At recent breakfasts, one with Clinton political strategist James Carville and a second with White House counsel Lanny Davis, I pressed our guests to explain something to me: Why, if they thought Ken Starr was doing such a terrible job, they seemed more interested in discrediting him than in getting him removed and replaced? They both walked around that question.
Instead, they focused, again and again, on what they see as the independent counsel's blatant excesses: The probe had cost all those millions and had been going on forever, or so it seemed.
Both of these Clinton advocates were particularly upset with what they saw as Mr. Starr's infringement of the press's First Amendment rights. Starr had hauled presidential aide Sidney Blumenthal before the grand jury to respond to a report that he had been feeding anti-probe stories to several journalists. Mr. Carville and Mr. Davis were crying "foul!" And on that point they were right.
Indeed, Starr has made himself vulnerable to criticism to a marked degree. He shouldn't have kept on doing other work in the private sector while conducting this probe. And his decision (soon reversed) to leave the project at midstream and take a college presidency raised questions about how diligently he was conducting the investigation.
But what really has made Starr vulnerable to attacks on his probe tactics and on himself, personally, is that his target is so popular. It seems, if one is to believe the polls, that most Americans are content with this president. They appear to like him, even if he has been involved in peccadilloes. So it has been easy for Clinton advocates to turn the public's distaste on Starr. "He's picking on our beloved president," these Clinton backers assert. And Starr's approval ratings plummet.
I do not know Starr. I met him once and had a short conversation - but not long enough to note anything more than that I found him pleasant and likable. But when he was appointed independent counsel, I did "ask around," as they say, about Starr and what kind of man and what kind of judge and lawyer he was. I found him held in the highest regard - professionally and personally - by all I talked to. He had the very best of reputations - until the probe began.
At one point I asked Carville: "Aren't you screaming" (and he had been screaming, as is his custom) "about Starr's tactics simply because he is getting close to the bone?" Here Carville, lowering his voice, said that Starr wasn't getting close to anything and that he had really accomplished nothing to date.
I came away from those breakfasts with the conclusion that both Carville and Davis, in a strange way, are quite content with having Starr as Clinton's adversary. They could be calling for his replacement. But no - they might get someone in that job whom the public might not so readily be persuaded to love to hate. But - naturally - you can't get them to admit this.
Another thing I couldn't get them to admit: that they are being successful in making Starr the target of this probe - persuading the public that Starr, not Clinton, is the "bad guy."
"Isn't this really a diversionary tactic," I asked both men, "to take the heat off the president?"
At another point in the breakfast I asked Carville: "If in the end Ken Starr nails someone important for wrongdoing, won't he then be hailed by the public for being dogged and persistent?" Carville's quick response was this: "He ain't going to nail anybody."
So it is that Starr moves relentlessly on, bringing in witness after witness, week after week. Is he extremely thorough and particularly diligent in his pursuit of justice? Or is he the politically driven enemy that his critics in the White House are making him out to be? These are big, unanswered questions in this long-running drama.