Starr’s Defenders Forget Their History

There are people in public life who don’t remember anything that happened before yesterday-or who hope that nobody else does. That at least is the impression left by the politicians and pundits who whine about the “unprecedented” and “vicious” White House criticism of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. They seem to have forgotten the long campaign of orchestrated leaks, slurs and harassment mounted against Iran-contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh by Congressional Republicans and their allies in the media.

This memory lapse is surprising, since the anti-Walsh crusade ended just five years ago, and some of those complaining most loudly about Mr. Starr’s rough treatment helped to lead the charge against Mr. Walsh. Consider the Wall Street Journal editorial page, for instance, which has echoed Mr. Starr’s complaint about the “avalanche of lies” under which his probe has been buried. Back in September 1992, The Journal helped launch a little cascade of falsehoods against Mr. Walsh, centered around the question of whether he and one of his top deputies, Craig Gillen, owed local income tax to the District of Columbia. For Journal editorial writers and their colleagues at The Washington Times, that alleged personal tax problem overshadowed the constitutional crisis caused by secret transfers of weapons to the Iranians and the contras.

In Firewall: The Iran-Contra Conspiracy and Cover-Up, his 1997 memoir, Mr. Walsh recalls that distasteful frame-up as an attempt to discourage his prosecution of former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. On the same day that the nation’s most prominent Republicans hosted a fund-raising reception for Mr. Weinberger in Washington, The Washington Times “carried a false story that Gillen and I had been fined for nonpayment of D.C. taxes. Editorials in The Wall Street Journal and Daily Oklahoman repeated several libelous statements from the article: that Gillen and I were guilty of ‘tax evasion’; that we had been ‘fined’; that we had been subject to ‘civil penalty’; that we had “padded expenses’; that I had accepted an unethical gift of a low-rent lease at the Watergate Hotel; and that we were guilty of a felony …”

Mr. Walsh’s response to such smears was wisely muted. “Because the mainline press largely ignored these wild attacks, we did not feed the story by responding to them,” he writes, adding that “publishers have the right to say what they believe-right or wrong-and that responses simply invite more savage attacks.”

In fact, Mr. Walsh had been enduring harsh personal abuse for months by then, abuse which continued even after he completed his final report. Robert Dole, then the Senate minority leader, was almost hysterical in his attacks on the independent counsel, accusing him and his staff of “highly paid assassins” of blackmailing Mr. Weinberger into implicating Ronald Reagan in the crimes of Iran-contra. Representative Gerald Solomon, the Republican from upstate New York who now heads the House Rules Committee and entertains fantasies of impeaching the President, joined Newt Gingrich in asking the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel to investigate “possible illegal and unethical activities” by Mr. Walsh and his staff.

In a particularly obvious effort at harassment, the Congressional Republicans asked the General Accounting Office to conduct audits of Mr. Walsh’s expenditures. A conservative legal group held a raucous demonstration outside his office in June 1992 and announced that it would lobby Congress, the White House and the Justice Department, seeking his impeachment.

In the months leading up to the 1992 election, Mr. Walsh was quietly approached by former Reagan national security adviser William Clark with a strange offer: If Mr. Walsh would drop the prosecution of Mr. Weinberger, the Congressional calumnies on him and his office would give way to speeches of praise. “By backing [this] offer with political force and implying that the alternative was a return to the onslaughts by Senator Dole and his Republican colleagues, plus counterinvestigations by various government agencies, the proposed deal smelled to me like Tammany Hall in its heyday,” writes Mr. Walsh.

He rejected the deal, and while there was no impeachment, the Republican leadership demanded repeatedly that the Attorney General shut down the Iran-contra investigation and fire Mr. Walsh. They accused him of conducting a partisan political prosecution, similar to the concerns voiced by many Democrats about Mr. Starr.

The difference, of course, is that Mr. Walsh was a lifelong Republican who began his career working in New York for Thomas Dewey and had supported Presidents Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. The notion that he would conduct a political witch hunt on behalf of Democrats was laughable, and his critics never even tried to prove that he had secretly changed his party loyalties after being appointed independent counsel by a Republican-dominated court.

What Mr. Walsh lacked, however, were the hard-right credentials of Mr. Starr, and that demonized him in the eyes of politicians such as Mr. Dole and Mr. Gingrich. Against terrible odds and concerted efforts at obstruction, he pursued the cases as he found them. In the end, the Republican efforts to discredit him failed.

Serious historians agree that Mr. Walsh performed an important public service at considerable personal cost, in part because he refrained from the sort of abuses perpetrated by the independent counsel in the past few weeks. History may not be as kind to Kenneth Starr.

Starr’s Defenders Forget Their History