaps my calling."

"We're preparing individuals for lives of purpose, service and leadership," he says. "Part of my goal and vision is that we want to help develop and train very able and honorable lawyers of absolute integrity, but we also want community leaders."

Whatever one thinks of Starr's politics or his pursuit of Clinton, his long record as a public lawyer unmistakably suggests an advocate who has chosen service over money. Starr was a clerk for Chief Justice Warren Burger in the mid-1970s, then practiced law privately before being named to the federal appellate bench in 1983. He reluctantly left the bench to take the post of solicitor general in 1989 -- so conflicted was he about giving up his judicial seat that Starr recalls retiring to a small room and crying after accepting the new post. He was seriously considered for the Supreme Court when Justice William Brennan retired in 1990, but Starr's nomination was scotched by conservatives who feared he might be too liberal. (It is one of the Supreme Court's juicy ironies that President George H.W. Bush instead picked David Souter, who went on to bitterly disappoint many conservatives because he regularly sides with the court's liberals.)

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