A Starring Role for a Legal Eagle

The sanctity of bookstores aside, the latest casualty of Kenneth Starr’s jihad is the illusion of impartiality in the media. With the revelation that television talking head and legal analyst Stuart Taylor Jr. was negotiating for a job in Mr. Starr’s apparatus last month–a “patriotic service,” he said, from which he “chickened out” for careerist reasons–we learned that an objective expert is someone who presupposes the guilt of Bill and Hillary Clinton. And given Mr. Taylor’s powerful animus against the Clintons, we also learned what kind of report Mr. Starr is planning to present to Congress when his labors are complete.

Only those who haven’t paid much attention to Mr. Taylor’s words, in his TV appearances and his columns for The American Lawyer , The National Journal and Legal Times , could have been surprised to learn of his intense flirtation with the independent counsel. It was Mr. Taylor, after all, who persuaded gullible newspeople during the fall of 1996 that Paula Jones had a credible claim against the President. His lengthy and much cited article on that topic, revisiting the witnesses who supposedly corroborated Ms. Jones’ lurid recollections, was cited as a virtual verdict on her case (although Mr. Taylor noted that he had examined only half the evidence at most). Months later, he took another look at the Jones case, finding fresher material that cast doubt on the plaintiff’s grievance.

But unlike his first Jones piece, which brought him celebrity, Mr. Taylor’s second thoughts about the case were virtually ignored. And since then, he seems to have adopted an increasingly shrill and prejudicial tone in any discussion of charges against the President.

That doesn’t mean Mr. Taylor lacks sincerity. The problem is that he was presented by TV producers and magazine editors as a kind of high-toned Judge Wapner when he quite obviously lacks judicial temperament. As early as last June, he wrote, “Bill Clinton has defined the Presidency down, deflating our expectations to the point that each new scandal du jour has little capacity to shock.” Back then, he suggested that “there may be merit in the counsel of those who advise Clinton to settle Paula Jones’ suit by saying almost anything she wants.”

While acknowledging that there may well have been leaks of grand jury material from Mr. Starr’s office, he excused those violations of law as “probably attributable to sloppiness rather than malice.” The “main problem for Clinton,” he wrote, is that “he is sleazier than most Presidents.”

To disagree with his harsh judgment, in Mr. Taylor’s view, is to commit the sin of spin. When David Brock confessed publicly his long-held doubts about the state troopers whose tales of Clintonian perfidy Mr. Taylor accepts uncritically, the legal analyst denounced Mr. Brock as a “Clinton apologist.” He might as well be writing Republican press releases or a column in The Weekly Standard .

Now consider the moment a few days ago when Mr. Taylor’s readers and editors suddenly learned that he had been negotiating an employment deal with Mr. Starr under their noses. Mr. Taylor excused his own lapse of candor with what might uncharitably be called spin. His discussions with Mr. Starr had only taken a serious turn, he insisted, for a few days between March 26 and March 30. He had been “on vacation” during those few days. They had talked about a job before that, yes–but those chats didn’t count because Mr. Taylor had said No. Eric Effron, the editor of Legal Times , found that tortured explanation unsatisfactory, and said so. It was all very distressing, especially considering Mr. Taylor’s pre-vacation March 23 column, which sounded so much like an audition for Mr. Starr: “No other President has been caught lying under oath so brazenly. Clinton has been caught.”

Mr. Taylor will continue working for Mr. Starr on the outside, though perhaps he no longer will be sold on TV as a “dispassionate” sage. Unembarrassed by the summary rejection of the Jones case he once found so convincing, his latest essay on April 3 argues that Judge Susan Webber Wright’s decision actually was a defeat for the President. After his intimate talks with Mr. Starr, Mr. Taylor predicts that the independent counsel will deliver to Congress by May 15 a “copiously documented public report detailing grand jury testimony and other evidence that implicates Clinton and his aides in as many as several dozen alleged perjuries and in efforts to encourage perjury or conceal evidence.”

Mr. Taylor’s condemnation of the President seems to be founded on the proposition that if enough liars–the troopers, the crooked judge David Hale or the late thief James McDougal–make accusations against Mr. Clinton, some of them must be true. The fallacy is plain enough, and it suggests another reason why Mr. Taylor shied away from joining the independent counsel. Perhaps he knows, however much he may wish for Mr. Clinton’s impeachment and disgrace, that the case is weak.

A Starring Role for a Legal Eagle