Bowing to intense criticism, Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr on Friday reversed his decision to quit and promised to keep working “full steam ahead” investigating allegations of wrongdoing by President Clinton, his wife and others.
“When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut,” Starr said, paraphrasing former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.
The surprising reversal brought praise from conservatives and new speculation that the investigation may still yield high-level prosecutions. Just days ago, Starr’s decision to quit churned just the opposite speculation: that he was leaving because the investigation was not likely to go any further.
White House aides, reportedly gleeful days ago at the prospect of Starr’s departure, declined to comment on his decision to stay.
Starr and his staff are examining allegations of wrongdoing by Clinton, his wife and others in their Arkansas investments, in the firings of the White House travel office to make way for Clinton friends, and in the collection of private FBI files on members of the Bush administration.
Joseph diGenova, a former U.S. Attorney and a former independent counsel, said Starr was trying to clean up the mess he created with his Monday announcement that he would step down in August to become dean of Pepperdine University law school in California.
“This is big spilled milk, and he’s trying to mop it up,” diGenova said. “It was absolutely necessary for him to do this. He had an obligation not only to the public and the court that appointed him, but also to his staff, many of whom have stayed on at his request, longer than they anticipated.”
DiGenova said that Starr’s decision to quit was a disservice to his staff in Little Rock, Ark., and in Washington. Prosecution teams form close bonds, and “you can let people down very easily as a manager if you aren’t sensitive to that,” he said.
DiGenova said he doesn’t think Starr’s flip-flop will hurt the investigation, but he said that Starr - who reportedly hopes to be nominated to the Supreme Court one day - has been wounded.
“In terms of his own reputation, it did hurt him very, very much,” diGenova said.
Attorney Theodore B. Olson, a Starr friend, characterized Starr’s reversal as an “evolutionary process” that came about following discussions this week with numerous colleagues and acquaintances such as himself.
Olson, who briefly represented former Arkansas municipal judge David Hale, a Clinton accuser, said Starr was saddled with an investigation made particularly difficult because of uncooperative witnesses.
“I think that he’s now accepted the fact that that burden that he accepted before is one that he will have to carry for a while,” Olson said. “I respect him more today for admitting a mistake and correcting it.”
For his part, Starr professed surprise that his decision could affect such a large investigation.
With investigators working both in Washington and in Little Rock, he likened the inquiry to the Justice Department itself and said he assumed it would continue unaffected by his departure.
But Starr said he learned quickly from his staff and others that his decision to leave was a disappointing mistake.
“The outside reaction … was, I suppose, a source of reassurance that I should just keep my hand on the plow indefinitely and not set an arbitrary date or deadline as to when I should be departing,” he said.
“It is my sense that public confidence in the investigation calls upon me to continue my service now,” Starr said. “Our plan is to … get back to work, full steam ahead.”
At least one conservative leader questioned whether Starr would give the investigation his all.
“I’m very gratified that he’s going to stay,” said Larry Klayman, chairman of Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group. “It’s very important that these very serious allegations be aggressively pursued …
“The question I have now - since he basically conceded he was taking a better job offer - is whether his heart is in this investigation or whether his heart is in Malibu,” Klayman said, referring to the site of Pepperdine. “If his heart is in Malibu, he would be better off taking the position.”
Other conservatives said they had faith Starr would lead a top-notch investigation, though they did not hide their dismay over his attempt to quit.
“A lot of folks have shared the view all along that this should have been his number one priority,” said Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, another conservative watchdog organization. “It’s unlikely that anything he would do in his professional career would be as important as this.”
Starr’s announcement earlier this week provoked widespread condemnation.
Typical was an editorial in the Allentown (Pa.) Morning Call. “The most important criminal investigation in the country was entrusted to Mr. Starr, and he has decided to put his career ahead of his public duty,” the newspaper wrote.
In Little Rock, Ark., meanwhile, the Arkansas Star Democrat retracted its report that Starr’s office had conducted and lost four mock trials of the Clintons. Starr had repeatedly denied any such sessions occurred. The misinformation appeared in Tuesday editions of The Spokesman-Review as part of the report of Starr’s announcement.