Farewell to Pepperdine Law Dean Ken Starr: A Personal Tribute

It was 1996, and I was waking up to NPR in my bed in my Capitol Hill apartment in Washington, D.C. While I and the Democratic member of Congress that I served were more moderate in our politics, we were close to many in the Clinton White House because of our Tennessee connection to the Gore camp. For months, I had watched as an attorney and independent counsel named Ken Starr grilled the First Lady and White House staff over what seemed to me to be salacious and ridiculous charges that ranged from the murder of a White House aide to a sweetheart Whitewater deal (turns out that there was no finding of wrong doing by the Clintons on any of these matters). Attorney General Janet Reno appointed Ken Starr to the Office of Independent Counsel because he was known as a fair and competent attorney who had represented many clients and the government before the US Supreme Court.

I awoke that morning to news on my clock radio that Pepperdine University had appointed Ken Starr as Dean of its law school. My immediate reaction was “Oh, no.” Pepperdine is closely associated with my own theological tradition, and I hated to see Pepperdine get characterized as a fundamentalist school associated with the Christian Right. This seemed to me to be the wrong move. And Ken Starr – in Streisand land? I just couldn’t see it. He later withdrew from the offer — much to his credit — because of the responsibility he felt to his country and because of his concern for Pepperdine. The Monica Lewinsky case exploded soon afterward, and Ken Starr would be forever enshrined in the liberal memory as its intellectual nemesis. The media and many liberals portrayed Starr as a right-wing nut with a brain, or a boring, staid religious conservative out to do the bidding of the GOP and rid the country of one its most success Democratic presidents.

Truth is always more complicated than it first appears. There is no doubt that Starr had a political history, and that he has a conservative Rolodex that is littered with the “vast right wing conspiracy” (written with a smile). His legal cases for the Reagan Administration and in his own practice largely had veered towards the conservative side, and he was among the most prominent conservative attorneys in the Supreme Court bar. What many did not know was that he also had represented those who did not fall neatly into the conservative camp, and he still does. For example, since he has been at Pepperdine, he has been the lead counsel for a death penalty defendant and for the wineries in their battle to ship across state lines. What many liberals also did not know was that Starr enjoyed the respect of his legal colleagues in the bar, and that is part of the reason that Pepperdine’s law school soared 60 places in the US News and World Report rankings in just a few years.

But post-Monica and post-impeachment, Starr would forever be known as the man who investigated the largest sex scandal in American history, and to some of us, it seemed like a political agenda. In his mind, he was just doing the job he was asked to do for his country — and by Clinton’s own attorney general who approved of the scope of his investigation. I had just left for law school in Tennessee in the hopes of returning to the White House with Al Gore if he won in 2000, and I watched as Gore’s political fortunes became weighed down by Starr’s investigation – and my dream job too. Needless to say, I thought Starr’s investigation went too far and did seem to be a bit extreme, and it was the final straw that broke the camel’s back of some civility and bipartisanship in Washington.

By 2003, I had made my way to California to serve a church and to begin my work at Pepperdine. When the announcement came that Pepperdine again had appointed Starr as Dean of the School of Law, I was dismayed. I then and now aspire for Pepperdine to take its Christian mission so seriously that it refuses to bog itself down with partisan affiliations. For them, this was a dream appointment that would bring more conservative dollars and prestige along with it. I was assured that Starr was not what I perceived him to be — and largely, they were right. He certainly was and is a conservative, but he also is a person of intelligence and fairness that had alluded my biased perception.

Ken Starr singlehandedly reversed the 3rd tier law school into an upper second tier law school overnight. Millions of dollars flowed into its programs because of his work. Some programs he supported did not fit his conservative stripe such as human rights and social entrepreneurship. The spiritual atmosphere of the law school soared, and not just for Christians. Supreme Court justices — albeit the conservative ones — taught our classes and spoke at our lectures. Starr certainly brought in the legal stars of the Reagan era, but he also brought in some dear liberal friends like Alan Derschowitz and Akheil Reed Amar. He did lead the legal charge in defense of Proposition 8, but he also stood at the side of a convicted felon. For those who feel the need to put Starr in a radical camp of conservatism, they are just not fair to the real Ken Starr. He is a conservative, but conservative with a heart and not ideological in the extreme.

Several of my close friends came to know Ken and Alice Starr, and they raved about them. I still was skeptical. Everyone I knew from my political side of the fence despised him. Yet, I was intrigued. I finally asked him to meet in 2004 while I was still an adjunct, and he graciously agreed to do so. I sat across the table from him expecting the man I had seen portrayed in the media. Instead, I found a man with a generous spirit, a huge smile, an outgoing personality and a tremendous sense of humor. In fact, Clinton and Starr share similar personalities (an observation others have made as well). I loved our conversation, and from that day forward, I pledged myself to try to be fair to him and to trumpet his accomplishments at the School of Law. Ken also has done the same for me, standing behind many of the initiatives I presented to him. His work at Pepperdine has been extraordinary, and he has created a great law school whose new reputation will long outlast his tenure there.

Many of my liberal friends have wondered how I could work with Starr, and especially how I could applaud his success. If politics is all that mattered to me, I would understand that perspective. He is on the wrong side of the aisle for many who share my perspective, and he argued for positions that I sometimes disagreed with a great deal. I, along with some of his own faculty at the School of Law, very much disagreed with his arguments in the Proposition 8 cases. I did not agree with his stance on the fight of breakaway Episcopalians to retain church property that seemed to me to belong to the Episcopal Church. As my readers know, I wish those who act under the Christian mantle would would give themselves to loving and not to litigating, protecting freedom rather than taking it away.

Regardless of the cause though, he pursued these with the respect of his opponents and with a warm spirit, and even those in the progressive community who observed his work could not question his spirit or his extraordinary ability. He demonstrated a commitment to integrity and a passion for his cause. As a fellow attorney, I respect his advocacy. As a political person, I understand how one’s network shapes who one becomes. He has a Rolodex that shapes his world. So do I.

But the reason I could work for the good of Ken Starr and of his project to advance the School of Law was because I believed in Pepperdine, and because I believe in a Cause larger than political ideology or my partisan hopes. He and I both share in a Christian faith where all us bring the goodness and brokenness of our past, the strengths and weaknesses of our Rolodex, and the inescapable limitations of our baggage to the place where there is One who is neither liberal or conservative reigns. It is place where we forgive each other for what we perceive as wrong, and a place where we all aspire to help each other flourish regardless of our past. It is a place where we help others thrive and be fully alive, even those with whom we disagree. I suppose that is hard for those without faith to understand, but for me, it is what makes us distinctly Christian.

I am grateful Ken Starr came to Pepperdine. He’s a good man, and I wish him and Baylor University well. I’m glad that he came to Pepperdine because it taught me to see him with more complexity and authenticity than I had seen him before, and the limitations of my finite heart were again shattered as I embarked on the life-long journey of discovery that most people are not what you think you are when you get to know them. Some are worse. Some are infinitely better. Ken Starr is the latter. I don’t always like his positions, and I don’t particularly care for his Rolodex, but I like Ken a great deal.

Regardless, all people, whether liberal or conservatives, deserve our attempt to give them the benefit of the doubt and to see them through the eyes of respect and dignity. That particularly is the responsibility of those who have given over themselves to a faith where these distinctions are not the litmus test for entry or for approval but are the base camp for love to take root.

For some, Ken Starr impeached their president. For others, he was the defender of a law that ended their hopes to marry. For others, he was their prosecutor, and for others, he was their defender. For me, he was my colleague, and most importantly, he is my friend. Best wishes, Ken.

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Comments
13 Responses to “Farewell to Pepperdine Law Dean Ken Starr: A Personal Tribute”
  1. Sean Palmer says:

    Todd,

    I’m a regular reader of your blog and found this very helpful. I’ve forward the link to several friends who are on faculty there and have some level of concern. I don’t know Starr, but I do know several people that do know him and speak well of him. This should certainly be an interesting time for Baylor.

  2. This post is representative of everything I appreciate about this blog. I especially found this to be a rich thought:

    ” I understand how one’s network shapes who one becomes. He has a Rolodex that shapes his world. So do I.”

    Thanks for continually modelling dignity in dialogue.

  3. Tina Parker says:

    Please forgive my impertinence of several days ago when I suggested we (meaning you) needed to talk to folks of other political stripe. I was wrong.

  4. toddbouldin says:

    Thank you, Dave. That is exactly my aspiration for myself and for the blog.

    Tina, thank you. I appreciate it. I worked at Pepperdine and live in Tennessee, so I’m surrounded by Republicans that I like. ha

  5. Lori says:

    I happen to be part of the Baylor family that Mr. Starr will be coming to join and I wish I could share in your view. Unfortunately nothing happens in a vacuum and he is coming at a critical juncture in the life of my family. Mr. Starr may be all of the wonderful things that you say but he does not come without baggage and it is his ‘rolodex’ that will color his actions because it is his viewpoint. No one knows how different the world of US politics would have been (you alluded to Al Gore) had there not been a Ken Starr but I think we can safely say that the political discourse changed for the worse after his arrival. The ultimate actions were the fault of the Clintons, the hurling of every purian detail on the American public belongs solely to Ken Starr. How can that possibly represent a man of integrity?

  6. Carl Roberts says:

    You casually move past your recognition that Mr. Starr “got far off the reservation” with his investigation and exceeded his mandate. He, like those that encouraged him, were out to pin something on Clinton, and Clinton handed it to them..$60 million later. I do not believe Clinton committed perjury as you state. Perjury is a legal term as you know and the most Mr. Clinton was admonished for was giving “misleading and indirect” answers. That’s my recollection.

  7. Robert T says:

    Very good and helpful article and blog! Thanks I am a Texas Baptist Pastor and this helps me have a better feeling and understanding about Starr coming to Baylor. Good for you and Atta Boy!!

  8. Robert Flynn says:

    I’m sorry but I don’t believe that Clinton violated a law or committed perjury. In fact, that was the decision of the Republican majority that impeached him. On the other hand, George W. Bush told three lies on 9/11. He said there were no warnings when there were many warnings from US intelligence, from at least 12 other nations, from a Taliban official, and reports in the media of an impending attack. He said that no one imagined an airliner being used as a bomb when it fact that was what they expected and trained for. There was a simulated attack of a building just outside D.C. scheduled by the FBI and first responders on the morning of 9/11. It was cancelled because of the actual attack. He said that when he learned the nation was under attack he immediately ordered defense forces into action. Seven news cameras filmed his infantile paralysis in a classroom and left after more than seven minutes with Bush still in the classroom. Yet, none of the film recorded by the news cameras was shown by the seven stations. The New York Times would not permit its writers to say that Bush lied, and Condoleeza Rice committed perjury when testifying under oath before the 9/11 Commission. No charges were brought and the media, law enforcement and the Bush administration swept the crimes under the rug.

    Starr was not involved as far as we know, but neither did he speak out when he knew that the Bush administration had repeatedly perjured itself. He was as comatose as Bush in the classroom when Starr knew that the Bush administration had illegally spied on American citizens, had lied the nation into a criminal war, had lied that the US did not torture, that Bush and Cheney had boasted that they had authorized torture. Maybe that’s okay for a lawyer or a college president but I don’t believe that is okay for a Christian or an ethical or moral person.

    Incidentally, because of the Reagan administration, of which Starr was a part, the US was found guilty of international terrorism. What is it that Republicans say about terrorists?

  9. Todd,

    While I am aware of human complexity and God’s call for respect and compassion toward others, I also know that Starr, like his fellow Republicans, lost all sense of legal and political proportion in the matter of Bill and Hillary Clinton. Starr threw away the virtue of prudence (which by the way recognizes that we belong to one another) and led the entire country into a constitutional crisis because Bill Clinton lied about not keeping his pants zipped. Starr and others like him ought to have been ashamed and ought to be ashamed now. Sadly, they are not.

  10. Thomas Cooper says:

    I also experienced this past with anger and frustration. I have wondered at our inability to move on to issues whose solution will determine if our country rises or falls. I sense that there is an expectation that the past must be undone or conviction on a past impeachment completed before we can move to where we are now. Neither outcome is a possibility. And the future bears down on us without any response on our part – deers in headlights! I am sure Ken Starr – and Baylor – will do very well if they are provided the support they should get.

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  12. Bob Teh says:

    With all due respect, I feel much of where we are today, a very polarized nation, politically and economically, stems from the incivility of the GOP post-Newt Gingrich’s “Contract on American.” Ken Starr was an integral part of the effort of the political conservatives and he went beyond the pale, overzealously, to investigate and prosecute a president, to prevent Clinton and his administration from going forward with their agenda, which was President Clinton’s prerogative as the twice-unequivocally elected head of state of our country (unlike conservative darlings George W. Bush and Dick Cheney). Starr and his investigation effectively derailed Clinton’s pursuit of implementing the things the majority electorate empowered him to pursue. While Clinton defended himself, his administration, etc., from Starr’s charges and allegations, our country’s agenda went begging for attention, Starr all the while violated the self-professed ideals of what the job of non-elected public officials from the conservative side of the aisle espouse: don’t make yourself an extralegal unelected force unto yourself, enforce the law (i.e. interpret law from a strict construction of the law). Starr went too far, ethically, morally and arguably professionally, in discharging the duties of the special prosecutor’s office.

    The harm this “Conservative movement” has caused our nation has so far been irreparable, witness the hostile attitude with which the extreme members of the liberal and conservative ends of our political spectrum engage one another and the tone and tenor of political discourse dictated by such exchanges, political civility, compromise and mutual respect be damned. Additionally when one views the evidence of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s prank phone call with whom he thought was one of the Koch Brothers, we see the reification and embodiment of the, “Vast Right Wing Conspiracy,” which Todd benignly chuckles away. Ken Starr was one of the tools of these so-called conservatives, who hijacked the Republican party and set us on the course we’re on. Throw in some of the confidential information that publicly surfaced from Ken Starr’s confidential depositions and investigation, which Starr and/or someone from his office has been accused of allegedly leaking, and ethics/morality appear to have been cast aside for a means-justifies-the-ends mentality with Starr solidly ensconced in the support structure of these conservatives and their blind-hatred pursuit of their agenda.

    In extraordinary circumstances I believe in employing a corollary to the Golden Mean, do unto someone as they have done to others, arguably isn’t that how they expect to be treated if that’s the way they treat others? Starr engaged in character assassination of Bill Clinton, compromising some ethical, moral and religious tenets to achieve bringing the federal government to a standstill to merely embarrass and castigate someone with whom he disagreed politically. For that I’ll never cut him slack, nor give him the benefit of the doubt, rather I advocate giving him some of the treatment he dished out to Clinton and turn a deaf ear to the protestations on Starr’s behalf, much like Starr and the conservatives did in wasting a GAO estimated $39.7 million of taxpayer money while conducting their fruitless, vendetta laden witch hunt of the Clintons, all for simply currying favor with the voting citizens by winning an election and being a member of an opposing political ideology.

  13. impressed says:

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