Westward-Ho! Starr Chamber, Then Starr-Crossed Malibu

Go back a year to the moment when Kenneth Starr announced he was leaving the independent counsel’s office to take up the deanships of law and public policy at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. As widely reported at the time, the new public policy school was partially funded by Pittsburgh’s leading crank billionaire publisher, Richard Mellon Scaife, whose contributions to journalism include the hugely funded claims that Ron Brown was shot to death with a gun and that Vincent Foster was murdered. Under fire, Mr. Starr thought better of his decision to leave the independent prosecutor’s office at that time. He decided to give up-forswear, abandon, reject-the Malibu jobs. Right?

I thought so. I don’t always read every inch of the fine print that spills down under the headlines, but I suppose I read more than most, whence I formed the impression that the Pepperdine deal was burnt toast. Then I read the following in Jill Abramson’s Feb. 16 New York Times profile of Mr. Starr: “Though he reversed the decision, the jobs, which are partly paid for by the conservative philanthropist Richard Mellon Scaife, are being held open for him.”

Are being held open for him. So the chief impresario of a $35 million investigation that has lasted more than a thousand days renounced only his timing when he arranged his career in advance. His future remains indebted to an institution whose views of public policy are decidedly engagé . If Bill Clinton had arranged a job for himself as chief executive of Revlon, on whose board sits his pal Vernon Jordan, said job to take effect the moment he leaves office, would not Mr. Starr find this to have created, at the very least, an impression of impropriety?

And yet, what did journalists tell us about Mr. Starr’s step back from his personal brink?

Time of Feb. 9 mentioned the Pepperdine offer (“he briefly decided to quit the independent-counsel job and take a deanship at Pepperdine University”) but not the fact that the job is still waiting for Mr. Starr.

Howard Kurtz, in The Washington Post of Feb. 4, mentioned Mr. Starr’s “initial acceptance of a post at Pepperdine University” but did not mention that the job was held open for Mr. Starr.

ABC’s Nightline correspondent Chris Bury referred on Feb. 2 to Mr. Starr’s “initial acceptance of a Pepperdine University position partially funded by Richard Mellon Scaife.”

Here is Newsday on Jan. 28: “In addition, Scaife funded Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy in California, which offered Starr a job last year.”

And here’s USA Today the same day: “Last year, Starr considered accepting a law school professorship at California’s Pepperdine University.”

Nor has most of the press made clear what connection there is between Pepperdine and the Scaife-run foundations. Most articles cited a Scaife gift of $1.1 million toward start-up money for Pepperdine’s public policy school, the one Mr. Starr will run should he ever finish his inquisition. Last March 9, the Los Angeles Times ‘ Kenneth Reich pointed out that Mr. Scaife’s gift (actually $1.35 million) was only a small portion of his munificence toward his favorite institution of higher learning looming over the Pacific Coast Highway. According to Mr. Reich, gifts to Pepperdine from Mr. Scaife and the Sarah Scaife Foundation, which he heads, go back to 1962, and total $12.7 million. Mr. Scaife, whose bounty to right-wing causes is profuse, is a member of Pepperdine’s board of trustees. “He used to show up unexpectedly on the campus at Christmastime and make major gifts,” said acting public policy dean James R. Wilburn. In an article of Feb. 22, 1997, the L.A. Times properly disclosed that Mr. Starr’s decision was to “delay” his move, and quoted Pepperdine president David Davenport as saying “that the deanship would be waiting for Starr whenever he could assume it. ‘We are willing to give him an open-ended time frame,’ Davenport said.”

Mr. Starr’s own handling of the Scaife matter was adroit, and seems to have closed out further mainstream media exploration. At his press conference Feb. 21, 1997, a reporter asked him whether he was aware about Mr. Scaife’s funding at Pepperdine. Here is Mr. Starr’s answer in its entirety:

“Well, let me say generally that I have been very familiar with Pepperdine and the individuals-some of the individuals in Southern California who have been supportive of it.”

(The artful dodging is worthy of President Clinton in his most legalistic locutions. Were Mr. Starr investigating Mr. Starr, he would call attention to the fact that “individuals in Southern California” would naturally not include Mr. Scaife of Pittsburgh.)

Mr. Starr went on: “And I can say-and I think anyone in Los Angeles, where I lived once upon a time, will say that the support of Pepperdine University is very broad-based and comes from pillars of the community in Southern California and beyond, some of whom I know. With respect to the particular individual you mention, I was made aware of a grant for start-up funds, a grant from a foundation that has been funding organizations that have been sharply critical of this investigation.”

That is, after years of plumping for an investigation of the Foster suicide, Mr. Starr rejected the view that Mr. Foster was murdered. Thus the “sharp criticism.” In other respects, Mr. Starr has hewed to the Scaife agenda-unremitting pursuit of the barbarians who brought down his darling Richard M. Nixon.

“My view is,” Mr. Starr went on, “what is this university, what are its values, and what does the university’s mission call upon it to try to achieve? And that mission is a mission with which I am very comfortable and one that in the fullness of time I look forward to trying in my own small way to contribute [sic], under the leadership of [Pepperdine president] David Davenport and others at the university.”

Mr. Starr’s political disposition has been amply explored by Joe Conason in The Observer . Mr. Starr’s values are Pepperdine values: antigovernment, pro big business. The School of Public Policy’s visiting fellow this year is Jack Kemp.

Pepperdine’s Mr. Wilburn said last year about Mr. Scaife, “He didn’t ask for anything, but he often gave substantial amounts which kept us going.” That’s how big money works. Moneybags don’t have to ask for anything. That would not be genteel. Universities generally don’t like the big shots throwing their weight around. Moneybags simply know whom they trust. They trust the sort of university officials who would trust Kenneth Starr. Mr. Starr would not want to alienate that sort of people. In the culture war between Pepperdine values à la Mr. Scaife, and Beverly Hills values à la Monica Lewinsky, he knows whose side he’s on.

It was dumb of Hillary Clinton to denounce a right-wing “conspiracy.” The word “conspiracy”-literally, breathing together-brings to mind cabals passing envelopes of cash in air-conditioned rooms. Few things work that way. Few things have to. Mr. Scaife’s money would not be founding a public policy school known for its hospitality to Keynesian economists.

Pepperdine is, of course, perfectly entitled to fund a public policy school that frowns on government spending. Perhaps when Mr. Starr gets to Malibu he can organize a course on runaway Federal prosecutions.

Westward-Ho! Starr Chamber, Then Starr-Crossed Malibu