Sam Dash, chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee 25 years ago and a true Washington insider, did a remarkable thing toward the end of November. He resigned as ethics adviser to special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, charging that Starr had "no right or authority under the law, as independent counsel, to advocate for a particular position" on the question of presidential impeachment.
Indeed, the institution of special prosecutor, a relatively recent innovation in American politics, arose at the time of Watergate to ensure that political bias would be eliminated in cases of alleged wrongdoing in government, and Dash accused Starr of acting, instead, as "an aggressive advocate" against President Bill Clinton instead of serving as an "independent counsel."
This should have been no surprise to those who have followed the tactics of Starr over the past four years, and, in fact, the public seems to have paid more attention to them than Starr's supporters in Congress. Polls consistently show Starr's approval rating to be only in the 25 percent range.
But in his two-hour personal report to the House Judiciary Committee, Starr gave evidence that he has been less than honest with the press and the public in the pursuit of his duties. He announced publicly for the first time, as if passing lightly over past sound and fury, that he had no evidence of presidential wrongdoing in the ballyhooed cases of Whitewater, Filegate and Travelgate. As columnist Molly Ivins noted, did she miss something along the line?
Well, it appears the general public has missed a lot as well, and as Starr's bravado continued to unravel, a pattern of prosecutorial misbehavior appeared to emerge. Take the unfortunate case of Susan McDougal, a onetime Clinton associate in Arkansas who has refused to testify against the president as Starr tried to coerce her to do.
"Everything that has happened to me in recent years has been about Bill Clinton," McDougal said after being acquitted on all counts by a California jury in a case widely seen as a vengeance case inspired by Starr. She also served 18 months in jail for contempt in refusing to testify against Clinton in the Whitewater case -- the case in which Starr has now admitted there was no evidence against Clinton at all.
Another figure in Whitewater -- a case that dominated the news for several years before Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky came into Starr's purview -- was Webster Hubbell, also a Clinton associate, who was recently reindicted on charges related to Whitewater, which has proved to be a bust in terms of arousing the public as to what that all means.
And keeping with his adversarial style, it has been alleged that Starr threatened Lewinsky with serious legal troubles if she didn't testify to his liking before a grand jury, and that she is still bound by a vow not to say anything without Starr's approval. This is hardly what an independent counsel was envisaged to do.
Dash is widely respected in Washington and has been described as "a giant of American jurisprudence." But until he resigned to protest Starr's own ethical behavior, very few nonpoliticians in Washington had said or done anything about Starr unless it enhanced their own political fortunes.
A lawyer for nearly 50 years and a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, Dash may have opened Starr's behavior to a more objective study of whether special prosecutors serve the best interests of the nation, not only in terms of the millions of dollars in legal bills they have cost but in the pursuit of higher standards of conduct by those who govern our affairs.
In the latter regard, these recent developments only deepen public concern about a special counsel running so roughly shod over those who are his targets. And from Whitewater to Lewinsky, Starr has raised major concerns across America about the objectivity his role in public life has demanded.
Opinion polls reflect those concerns, and his record to date is one of expensive failure to abide by such standards. But more telling may have been the comment by a former federal prosecutor named Lawrence Barcella.
"After Sam Dash resigned," he said, "what else do you need to know about Ken Starr? That pretty much says it all about this prosecution.