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Ken Starr, the independent counsel who investigated Clinton, has died at 76

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Ken Starr has died. A former U.S. solicitor general, he became a household name in the 1990s as the independent counsel who investigated then-President Bill Clinton in what came to be known as the Lewinsky Affair. Starr was 76. His family says in a statement that he died of complications from surgery after weeks of illness.

We have reached Michael Isikoff, who reported the Clinton-Lewinsky story extensively for Newsweek. Michael, how are you doing?

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Good. Good to be with you.

KELLY: Remind us how Ken Starr came to investigate Clinton's affair with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky; because he started out looking into something very different, looking into real estate deals in Arkansas. Then what happened?

ISIKOFF: Yes, he did. Well, there were quite a lot of twists and turns in this tale. But, you know, just to start out, I just want to make a couple of points. You mentioned he was solicitor general. He was also a U.S. court of appeals judge in the District of Columbia. He was a guy who was on the short list for the Supreme Court at one point. So he was a fairly highly respected figure in Washington legal circles.

And then the Whitewater investigation begins, and a three-judge panel picks him to be the independent counsel to investigate Bill Clinton's Whitewater dealings, which was, you know, a tangled tale at best. There were a lot of convoluted aspects to it. But Starr actually, you know, towards the start brought some successful prosecutions. He prosecuted Jim and Susan McDougal, who had been Bill and Hillary Clinton's business partners in the Whitewater land deal, for fraud.

KELLY: All right.

ISIKOFF: He prosecuted the governor of Arkansas, Jim Guy Tucker, who was implicated as well and was convicted by Ken Starr.

KELLY: You're taking me back to the '90s, all these names.

ISIKOFF: (Laughter) Yes, I am.

KELLY: And then it expanded. And there were Paula Jones'...

ISIKOFF: Right.

KELLY: ...Allegations of harassment.

ISIKOFF: Exactly.

KELLY: Yeah.

ISIKOFF: And - but what happened is Starr's investigation hit a roadblock, and they couldn't find the evidence to take it further against Clinton himself. And they were kind of at bay. And then in late 1997, they get the allegations about Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. And, you know, of more significance for legal purposes, there was a lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, who accused Clinton of sexual harassment. The federal judge had given the plaintiff's lawyers, Jones' lawyers, latitude to look for other women who might have had unpleasant experiences with Clinton. They learned about Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, and then Starr's people learn that Clinton has brought Vernon Jordan in, his close buddy, to try to get...

KELLY: Right.

ISIKOFF: ...A job for Monica Lewinsky. And they see an obstruction case and possible false depositions being filed.

KELLY: And this leads eventually to Bill Clinton being impeached...

ISIKOFF: Yes.

KELLY: ...Although acquitted by the Senate. I mean, for those...

ISIKOFF: Yes.

KELLY: ...Too young to remember, it's hard to describe how this scandal just completely riveted Washington, the whole country. I was living overseas at the time, and we were all riveted overseas.

ISIKOFF: Absolutely. This totally consumed the news cycle for over a year, actually, because the original allegations break in January of '98. And it's not until early '99 when the impeachment process is over.

KELLY: Yeah.

ISIKOFF: And Ken Starr, who had been a highly respected figure, you know, came under ferocious attack for investigating this at all, for...

KELLY: Right.

ISIKOFF: ...Going too far, for being sort of hellbent on getting Clinton one way or the other. And eventually, those attacks on him took a toll, and his standing in the public eye really fell quite dramatically.

KELLY: So many years to get through there, but a little taste there of a very complicated life of Ken Starr. That's Michael Isikoff, now chief investigative correspondent at Yahoo! News. Thank you.

ISIKOFF: Sure enough. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Megan Lim