John Dean, left, and Ken Starr
NPR's Justice Talking features debates between the nation's top advocates and newsmakers.
Host Margot Adler recently moderated a discussion between Ken Starr, dean of the Pepperdine University School of Law, who served as independent counsel during the Clinton administration, and author John Dean, former counsel to President Richard Nixon during Watergate. This excerpt is one in an occasional series.
MARGOT ADLER: John, you've seen abuse of executive power up close. What was it about the Nixon White House that let things go so out of hand?
JOHN DEAN: Well it's not something that happens where a lot of people sit around and plan how we can abuse power. It doesn't happen that way. It happens an increment at a bit. You can see it in the Nixon presidency slowly gathering its momentum. It starts first for Nixon with leaks. He's very concerned about leaks and it really kind of comes to its first real defining moment in the summer of 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg leaked the so-called Pentagon Papers, the study of the origins of the war in Vietnam. This was to Richard Nixon in many ways what 9-11 was to George Bush. It was a really defining moment of his presidency. Those of us who have gone back and sort of shared and talked about what happened, we all come back to that very moment as the time when everything changed in the Nixon White House. It wasn't fun anymore. It was kind of heavy.
MARGOT ADLER: Was the President paranoid?
JOHN DEAN: I would say that's a mild statement of the conditions. What happened is this... his initial reaction to the papers, they were released the weekend his daughter, Tricia, was married and he went to the Sunday paper (in the middle of June 1971) and he noticed this big story about this leak of these papers. And his first reading was it didn't concern him. He said this really hurts the Democrats much more than it does Republicans. So it's not until Kissinger on Monday tells him, "Mr. President, I can't operate if we can't keep our secrets. I'm having secret negotiations with the Chinese. I'm having secret negotiations with the North Vietnamese. And if you can't show how we can deal effectively with Dan Ellsberg, the world is going to consider you a weakling." And that hit his manhood button and from then on it changed.
MARGOT ADLER: Let me turn to Ken and ask about your role in Whitewater. It led many people to support you, and it led a lot of others to treat you as a pariah. It's five years later. Is the feeling as intense as it still was? Can you walk down the street without being noticed? Can you have a private life?
KEN STARR: I think the intensity has subsided. It obviously was a horrible time for the country. 1998 was a perfectly wretched, miserable year for everyone. And we were so eager to conclude it, and I say this not in rancor. I do say this in sorrow, I do wish that all things considered there had been prompt and full disclosure... And, indeed, one of my many sorrows about this is that the Monica Lewinsky dimension was also complicated by the fact that she had a particular counsel and the 11th commandment is "Do not criticize fellow lawyers," but she had a counsel at the time who was not steeped in matters of criminal law.
MARGOT ADLER: This was Ginsburg you're talking about?
KEN STARR: I don't use names.
MARGOT ADLER: OK.
KEN STARR: Except to say... she had engaged Jake Stein and Plato Cacheris, well-known criminal defense lawyers of complete honor and integrity and vast experience in the Washington, D.C., area and within two weeks we had a deal.
JOHN DEAN: May I ask Ken a question on that issue that? I've always wondered about whether you had second thoughts about your decision to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on the impeachment inquiry? Now, yes, the law does require and call for a referral. It's based on what happened back in Watergate when [Leon] Jaworski makes a referral to the Congress of the material from the grand jury and doesn't testify, he just gives them the raw data, something they called a roadmap. You literally went up and explained it to the committee and took an awful lot of heat for that decision including from your own ethics advisor who quit over it, Sam Dash, who was very critical of you for that decision. Have you had reflection on that decision?
KEN STARR: Well not only have I had reflection on that decision, I did not want to do it. Look, my statutory obligation was to provide [the Committee] the information. It is a complete report. You have backup information, which is in the bosom of the Ford Building, backup materials that have never been made publicly available. Use that material. The report speaks for itself.
JOHN DEAN: So why did you testify?
KEN STARR: Because it was an official request from the Judiciary Committee.
JOHN DEAN: I was asked to testify with that committee and turned them down.
KEN STARR: Well, that's good.
JOHN DEAN: I didn't want to mix Watergate in that mess.
KEN STARR: You showed greater wisdom.