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.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"