If the Gap Dress Is Clean, Will Starr Finally Retreat?

The airwaves and newsprint tell us everything except what we want to be told. Both Bill Clinton and Kenneth Starr must know by now whether Monica Lewinsky’s cocktail dress bears a telltale smear–the President because he presumably has known since January, the independent counsel because he reportedly has received results from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. For the rest of us, only items of lesser interest from the higher courts are available: White House lawyer Lanny Breuer was ordered to testify, and Clinton confidant and counsel Bruce Lindsey was ordered to testify again. Judge Norma Holloway Johnson can resume her inquest into illegal leaks from the independent counsel’s office, but the President’s lawyers may not question Mr. Starr or his deputies.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton has smilingly ignored those Sunday morning invitations to repent and be forgiven. Could he possibly doubt the sincerity of adversaries who now counsel him toward redemption? Is anyone surprised that he isn’t eager to become Warren G. Harding just yet? He may suspect that his powerful foes have not pursued him with such zeal for so long, only to turn back because he says he’s sorry. And he knows that isn’t what Mr. Starr has in mind.

The day this is published marks the beginning of the fifth year of Mr. Starr’s career as independent counsel. On Aug. 5, 1994, he was named to replace Robert Fiske, the former U.S. Attorney, who had by then spent six months investigating the President. Coming at a dramatic moment in the Lewinsky matter, this unhappy anniversary provides an opportunity for reflection on Mr. Starr’s progress.

To date, he has not established that Mr. Clinton or Hillary Rodham Clinton have committed any crime. He has convicted a few of the Clintons’ former associates–and several others they knew barely or not at all–of offenses wholly unrelated to them and their interests. The exception is the felony conviction of former Deputy Attorney General Webster Hubbell.

Mr. Starr’s successful prosecutions have had only a tenuous connection to the Whitewater land development; the various probes branching far and wide from that ancient fiasco seem unlikely to result in the filing of criminal charges. Nor has he issued an indictment against anyone in the so-called Filegate and Travelgate affairs; and his most sympathetic chroniclers in the press expect those matters to be closed without further action.

The only conclusion he has announced publicly is that White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster killed himself. The only charges he brought that directly involved campaign contributions to Mr. Clinton ended in acquittals for both defendants.

No wonder, then, after so much frustration and failure–after bringing more disrepute upon himself than his targets–Mr. Starr is eager to prove that Mr. Clinton lied under oath about a sexual liaison with Ms. Lewinsky. He justifies this trifling inquisition as a sanctified quest for “the truth,” even though his private lawyering has been devoted to protecting tobacco companies and car manufacturers from truth and its consequences. The more high-minded he tries to sound, the more vindictive he appears to be.

Even if Mr. Starr eventually finds evidence eliminating all doubt that Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky engaged in some kind of sexual activity, he will not necessarily have established a crime by anyone. The early leaks about Ms. Lewinsky’s proffer–which she gave under a threat to indict her mother–indicate that Mr. Starr’s notion of a grand conspiracy to obstruct justice is moot. According to those reports, Ms. Lewinsky has told Mr. Starr that she and her former friend Linda Tripp composed the “talking points” document. To grant her complete immunity as he did, Mr. Starr must believe that version of events, which exculpates Bruce Lindsey and every other White House lawyer. (Ms. Tripp denies authorship but cannot implicate anyone else.) Ms. Lewinsky’s account is also said to clear Vernon Jordan of any attempt to suborn her testimony, which was the original premise of Mr. Starr’s expanded jurisdiction.

As for the President, many legal experts say he could have lied without committing perjury because the judge in the Paula Jones case later ruled the Lewinsky matter immaterial and then dismissed the case entirely. That is why Mr. Starr wants to put Mr. Clinton under oath before the grand jury, where lies would be clearly perjurious.

Yet although a lie is not always perjury, it is nevertheless a lie. If Mr. Clinton has lied insistently for six months, then he has colluded with Mr. Starr in a selfish and terrible assault on institutions and individuals he should have protected.

For those who insist that the President is entitled to the same presumption of innocence as any other citizen in the courts of law and public opinion, one question has nagged from the beginning: Was it more likely that Mr. Clinton had engaged in such a reckless indulgence of his libido, or that Ms. Lewinsky had invented such a lurid fantasy about him? There are people who know him well and believe her; there are people who know her well and don’t.

The temptation to rush ahead of the facts remains irresistible for many commentators. Perhaps their assumptions will be vindicated. But what if no incriminating stain is found on Ms. Lewinsky’s cocktail dress? Would that prove the President cannot be impeached, in both senses of the word? Or would his adversaries brush aside scientific refutation and seek to substantiate their prepackaged verdict elsewhere?

Four years of slowly deflating accusations, from Whitewater to the talking points, have not diminished Mr. Starr’s determination to ruin the President. His project has narrowed to a vanishing point of absurd prurience–and that is where he will be stuck forever, no matter what. The only issue that remains is whether Mr. Clinton will be stuck there with him.

If the Gap Dress Is Clean, Will Starr Finally Retreat?