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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The unreachable Starr

The host of the most unprivate of parties remains a mystery himself

By Margaret Carlson

TIME magazine

Once a week now, it seems, the country has the Bickersons over for dinner. They're not good guests, they fight too much, pick at each other's weak spots, and talk as if they're being recorded. But it's a command appearance, and apparently endlessly entertaining to their mysterious host, Kenneth Starr. Everyone shows up: Monica with her real mom Marcia and her surrogate mom Linda. There's kindly Betty Currie and powerful Vernon Jordan. There are the meanies who want a Monica-Free Zone in the White House and the Secret Service source who hinted that Monica was not alone; Clinton may have had six Oval Office affairs.

Although there's a little new dirt dished with each successive document dump, the guests remain true to character, such as it is, with some texture added. There's lots of texture in the latest data dump. For example, Linda Tripp, as far back as 1994, was the employee from hell. Her new supervisor at the Pentagon wrote a memo noting how disruptive her "best defense is a good offense" tactic was; how she complained about her duties, her office, her parking space; how she was nasty to her co-workers and sent out a constant barrage of e-mail. Despite a starting salary of $69,427, she wouldn't work a minute after 5 p.m. when she learned professional staff weren't paid overtime.

And why would a fortysomething like Linda tolerate the prattle of a twentysomething as banal and needy as Monica? Well, they were both fat girls with hair and work problems, and Tripp liked hearing awful things about Clinton, whom she despised and wanted to write a book about. By turns manipulative and sympathetic to the heartbroken Lewinsky, Tripp at one point wants to kick certain presidential body parts and "flatten [them] into little pancakes so he can never use them again." She presses Monica to hold out for "a kick-ass job." She slams Currie for her "sheer stupidity" in not helping Monica to see more of Handsome, who, by the way, tells Monica he doesn't think of himself that way but looks in the mirror and sees "a fat little kid who couldn't throw a ball straight." Predictably dysfunctional as surrogate mom, Tripp doesn't help Monica's self-esteem, saying of her neglectful paramour, "if he were a completely fulfilled man, you wouldn't exist in his life."

Monica's real mom was no help either. Marcia Lewis was worrying about presidential death squads and--just two days into testimony--crying, "I can't take any more." But reading godmother Betty's testimony is like watching a bad movie during which you are mentally yelling at the victim to lock the door and call the police. Betty, don't let Monica hide in your car to keep the "meanies" from discovering that she's come to see the Big He again. Be a meanie too, Betty. Save the Republic. But here's a twist--another White House employee told her lawyer that Monica claimed to have a "Barbie Doll crush" on White House sex cop and chief meanie Nancy Hernreich and "wanted to have sex with her." Really.

The Secret Service agents may have suspected Monica was up to no good, but all they did was hold her up at the gate for security checks. One labeled her a "hall surfer" and "a cross between a stalker and a 15-year-old chasing a rock star." But their only revenge was to see her sweat. Agent Steve Pape described an occasion when Monica waited for clearance in the heat. "She was sweating," said Pape. "I mean, lots of sweat, on her dress, down her back ... By the time the appointment finally ... was in the system and she went to see the President ... it looked like she went a couple of rounds with Muhammad Ali." Pape, however, did allow a package in from Monica when an X ray revealed no metal or connecting wires. He wasn't worried about a bomb doing the President in, but something far more painful. "It would be something along the lines of Lorena Bobbitt, if she was going to hurt [Clinton], and that I couldn't stop."

Meanwhile, the interrogators are like the optimistic little boy looking for the pony in a barnful of manure. They are so sure that where there's sex there must be a sofa that they ask witnesses to inventory the furniture in the presidential study. White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles provides comic relief when he makes his appearance. "Good morning, Mr. Bowles," says his interrogator. "I believe you have a device that you would like to inflate?" No, it wasn't a blowup doll; it was a pillow. And while the grand jurors wait, Bowles huffs and puffs and then tucks the cushion underneath himself.

What the thousands of pages don't reveal is anything about Starr. He remains the Nowhere Man who demands attendance at these get-togethers but never shows up. He has his deputies to do his dirty work for him--one reason, perhaps, that he was able, until just recently, to keep up a million-dollar law practice. Starr remains in the shadows, except in driveway cameos, often clutching a black trash bag and a Starbucks coffee cup. Coming out on to the White House driveway on the day after he had violated all norms of privacy, he jauntily gave his trademark wave with his patented grin, one that doesn't involve eye movement, carrying himself as if he were President and as if there were a crowd of well-wishers rather than a ravenous camera crew awaiting him, as if he were on some high horse instead of on some low road. "You cannot defile the temple of justice," he has said in explaining his relentless pursuit of Clinton. But Starr did. As much as Clinton stained the dress, Starr stained the country to nail him for it. And his party goes on and on.


MORE TIME STORIES:

Cover Date: October 12, 1998

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