What Ken Starr’s Alleged Affair Means for Republicans

How can you wage culture war when your warriors are hypocrites and reprobates?

I had been on the bike trip through Tuscany in 2009. Early one evening while our spouses were at dinner elsewhere, [Kenneth] Starr had stepped out from the shadows of the grounds of the inn where we were staying and called me over. After expressing his feelings for me, he pulled me into an embrace. This was the beginning of a fond, consensual affair…. Starr had taken my hand and placed it on his crotch….

Our affair ran its course after a year or so of occasional encounters and a steady exchange of affectionate texts and emails.

— Judi Hershman, former public relations adviser to Starr during the Clinton impeachment, on Medium, July 12.

After four years of unapologetic immorality from Donald Trump, the allegation by Judi Hershman that she had an affair with Ken Starr—he who moved heaven and earth 23 years ago to document in pornographic detail Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky—may seem quaint. If hypocrisy, as La Rochefoucauld said, is the tribute vice pays to virtue, it wasn’t a tribute Trump often paid. Our 45th president didn’t put a lot of energy into feigning piety.

But assuming Hershman’s allegation is true (Starr hasn’t yet come forth to deny it), this revelation of Starr’s apparent hypocrisy arrives at an inconvenient moment. Many Republicans are trying right now to escalate the culture war, and you can’t easily wage culture war with compromised warriors.

The GOP forged a tight relationship with social conservatives in the summer of 1980, when then-candidate Ronald Reagan—looking to peel off devout Christians from President Jimmy Carter’s base of support—talked of being “born again” and became the first presidential nominee to end his acceptance speech with “God bless America.” (For those keeping score, Reagan was America’s first divorced president. Trump was the second.)

The strategy worked. In 1976, Carter had won evangelicals by 25 points. In 1980, he lost them by 26 points. At the 1984 convention, Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the conservative Christian group Moral Majority, decreed that Reagan and Vice President George H. W. Bush were “God’s instruments in rebuilding America.”

In 1993 Bill Clinton became president, ending 12 years of Republican White House rule.  It was clear to anyone paying attention that Clinton had been less than scrupulously faithful to his wife, to whom he was otherwise tightly bonded. Apoplectic conservatives wasted no time pounding him as antithetical to “family values.” That didn’t work. Most voters put their pocketbook first and, with the economy growing in 1996, they re-elected Clinton handily.

Starr had by then taken over the independent “Whitewater” investigation. Ethical questions about an Arkansas real estate investment during Clinton’s time as governor had in 1994 prompted the appointment of a special counsel by Clinton’s attorney general. The initial lead investigator, Robert Fiske, was on the verge of indicting several Clinton associates, but his initial report in June 1994 found no wrongdoing by Clinton. Weeks later, a pair of Republican-appointed judges fired Fiske and brought in Starr, despite Starr’s lack of prosecutorial experience.

Starr expanded the scope of the investigation and dragged it out for years. When he heard of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky in January 1998, he shifted the inquiry’s focus and used his findings to accuse Clinton of perjury. The resultant Starr Report included the most embarrassingly clinical details of a president’s sex life that the world had ever seen, so much so that newspapers and cable news shows struggled to find ways to report its contents. Gleeful Republicans, sensing political opportunity, declared Clinton morally unfit for the presidency and moved to impeach him

It didn’t work. Not only was the public more interested in the booming economy than in Clinton’s sexual practices, but high-profile Clinton critics kept getting caught cheating on their spouses. Three House Republicans—including leading abortion opponent Congressman Henry Hyde—admitted infidelity shortly before the 1998 midterm elections. Defying history, Democrats gained House seats. Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose adultery during his first marriage had been reported a decade earlier in Mother Jones, lost party support and resigned. (Gingrich was cheating on his second wife during the Starr investigation, but that would not be publicly known until 1999.) Then the person tapped to replace Gingrich, Congressman Bob Livingston, was exposed as an adulterer and resigned. Republicans next turned to Denny Hastert to be Speaker. Hastert would years later be exposed as a former child molester and sent to prison in connection with hush-money payments. At the time, though, the mild-mannered Hastert seemed a decent enough sort. Republicans proceeded with impeachment, but they failed to convict Clinton.

In 2000, Republicans nominated George W. Bush as a moral palette cleanser. The worst thing voters learned about the Texas governor was that (according to a Talk magazine profile by, of all people, Tucker Carlson), he’d mocked pleas for clemency from a murderer on death row (“Please don’t kill me”). George Will was appalled, but the story didn’t gain much traction outside the Beltway. Bush leaned heavily on his Christian faith to win conservative support—when asked in the primary who his favorite political philosopher was, Bush famously answered “Jesus.” And during his presidency, his top political aide Karl Rove eagerly waged culture war by spearheading a slew of successful state ballot initiatives in 2004 banning same-sex marriages. Also in Bush’s first term he signed into law the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, which attracted some Democratic support in Congress, dividing Democrats on an issue central to their own base. He also threw up some roadblocks to the use of discarded embryos in stem cell research.

But these Republican culture war victories were ephemeral, and limited. Support for gay rights grew rapidly after 2004, driven by younger voters; by 2015, the Supreme Court could extend constitutional protection to same-sex marriage with barely any backlash. In Bush’s second term, he went against public opinion and pandered to social conservatives by temporarily interfering in the case of Terri Schiavo, a woman in a persistent vegetative state whose husband determined she would not have wanted any more life support. Meanwhile, Bush’s record on domestic and foreign policy was abysmal, making cultural issues largely irrelevant to the 2006 midterm and the 2008 presidential elections, which were won by Democrats.

Barack Obama was the Democrats’ moral palette cleanser: a loving father and faithful husband on top of being a historic figure. When it was time to decide who was best to succeed Obama, Republicans deemed it no longer necessary to choose a nominee who represented family values, and picked a boorish, thrice-married philanderer accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct. Even leaked video of Donald Trump boasting about forcing himself on women (“grab them by the pussy”) could not dissuade so-called social conservatives from supporting him.

Paradoxically, the Republican turn away from morally upstanding leaders was accompanied by a tighter embrace of the culture war. But instead of claiming to nurture a virtuous society through moral leadership, Trump bases his culture war on fear-based, reactionary self-interest. Transgender protections are characterized (inaccurately) as bad because girls won’t be able to compete in high school and college sports. Critical Race Theory is maligned because it will make white kids hate themselves. The culture war battle against Covid-19 vaccination runs quite counter to Trump’s boast that the vaccine was developed on his watch, but he doesn’t dare challenge it because it’s largely inspired by his downplaying the crisis, refusing to wear a mask, and picking fights with Anthony Fauci.

Trump was able just barely to win his culture war battle in 2016, but could not sustain it for the 2018 midterm or the 2020 presidential election. Conservatives for decades smeared Hillary Clinton as corrupt and evil. But Joe Biden met little resistance following in Obama’s footsteps as a morally upstanding standard bearer, drawing a clear contrast with Trump.

Election data analysts such as David Shor have noted Trump counter-intuitively helped Republicans make some inroads with African-Americans and Latinos because, in Shor’s words, “he just personally embodies this large cultural divide between cosmopolitan college-educated voters and a large portion of non-college-educated voters,” which somewhat transcends race. Yet Trump’s culture war gains couldn’t offset his losses. That’s why Democrats run Washington today.

Hershman pinpointed the blatant hypocrisy of Starr, noting that “his 1998 pursuit of former president Clinton over his sexual relationship with a White House intern … was bookended by his recent impeachment foray, this time defending an adulterous President, who lies about so much more sin than that.” Starr’s defense during Trump’s first impeachment did not lack for chutzpah, complaining, “the Senate is being called to sit as the high court of impeachment all too frequently. Indeed, we are living in what I think can aptly be described as the Age of Impeachment.” The only president ever to be impeached besides Andrew Johnson was Bill Clinton, which would not have happened without Starr’s politically-motivated investigation.

Hershman writes that she broke her silence when she realized that “Starr has been at the intersection of so many wrong turns our country has made.” She notes his cameo roles in the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation, the Jeffrey Epstein case, and the 2016 Baylor University football team rape scandal. Also of note is Starr’s ultimately futile effort to keep gay marriage illegal in California.

Trump has far more to do with the state of today’s Republican Party than Starr, but Starr was a trailblazing phony moralist in the post-Reagan culture war, a man who hated adultery and sexual misconduct only when it served his political purposes.

Of course, Trump won once, and in the right circumstances, he or someone like him could win again. But it’s hard to fight a culture war with such defective cultural warriors. When you lack a persuasive vision of a virtuous society, all you have left is self-interest. Hershman finally had enough. Perhaps others will, too.

Why are Democrats accused by Republicans as being un-American or un-patriotic?

When I was growing up, everybody knew that everybody else was patriotic.

Maybe my father was a liberal, and yours was conservative, and mine was in the Army in WWII, and yours was in the Navy. But everybody wanted the best for America, and expected you to do so as well.

The disagreements were mostly about policies and methods.

Even my uncle, who was a card-carrying member of the John Birch Society, thought liberals and hippies, who were clearly destroying America, were merely naive deluded tools of Communist Russia.

Senator McCarthy had given a bad name to accusations of treason. By the early 1960s, most people would have been embarrassed to accuse somebody of being unpatriotic.

Sure, there were exceptions, but they were widely viewed as cranks, and they weren’t very influential.

That started to change with Newt Gingrich in the early 1990s.

Newt Gingrich

Gingrich had developed the sense that the reason that Republicans weren’t winning enough was that they weren’t nasty enough. So he distributed a memo[1] to the freshman members of the House, encouraging them to “speak like Newt.”

The memo encourages fellow Republican legislators (and aspirants) to memorize a list of “contrast” words, and to make a point of associating those words with Democrats at every opportunity. The word included the following:

decay, failure (fail) collapse(ing) deeper, crisis, urgent(cy), destructive, destroy, sick, pathetic, lie, liberal, they/them, unionized bureaucracy, “compassion” is not enough, betray, consequences, limit(s), shallow, traitors, sensationalists, endanger, coercion, hypocricy, radical, threaten, devour, waste, corruption, incompetent, permissive attitude, destructive, impose, self-serving, greed, ideological, insecure, anti-(issue): flag, family, child, jobs; pessimistic, excuses, intolerant, stagnation, welfare, corrupt, selfish, insensitive, status quo, mandate(s) taxes, spend (ing) shame, disgrace, punish (poor…) bizarre, cynicism, cheat, steal, abuse of power, machine, bosses, obsolete, criminal rights, red tape, patronage.

Don’t take my word for it, go read the memo.

Under his leadership, Republicans became much more bitter, accusing Democrats of deliberately destroying the country. Republicans re-took the House, and in 1995, they made Newt Speaker.

At this point, Speaker Gingrich instituted some new rules. (Technically not House rules, but rules within the Republican caucus.) Prior to his Speakership, both parties had actively championed collegiality. Members were encouraged to host and attend social events with members of both parties: barbecues, dinners, drinks after work, poker games, you name it. When Congressman Smith spoke of “My good friend, Congressman Jones”, he meant it. It led to common understandings and to compromises.

Speaker Gingrich knew that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted a caucus where it was clear that any Democrat was the enemy. So, if you liked your committee assignments, you stopped going to parties where Democrats might show up. You stopped inviting Democrats to your back-yard barbecue. You went for drinks after work with Republicans only.

Newt Gingrich was a professor of history. He understood about how collegiality leads to compromise. And he didn’t like it. He understood how demonization works. And that was just fine.

Newt Gingrich deliberately whipped up today’s hyperpartisan politics so that he could ride it into office. He hoped it would make him President one day. In the meantime, there are generations of Republicans who have grown up hearing their leadership preaching that Democrats are evil. How could they not believe it?

Q: Why are Democrats accused by Republicans as being un-American or un-patriotic?


Steve Kornacki, “The Red and The Blue”

Steve Kornacki discusses his book, “The Red and The Blue, at Politics and Prose on 10/5/18. Kornacki’s lively political history of the 1990s is both an absorbing chronicle of the parallel rises of Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich and a look at some of the key events, debates, and figures that laid the ground for today’s political landscape. In many cases—Trump, Schumer, Hillary Clinton—the cast of characters overlaps both eras. Kornacki, national political correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC, shows how, for instance, Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential bid gave Trump his first taste of electoral politics in 1999, and how Hillary Clinton’s role in the 1998 midterm elections put her on track to run for the Senate two years later. Kornacki is in conversation with Hallie Jackson, NBC’s chief White House correspondent.

Trump Makes Clear He’s Ready for a Fight He Has Long Anticipated

Impeachment, he insists, will be “a positive for me.”

He knew it was coming. It almost felt inevitable. No other president in American history has been seriously threatened with impeachment since before his inauguration. So when the announcement came on Tuesday that the House would consider charging him with high crimes and misdemeanors, President Trump made clear he was ready for a fight.

He lashed out at the opposition Democrats, denouncing them for “crazy” partisanship. He denounced the allegations against him as “more breaking news Witch Hunt garbage.” And he proclaimed that even if the impeachment battle to come will be bad for the country, it will be “a positive for me” by bolstering his chances to win a second term in next year’s election.

The beginning of the long-anticipated showdown arrived when Mr. Trump was in New York for the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly, creating a surreal split-screen spectacle as the president sought to play global statesman while fending off his enemies back in Washington. One moment, he talked of war and peace and trade with premiers and potentates. The next, he engaged in a rear-guard struggle to save his presidency.

Mr. Trump gave a desultory speech and shuffled between meetings with leaders from Britain, India and Iraq while privately consulting with aides about his next move against the House. Shortly before heading into a lunch with the United Nations secretary general, he decided to release a transcript of his July telephone call with the president of Ukraine that is central to the allegations against him. In effect, he was pushing his chips into the middle of the table, gambling that the document would prove ambiguous enough to undercut the Democratic case against him.

By afternoon, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi prepared to announce the impeachment inquiry, the president retreated to Trump Tower, his longtime home and base of operations, to contemplate his path forward. A telephone call between the president and speaker failed to head off the clash, and now the two are poised for an epic struggle that will test the limits of the Constitution and the balance of power in the American system.

“We have been headed here inexorably,” said Michael J. Gerhardt, an impeachment scholar at the University of North Carolina. “The president has pushed and pushed his powers up to and beyond the normal boundaries. He’s been going too far for some time, but even for him this most recent misconduct is beyond what most of us, or most scholars, thought was possible for a president to do.”

Long reluctant, Ms. Pelosi finally moved after reports that Mr. Trump pressed Ukraine’s president to investigate unsubstantiated corruption allegations against former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a leading Democratic candidate for president, while holding up $391 million in American aid to Ukraine. Democrats said leaning on a foreign power for dirt on an opponent crossed the line. Mr. Trump said he was only concerned about corruption in Ukraine.

Mr. Trump now joins only Andrew Johnson, Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton in facing a serious threat of impeachment, the constitutional equivalent of an indictment.

Mr. Nixon resigned when fellow Republicans abandoned him over Watergate, but Mr. Johnson and Mr. Clinton were each acquitted in a Senate trial, the result that seems most likely at the moment given that conviction requires a two-thirds vote, meaning at least 20 Republican senators would have to break with Mr. Trump.


Mr. Nixon and Mr. Clinton both were privately distraught over facing impeachment even as they waged vigorous public battles to defend themselves. Undaunted, Mr. Trump appeared energized by the confrontation, eager for battle. Confident of his position in the Republican-controlled Senate, he seemed almost to assume that the Democrat-controlled House would probably vote to impeach and that he would take his case to the public in next year’s election.

Former Speaker Newt Gingrich, an ally of the president’s, said Mr. Trump could afford to feel secure. He predicted the same thing would happen to Ms. Pelosi that happened to him in 1998, when he led a party-line impeachment inquiry of Mr. Clinton and paid the price in midterm elections, costing him the speakership.

Just as the public recoiled at the Republican impeachment then, Mr. Gingrich said, it will reject a Democratic impeachment now. Instead, he said, it will give Mr. Trump and the Republicans a chance to focus attention on Mr. Biden.

“This is the fight that traps the Democrats into an increasingly unpopular position — I lived through this in 1998 — while elevating the Biden case, which involves big money,” Mr. Gingrich said. “It is a win-win for Trump.”

His point on the popularity of impeachment was a critical one. Until now, at least, polls have shown that most Americans do not support impeaching Mr. Trump, just as they never embraced impeaching Mr. Clinton. And although how the latest allegations might ultimately change public opinion remained unclear, a new survey by Reuters and Ipsos released on Tuesday night suggested that support for impeachment had actually fallen since the Ukraine revelations, with just 37 percent in favor, down from 41 percent earlier this month.

Mr. Trump, though, has never been as popular as Mr. Clinton. During the 13-month battle that stretched from 1998 into 1999 over whether Mr. Clinton committed high crimes by lying under oath about his relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, Mr. Clinton’s approval rating was generally in the mid-60s and even surged to 73 percent in the days after he was impeached.

Mr. Trump does not have the same reservoir of good will, never having had the support of a majority of Americans in Gallup polling for even a single day of his presidency. His approval rating currently stands at 43 percent. But he has the support of 91 percent of Republicans, giving him reason to assume the party’s senators will stick with him.

Brenda Wineapple, author of “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation,” said there were times when a stand on principle was worth it even with a short-term cost. “Some defeats can ultimately be victories — but often only in the long or historical view,” she said. “The Johnson impeachment ultimately failed,” she said, but in the end, she added, the system worked.

At this turning point in his presidency, Mr. Trump began the day in New York toggling between world affairs and political survival. Even before he took the rostrum at the United Nations to deliver a subdued, boilerplate speech, he sought out reporters to push back on the suggestion that he used American aid to leverage Ukrainian cooperation with his investigation demand.

Mr. Trump asserted that he blocked the aid to Ukraine because European countries have not paid their fair share. He pointed to the fact that the money was eventually released as evidence that he did nothing wrong. What he did not mention was that European countries have chipped in $15 billion for Ukraine in the last few years and that he released the American aid only after senators from both parties threatened punitive legislation if he did not.

What he also did not say was that he had changed his explanation for withholding the money from just a day before. On Monday, he linked his decision to block the aid to his concerns about corruption in Ukraine, citing Mr. Biden as an example. By emphasizing instead his overall concern about foreign aid, he was advancing a rationale less tied to his demand for an investigation.

I’m leading in the polls and they have no idea how to stop me,” Mr. Trump said. “The only way they can try is through impeachment.”

In fact, Mr. Trump is trailing Mr. Biden and other Democrats seeking their party’s nomination in most polls, which is why Democrats assert he was so intent on obtaining dirt from Ukraine on the former vice president.

Either way, as stunning as the day’s developments were, the only real surprise was how long it took to get here. Mr. Trump’s critics began discussing impeachment within days of his election because of various ethical issues and Russia’s interference in the 2016 campaign. By last year’s midterm election, Mr. Trump repeatedly raised impeachment on the campaign trail, warning that Democrats would come after him if they won the House.

They did win, but the drive to impeachment stalled when the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, produced a report that established no criminal conspiracy between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russia while refusing to take a position on whether the president obstructed justice during the investigation.

As it turned out, Ukraine, not Russia, proved to be rocket fuel for the semi-dormant effort. Now, more than two and a half years later, the battle is on.