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2 Decades Later, Starr Writes Memoir 'Contempt' On Clinton Impeachment


Ken Starr has written a memoir of the investigation that led to the impeachment of President Clinton. Starr was the independent counsel told to look into Bill and Hillary Clinton's land dealings in Arkansas. While investigating, he was told that President Clinton lied in a civil deposition about an affair with Monica Lewinsky. The charge of perjury became the heart of a bitterly partisan fight in which the House impeached and the Senate acquitted the president.

Years later, Starr writes that the Clintons are, quote, "fundamentally dishonest" and their attorney general, Janet Reno, was, quote, "cowardly" for not publicly backing his investigation. Ken Starr's book is called "Contempt," and he's on the line from New York.

Good morning.

KEN STARR: Good morning, Steve. Good to be with you.

INSKEEP: Why, two decades later, was now the time for you to write this book?

STARR: Two things, Steve - first, my personal circumstances changed. I was freed of responsibilities at Baylor University, where I was president and chancellor. And then secondly, Hillary lost the election. And I felt that the time was appropriate.

INSKEEP: Meaning that if she had won the election and was president, you maybe wouldn't have written this book?

STARR: I certainly would have had second thoughts about it because she's now part of history. And Bill is part of history. So this is the inside story, and that's what I'm trying to do in "Contempt", to just say here's the inside story from my perspective of what happened and why.

INSKEEP: Do you think that the violation you found was worth more than four years of investigation?

STARR: Well, the four years of investigation went to a whole variety of things, including the Travel Office investigation, the FBI files investigation. But yes, there were 14 criminal convictions in Arkansas, including a very hard-fought three-month trial resulting in Bill and Hillary's business partners being found guilty...

INSKEEP: Oh, the McDougals. Right.

STARR: Yes, the McDougals as well as Jim Guy Tucker, the sitting governor of the state. So we found much more than I expected to find. I thought, Steve, I would be out in six months - not so.

INSKEEP: You were told, I guess, at the beginning, according to the memoir, that you should move your family to Little Rock, Ark. It was going to take a while.

STARR: Exactly.

INSKEEP: But ultimately, what history is going to remember is that one charge, the perjury accusation involving Monica Lewinsky. Was that worth it?

STARR: Well, of course it was worth it because we had to have in our system - and the point I'm making in "Contempt" is that no one is above the law. But I also think, also, that while history may focus on perjury, what we're really talking about ultimately is obstruction of justice and the abuse of power. The abuse of power is laid out in the book, and people will come to their own judgments. But in our view - all of us in the investigation involved believed that the president had abused his power, and that was a view that we uniformly shared.

INSKEEP: Well, you did have support from your party, particularly in the House of Representatives. They voted to impeach President Clinton. They supported you, the Republican majority did. They argued this wasn't about sex but, as you say, about lying and about the abuse of power. What have you thought about, now that Republicans - the same party - have become overwhelmingly supportive of a president who's been documented making thousands of false statements?

STARR: (Laughter) Well, the comparisons will be intriguing as we proceed because there are eerie echoes of what happened 20 years ago. And I think we're having a very serious conversation about what is it that we expect in a president in terms of the conduct, in terms of rule of law. But here's a key distinction. At least as far as we know, Donald Trump has not lied under oath. As far as we know, he's not intimidated witnesses. As far as we know, in my view, he has not obstructed justice. So...

INSKEEP: Are you sure he hasn't intimidated witnesses? He's publicly talked about witnesses in this investigation. He's publicly run down the special counsel, of course - special prosecutor.

STARR: Yes, yes. And I do not approve of running down the special counsel. I think that's inconsistent with the rule of law, just as in "Contempt," I tell the story of saying to anyone who would listen that it's the responsibility of the president - and then the attorney - either to cooperate with the investigation or to fire me. There's a really odd juxtaposition, Steve, right now in that the president tweets these nasty things and yet, from everything that appears, he's cooperating fully with the investigation. Bill Clinton said he was...

INSKEEP: He hasn't agreed to be interviewed yet, so far as we know.

STARR: But they produced thousands of documents. And of course, now it appears that Bob Mueller is not even asking for an interview. He's simply saying written questions - which, by the, way suggests to me that the entire investigation, at least as it affects this president, is winding down.

INSKEEP: Apparently, the president has been reluctant to be interviewed because various of his lawyers have felt he could not get through that session without lying.

STARR: (Laughter).

INSKEEP: You described the Clintons as fundamentally dishonest. Is our current president fundamentally dishonest?

STARR: Well, I'm not going to opine on the president. Let's get all the facts in. I have all the facts in with respect to Bill and Hillary. And that's what "Contempt" is all about. But I do think that there are echoes. We want our president to be honest. And we especially want the president to be honest under oath. You know, the old saying about an ambassador is an honest person sent abroad to lie for his country. So we're not talking about the morality of truth-telling. We're talking about the rule of law. That's what I'm trying to convey in "Contempt."

INSKEEP: I noticed in the book you were upset at Janet Reno, the attorney general at the time, because she failed to publicly support your work. She didn't trash your work, so far as I know. But she didn't speak up. And you found that to be cowardly, which does make me wonder - what do you think now that President Trump publicly calls the investigation surrounding him a witch hunt, regularly calls it that on a regular basis?

STARR: Well, this is another eerie echo from the past. And this is what "Contempt," I think, the book, is teaching us now. Let's look. History does, in fact, teach us. And I think it's wrong. The president should not be doing that. And I've condemned it in an op-ed piece in The Washington Post a little over a year ago. I wrote, very firmly, my view. Mr. President, cut it out. Quit criticizing, especially at that time, the attorney general. And that has persisted. I think that's wrong.

INSKEEP: Why do you think large majorities of Republicans, at least, think it's fine? They approve of the president's performance at least.

STARR: I disagree with that, Steve. I don't think that there is agreement with that. It's sort of we agree with 80 percent of his policies - Newt Gingrich put it very well the other day - disagree with 20 percent. And most people are saying - that I certainly know - are saying, we wish he would stop tweeting or, at least if he's going to tweet, tweet in a very different way.

INSKEEP: Isn't that kind of dissembling, though, Mr. Starr, because that is the heart of his presidency, is what he says publicly and the attitude he strikes?

STARR: I think he would be better and more likely to be reelected if he put a stop to it, just as Bill Clinton would be remembered, I think, in different ways now if he had listened - and this is what I say in "Contempt" - to say, I'm going to tell the truth now.

INSKEEP: Ken Starr is the author of "Contempt".

Thanks for joining us. Appreciate it.

STARR: My pleasure, Steve. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELISE MAGNEFOLD'S "FALLEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.