Kenneth Starr, who led Whitewater probes into Clinton, dies at 76

Washington Post photo by Ray Lustig
Kenneth Starr testifies before the House Judiciary Committee in 1998.

Kenneth Starr, a former U.S. solicitor general who led the Whitewater investigation into the Clinton administration that began with probes into allegedly improper real estate transactions but mushroomed into wider investigations that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the House, died Sept. 13 in Houston. He was 76.

The death was from complications from a surgery at Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston, according to a statement from his family.

Starr, a former solicitor general in the first Bush administration and federal appeals court judge, was seen as a reliably conservative Republican as U.S. political rifts began to widen in the early 1990s. A federal appeals panel in 1994 named Starr as replacement for the independent counsel in the Whitewater inquiry, Robert B. Fiske Jr., who was selected by Attorney General Janet Reno.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist rejected Reno’s request to reappoint Fiske, saying that Reno should not have selected the independent counsel because Clinton nominated her to her post. The probe into the Whitewater Development Corp. looked into real estate investments by Bill and Hillary Clinton and associates Jim McDougal and Susan McDougal.

The Clintons did not face charges from the Whitewater dealings, but Starr significantly expanded his mandate. His team later disclosed allegations against Clinton of sexual harassment by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones (the case was settled out of court). Starr’s investigation also revealed Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and subsequent claims that Clinton lied under oath about the sexual nature of their encounters.

Clinton was impeached in December 1998 by the House of Representatives, but he was acquitted by the Senate.

After the Clinton impeachment, Starr would become president of Baylor University in Waco, Texas. But in May 2016, Baylor removed Starr as president of the university after an investigation found that the college had mishandled accusations of sexual assault against its football players. Starr remained as chancellor and professor of law. The university also fired its football coach, Art Briles.

A statement from Baylor President Linda A. Livingstone made no mention of his dismissal. “Judge Starr was a dedicated public servant and ardent supporter of religious freedom that allows faith-based institutions such as Baylor to flourish,” she said.

To the Clintons’ defenders, Whitewater became shorthand for an ever-widening effort by political opponents to find evidence of wrongdoing using the powers of an independent counsel. But Starr’s investigation did bring convictions at a lower level, including a prison sentence for Susan McDougal for contempt of court after refusing to answer questions about Whitewater-related investments.

The Whitewater probe fueled a divide between the Clintons – who believed they needed to take special precautions to defend themselves against a hostile Washington establishment – and their critics, who saw Clinton’s defensiveness as obvious proof that something was awry.

Lewinsky, in a tweet Tuesday, wrote that thoughts of Starr “bring up complicated feelings,” but acknowledged that it was a “painful loss for those who love him.”

In 2010, Starr became the 14th president of Baylor. The university said that in his six years at the helm of the prominent Baptist institution, Starr oversaw the establishment of the Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, renovations of three residence halls, and the construction of McLane Stadium for football games as well as an equestrian center, a track and field stadium, and an indoor tennis center.

But Starr’s tenure ended abruptly in a scandal over the university’s response to sexual assault allegations involving football players and others. An independent report from a law firm found in May 2016 that the university had showed too much deference to players accused of sexual assault and indifference or hostility to their alleged victims.

The report found that football coaches and staff had conducted “untrained internal inquiries” that deprived the victims of the right to a fair and impartial investigation. It also found that in some cases, university athletic and football officials failed to report sexual violence incidents to administrators outside the athletic department. There was a perception, the report found, that “rules applicable to other students are not applicable to football players.”

In addition to the dismissal of the football coach, the governing board apologized to the school community and demoted Starr, stripping him of the position of president but letting him remain in the position of chancellor. Within a few days, Starr resigned that position, too.

Richard Willis, chair of the Baylor Board of Regents at the time, declared that the board was “shocked and outraged” over the mishandling of sexual violence reports.

Starr, at the time, said he felt “heartfelt contrition for the tragedy and sadness that has unfolded.” He added: “To those victims who were not treated with the care, concern and support they deserve, I am profoundly sorry.”


Kenneth Winston Starr, the youngest of three children, was born in Vernon, in north Texas, on July 21, 1946, getting his middle name from his parents’ admiration of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. His father was a Church of Christ minister and part-time barber. His parents were children of farmers, and family life centered around the church and Sunday school teachings.

Starr, whose boyhood nickname was Joe-boy, grew up mostly in San Antonio. Widely described as an earnest straight arrow who carried himself with understated confidence, he excelled in all high school endeavors save for athletics and was elected president of his class.

He said he was first electrified by national politics during the 1960 presidential campaign and identified in particular with Richard Nixon because of their shared hardscrabble background, although he said he later became a member of Young Democrats and a supporter of Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential election.

He sold Bibles door-to-door to pay his tuition at what is now Harding University, a Church of Christ school in Searcy, Ark., and threw himself into student activities before transferring to George Washington University after two years.

He recalled the transition as a shock, seeing students protesting the war in Vietnam that he supported (even though he reportedly flunked his physical for the draft). He stood out on campus in other ways, preferring suit and tie as his classroom attire, at an institution where blue jeans prevailed as the sartorial choice of his peers.

He graduated in 1968, then received a master’s degree in political science the next year at Brown University. He completed his law studies at Duke University in 1973 and began his rapid ascent in legal apprenticeships, ultimately becoming a law clerk to Chief Justice Warren Burger.

He married Alice Mendell Starr in 1970. In addition to his wife, survivors include three children; a sister and brother; and nine grandchildren, the family said.

In 1977, he joined the Los Angeles firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher to practice corporate law and impressed one of the partners, William French Smith, who became attorney general after Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980. His protege followed him to the Justice Department and distinguished himself on high-profile matters that shaped conservative policy on social issues, including reversing federal opposition to organized prayer in school and seeking voluntary paths other than busing to promote school desegregation.

His trajectory was astonishing. At 37, he became the youngest person ever named as a judge to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, a bench viewed as a steppingstone to the Supreme Court.

Making the 400-plus-page Starr Report public in 1998 – an early attempt to use the internet for widespread access – was not easy. Starr’s team wrote the document in WordPerfect, but the congressional officials converted it to HTML, “the format used on the internet,” The Washington Post reported at the time. That process resulted in an array of “mostly insubstantial” errors that “did not alter the meaning of Starr’s report.”

But the report also became a must-read for other reasons: its unusually lurid departure from the normally dry bureaucratic language of the Capitol. “The prose, far from a dry, factual recitation, contained rich, erotic details of the sort we expect from a book-club romance,” Daniel M. Filler, a prominent law professor, wrote in a California Law Review article.

“En route to the restroom at about 8 p.m., she passed George Stephanopoulos’s office. The President was inside alone, and he beckoned her to enter,” said one passage about Lewinsky from the Starr Report.

“She told him that she had a crush on him. He laughed, then asked if she would like to see his private office. Through a connecting door in Mr. Stephanopoulos’s office, they went through the President’s private dining room toward the study off the Oval Office. Ms. Lewinsky testified: ‘We talked briefly and sort of acknowledged that there had been a chemistry that was there before and that we were both attracted to each other and then he asked me if he could kiss me,’ ” it continued. “Ms. Lewinsky said yes.”

In January 2020, Starr was back on the Hill – this time on the legal team defending President Donald Trump in impeachment proceedings. During the Clinton impeachment, Trump had mocked Starr as “a total wacko” and “totally off his rocker.”

Starr’s bottom line on the Clinton investigation?

“Much of the drama was tragically unnecessary, a self-inflicted wound by a talented but deeply flawed president who believed he was above the law,” Starr wrote. “Yet ultimately, the president was lucky. An indulgent and prosperous nation readily forgave Bill Clinton and instead blamed the prosecutor. That would be me.”