An unlikely voice recently bemoaned the decline of civility in presidential politics, warned that “deep anger” was fueling an “almost radical populism” and sang the praises of former President Bill Clinton — particularly his “redemptive” years of philanthropic work since leaving the White House.
The voice was that of Kenneth W. Starr, the former Whitewater independent counsel, whose Javert-like pursuit of Clinton in the 1990s helped bring a new intensity to partisan warfare and led to the impeachment of a president for only the second time in the nation’s history.
The presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, increasingly seems to be trying to relitigate the scandals that Starr investigated, dredging up allegations of sexual transgressions by Clinton to accuse Hillary Clinton — the likely Democratic nominee — of having aided and enabled her husband at the expense of Bill Clinton’s female accusers.
But Starr expressed regret last week that so much of Bill Clinton’s legacy remains viewed through the lens of what Starr demurely termed “the unpleasantness.”
His remarks seemed almost to absolve Bill Clinton, if not to exonerate him.
“There are certain tragic dimensions which we all lament,” Starr said in a panel discussion on the presidency at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
“That having been said, the idea of this redemptive process afterwards, we have certainly seen that powerfully” in Bill Clinton’s post-presidency, he continued, adding, “President Carter set a very high standard, which President Clinton clearly continues to follow.”
He called Bill Clinton “the most gifted politician of the baby boomer generation.”
“His genuine empathy for human beings is absolutely clear,” Starr said. “It is powerful, it is palpable and the folks of Arkansas really understood that about him — that he genuinely cared. The ‘I feel your pain’ is absolutely genuine.”
For some time, Starr, a Christian who is now the president and chancellor of Baylor University, a private Baptist school in Waco, Texas, has sought to put his years as a political combatant behind him. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, some of his associates expressed regret that so much of the Clinton administration’s efforts had been spent fighting those battles rather than addressing the growing threat posed by Osama bin Laden. And in 2010, Starr told Fox News that he regretted that his investigation of Bill Clinton had taken so long and that it “brought great pain to a lot of people.”
The panel discussion in Philadelphia was occasioned by the release of “The Presidents and the Constitution: A Living History,” to which Starr contributed a chapter on Ronald Reagan. The book’s editor, who wrote the chapter on Bill Clinton, is Ken Gormley, who also wrote the 2010 book “The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr.”
“It’s sad that the chapter is so rooted in the unpleasantness, as I used to call it, the recent unpleasantness,” Starr said.
He did not mention any of the current presidential candidates by name in last week’s discussion. But Starr, 69, alluded to Trump, saying he was concerned about “the transnational emergence of almost radical populism, deep anger, a sense of dislocation.”
He also seemed to echo Trump, however, saying, “Our children are not going to do as well as we did or as our parents’ generation,” and pointing to demographic shifts as a source of “considerable instability.”
Then again, Starr also alluded to the danger posed by income inequality, a central theme of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign. “We simply have not adjusted as a society to what seems to be the 1 percent and the 99 percent,” Starr said.
But it was Starr’s keening over the coarsening and polarization of American politics that seemed most noteworthy. He did not volunteer any responsibility for it — though Bill Clinton, who in 2006 accused Starr of “indicting innocent people because they wouldn’t lie,” might well lay considerable blame at his feet.
A federal judge in the Reagan administration and the solicitor general under President George H.W. Bush, Starr was named independent counsel in 1994, taking over the investigation of the Whitewater real estate venture and the suicide of Vincent W. Foster Jr., a deputy White House counsel. He expanded the investigation to include the Paula Jones lawsuit and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Starr’s conclusion that Bill Clinton had committed perjury in sworn testimony denying having had “sexual relations” with Lewinsky eventually led to Clinton’s impeachment.
“Whether it’s Whitewater or whether it’s Vince or whether it’s Benghazi. It’s always a mess with Hillary,” Trump recently told The Washington Post.
Starr now is contending with criticism of his own leadership over Baylor’s handling of sexual assault charges leveled against several of its football players.
In the panel discussion last week, he reached back to an earlier presidency — that of Lyndon B. Johnson. Saying today’s divisiveness “deeply concerns me,” he recalled Johnson’s appealing for comity before a joint session of Congress.
“I remember this so vividly — he said, ‘Come, let us reason together.’ Can we talk with one another?” Starr said. “The utter decline and erosion of civility and discourse has, I think, very troubling implications.”
He quoted E. Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University, as saying, “The world has become a shouting match.”
“There are always places for shouts and strong feelings, but the genius of American democracy and of presidential leadership,” Starr continued, “is to bring unity out of our diversity. E pluribus unum — out of many, one. And we don’t seem to hear too many voices saying, ‘Let us find common ground.’”