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A scholar and a gentleman: Remembering Ken Starr

Ken Starr
Former Independent Counsel Ken Starr answers questions during a discussion held at the American Enterprise Institute September 18, 2018 in Washington, D.C. |

I first met Ken Starr at the Department of Justice in 1990 while serving as the department’s assistant director of legal policy. A young lawyer only 10 years removed from Grove City College, I was surrounded by a new generation of legal giants in our nation’s capital. In 1991, I was promoted and began participating in Attorney General Bill Barr’s morning senior staff meetings. Around the table sat Bob Mueller, chief of the Criminal Division; Mike Luttig, assistant attorney general for legal counsel and future judge on the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and general counsel of Boeing Aircraft; and Ken Starr, solicitor general, the Bush administration’s scholarly advocate before the Supreme Court. When Starr was unable to attend, he sent his deputy — a rising stalwart named John Roberts.

Judge Starr, so-called because he served as a judge on the prestigious D.C. Court of Appeals before stepping down to become solicitor general, was only 45 years old at the time. But in my eyes, he was a lawyer’s lawyer, a legal guru capable of instantly and insightfully expounding on any topic of constitutional law. Barr didn’t suffer fools as he fired challenging questions at DOJ’s leadership. Yet Starr was always unruffled. He sat calmly and confidently, bearing his distinctive grin. I marveled at his intelligence and articulation.

If life was baseball, Ken Starr was Albert Pujols and I was a September call-up. Yet in every interaction I had with him, he never made me feel small or unworthy. He was unfailingly gracious, even to the point of seeking my thoughts on challenging issues. He was a scholar and a gentleman.

When George H.W. Bush lost the presidential election to Bill Clinton in 1992, this legal leadership team was dispersed to various big law firms throughout Washington. None of us could have predicted that Barr would be attorney general again, Mueller would be FBI director, and Starr would be tapped to investigate the new president and develop a case for the second impeachment in U.S. history. I returned to the House of Representatives in 1994. Four years later, I was chief counsel and director of communications in the Clinton impeachment proceedings, and I was reunited with my hero, now Independent Counsel Ken Starr.

Starr was summoned to testify before the House Judiciary Committee. It was one of those surreal, made-for-TV hearings that lasted all day. Not surprisingly, Ken knocked the ball out of the park. He was consistently patient and respectful as one Democratic member after another took their best shot. He was Pujols taking batting practice from Little League pitchers. At the end of the day, the committee’s Democrats requested that Starr return for more rounds of questions in a rare evening session. They were hoping to catch him off his game after hours of talking and when the television audience would be much larger. Ken graciously consented.

In a small behind-the-scenes office, I huddled with him and a few of his advisors (including Brett Kavanaugh, if I remember correctly) to prepare for the last leg of this hearing marathon. I urged him to stay strong and repeat what he had been explaining so remarkably well all day. With his signature warm smile, Ken took the advice humbly and responded masterfully that evening until the Democrats grew tired of repeating the same questions. Google the video of this to appreciate this man’s amazing mind and character.

At the conclusion of his independent counsel duties, Ken Starr entered the world of higher education, first as dean of Pepperdine Law School and then as president of Baylor University. What a joy to connect with him once again at my first national conference for presidents of independent colleges in 2015. As the president of Baylor, he was the big man at the conference — Pujols in a cap and gown. Ken and his wife, Alice, greeted me and my wife, Brenda, with exceptional warmth and immediately became our role models. I confess to a bit of pride as hundreds of other presidents wondered why President Starr was giving the Grove City College president so much time and attention.

At that happy reunion, I planted a seed: Would Starr come to Grove City and speak at my inauguration as the college’s new president? On March 23, 2015, the Honorable Kenneth Starr graced us with his presence. Standing in the pulpit of our magnificent chapel, he eloquently described America’s foundation of faith and our Founders’ commitment to the freedom of conscience. He beautifully connected it to the mission of Grove City College: “From its beginning in 1876 until this happy day, the inauguration of this good friend and my former colleague Paul McNulty, Grove City College has stood as a fierce and determined champion of belief, of faith, and the freedom of the human spirit.” Words failed in expressing my appreciation.

Professionally, the potential intersection of our careers ended long before I learned of Ken’s passing into glory. The years of selfless public service apparently caught up with him. Looking back at the people who made a lasting mark on my life, I will always cherish the impact of his decency and graciousness. He was extraordinarily present in every human encounter.

By today’s standards of political commentary, Ken Starr was an anomaly. His words were always measured, soaked in civility, and somehow communicated a touch of kindness no matter how divisive the discussion became. Such humility and self-control doesn’t boost cable news ratings. But Ken’s erudition was so compelling he remained a popular program guest. For all of us who remain struggling hitters, we should learn to model Ken Starr’s swing. Rest in peace, my friend.

The Honorable Paul J. McNulty ’80 is the ninth President of Grove City College, and former Deputy Attorney General of the United States.

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