...And the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr

by James Carville

Published by Simon & Shuster

128 pages, 1998

Buy it online










The Serpenthead Strikes

Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce


Among the unanticipated benefits of Bill Clinton being elected as President of the United States in 1992 was the subsequent rise of his chief campaign strategist, James Carville, as a national political pundit. And a downright unusual pundit, he is.

For the most part, members of America's paid commentariat hail from one of two schools: the first, which insists you appear neutral -- meaning, in practice, that you must shoot the kneecaps out from under your friends as often as you do your adversaries -- and the second school, which believes that the more partisan and strident you are, the better. It's usually Republicans, like presidential also-ran Pat Buchanan and self-appointed morals monitor William Bennett, who hew to the latter, hard-line approach, leaving Democrats (who, let's face it, are more prone to criticize each other, anyway) to appear comparatively weak in their arguments and guarded in their support of lawmakers, even those from their own party.

However, Louisiana-born Democrat Carville, who has served in the trenches with many successful and unsuccessful candidates over the years, seems to have long ago abandoned any timidity he might once have had about sharing his opinions. He's been especially forceful in condemning Kenneth Starr, an ultraconservative prosecutor and former solicitor general under George Bush, who, encouraged by Republican ideologues in Congress, has spent more than four years already and over $40 million trying to build a case for Clinton's impeachment.

Carville lays his cards out on the table in the introduction to his new book, ...And the Horse He Rode In On: The People v. Kenneth Starr:

You know something? I don't like Ken Starr.

I don't like one damn thing about him. I don't like his politics. I don't like his sanctimony. I don't like his self-pity. I don't like the people he runs with. I don't like his suck-up, spit-down view of the world, how he kisses up to the powerful and abuses the life out of regular people. I don't like his private legal clients. I don't like the folks who work for him -- or the people who apologize for him, either. I don't like the way he always smiles at the wrong time. (I never trust a person a smile doesn't come naturally to.) I don't like the way he always compares himself -- favorably, of course -- to cherished American icons. And I absolutely won't stand for the way he has single-handedly demeaned the Constitution of our great nation. No American should.

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't hate the guy. I don't wish him personal ill. I just flat out do not like him. I think he's an abusive, privacy-invading, sex-obsessed, right-wing, constitutionally insensitive, boring, obsequious, and miserable little man who has risen further in his life by his willingness to suck up to power than his meager talents and pitiful judgment ever would have gotten him.

Whew! Not every day do you see a political analyst go straight for the jugular like that. It's kind of refreshing, actually.

But if wanton vituperation was all this short book contained, it would quickly wear out its welcome. Instead, Carville offers a litany of evidence (heavily footnoted) that he says exposes Starr as a "goofy Clinton-hating type." Someone who, after being hired to investigate old, arcane Arkansas land deals involving the President and his wife Hillary (remember Whitewater?), slowly but surely expanded his purview, deliberately digging into every nutty allegation of malfeasance by the Clintons until he finally latched onto what he deemed "high crimes and misdemeanors," pertaining to the President's sexual relationship with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky.

Along the way, Carville details Starr's right-wing connections, including his speeches to anti-Clinton groups and his ties to Richard Mellon Scaife, an archconservative Pittsburgh billionaire and owner of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, who reportedly funded efforts by The American Spectator magazine and other parties to dig up dirt on Democrat Clinton. (Some of that money, according to Carville and Salon magazine, wound up in the pockets of David Hale, "the only person in the entire Whitewater investigation" to claim that Clinton was involved in the loan scam that's at the heart of the Whitewater fiasco.)

Carville goes on to recall how Starr originally won his independent counsel post, being appointed in 1994 by a panel under David Sentelle, a federal judge strongly tied to rabid right-wing US Senator Jesse Helms. He points out what he considers to be Starr's numerous conflicts of interest, including the fact that the prosecutor once did pro bono legal work for Paula Jones, the ex-Arkansas state employee who (with aid from the conservative Rutherford Institute) charged in court that then-Governor Clinton sexually harassed her in 1991. Starr went on to link his Lewinsky probe with the ongoing Jones case (which was recently settled out of court). Carville cites what he says are multiple instances in which Starr or his associates leaked "sleazy or illegal" information about the Clinton inquest to the press, and then he attacks the scandal-obsessed media for spreading salacious and frequently unsubstantiated rumors about the President right after news broke a year ago of a Clinton-Lewinsky affair. He outlines instances in which Starr allegedly intimidated or threatened witnesses. And Carville can't resist telling of his own first encounter of the weird kind with Ken Starr in 1993, before the latter had even been named Whitewater Independent Counsel, when Starr confronted him at Washington National Airport, saying "with undisguised glee" that "Your boy's getting rolled," referring to Clinton. After all this, it's easy to understand why Carville doubts that Starr is sincere when he contends -- as he did during his recent testimony before the House Judiciary Committee -- that he has treated President Clinton fairly.

Carville's easygoing, aw-shucks style and self-effacing manner (he confesses that even his wife calls him a tenacious "serpenthead") help all of these complicated accusations go down more easily, rather than sounding like the ravings of a fringe-treading conspiracy theorist. He's banking on the fact that, according to polls, the vast majority of Americans approve of Clinton's performance in office, already doubt Ken Starr's impartiality, and are opposed to Clinton's impeachment. Weighed against the good that Clinton has done in office -- reversing years of national budget deficits, improving conditions for the poor and middle class, promoting international peace, and killing the most extreme Republican legislation -- the question of whether he messed with an intern and then sought to conceal that mistake hardly seems like cause for his removal. And Republicans, angered by Clinton's skill at blunting their agenda, haven't helped their case against the Democratic President by acting in so openly partisan a fashion.

Carville's charges of legal wrongdoing by Starr are buttressed by a current investigation into whether the independent counsel leaked grand jury material to sympathetic journalists. His portrayal of Starr as a moral zealot was given credence by Starr himself, whose report to Congress based its impeachment charges primarily on Clinton's personal sexual dalliances with Lewinsky. Finally, Carville's belief in Starr's fierce partisanship found support during the prosecutor's November testimony before the Judiciary Committee. In the course of that, Starr revealed how he had long ago dropped inquiries into two areas of alleged presidential misconduct -- one, the "improper" firing of White House travel office personnel, and two, the Clinton administration's early "misappropriation" of sensitive files relating to former (Republican) White House personnel. But Starr had conveniently failed to disclose Clinton's exoneration in either instance. Shortly after Starr's appearance, his respected ethics advisor, Sam Dash, quit, upset by his boss' too-ardent advocacy of impeachment.

For all of its earnestly presented claims (many of which make one glad that Starr has probably destroyed any chances he ever had of being appointed to the US Supreme Court), ...And the Horse He Rode In On comes off in the end as no less one-sided than Starr's impeachment report on President Clinton. If Americans were lucky, these two documents would simply cancel each other out, and the country could move forward onto issues of greater consequence. Such settled times seem a ways in the future, though. The only good news is that we're likely to hear much more blunt talk from James Carville in the interim. | December 1998


J. KINGSTON PIERCE is a Seattle journalist and a contributing editor of January Magazine.