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Starr's Tenure As Independent Counsel Marked by Strongly Unfavorable Public Opinion

Starr's Tenure As Independent Counsel Marked by Strongly Unfavorable Public Opinion


PRINCETON, NJ -- Kenneth Starr's official announcement Monday that he is stepping down as independent counsel marks the end of his formal role at the epicenter of one of the most highly publicized events in recent American history. And, despite Starr's protestations that he was only doing the job he was appointed to do, he leaves the office as one of the most negatively evaluated public figures measured in Gallup Poll annals. About two-thirds of Americans said they had a negative opinion of Starr earlier this year, after the impeachment crisis was over, and the same number said they disapproved of the job he did as independent counsel. Other measures taken during 1998 and early 1999 show the degree to which the American public distrusted both his motives and his decisions. Still, while Bill Clinton, the target of the highly publicized Lewinsky investigations, was acquitted in a Senate trial, a large percentage of Americans said they agreed with the charges brought against Clinton first by Starr and then by the House, and perhaps largely as a result of Starr's efforts, the public's measure of Clinton as a person, and his honesty and trustworthiness and moral character, have fallen to low levels.

The American public formed an unfavorable opinion of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr almost as soon as he was swept into the limelight as a result of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky revelations in early 1998. Those initial impressions became more negative as the series of tumultuous events unfolded that ultimately resulted in the second impeachment of a president in American history.

Gallup first asked Americans to give their impressions of Starr in a January 23-24, 1998 poll. At that time, public opinion split right down the middle: 24% of those polled said they had a favorable opinion of Starr, and 24% said they had an unfavorable opinion. (The rest had never heard of him or had no opinion.) Within days, however, as the Lewinsky charges became public, and as Bill Clinton made his famous "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" assertion, coupled with Hillary Clinton's claims on national television that her husband was being hounded by a "vast right-wing conspiracy," Starr's image quickly turned more negative. By mid-February, 46% of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Starr, and by the following October, shortly after the release of the independent counsel's report to Congress, Ken Starr's unfavorable image reached a high point up to that time of 60%. Immediately after the Senate vote to acquit Bill Clinton in February of this year, Starr's negative image was up to 62%, and by March of this year it reached 66%--almost a three-to-one margin negative to positive.

Additionally, 64% of Americans said in the March 1999 poll that they disapproved of the way in which Kenneth Starr was handing his job as independent counsel, while only 28% approved. While Starr was perceived by some of his critics as being a highly partisan Republican, only a bare majority of Republicans in the March poll, 52%, said they approved of the job Starr was doing. By comparison, only a miniscule 8% of Democrats said they approved.

And in February 1999, when the public was asked to rate a list of individuals and groups as winners or losers in the impeachment process, 73% of those polled said that Starr was a loser, with only 20% saying that he was a winner.

Other polls conducted during 1998 and early 1999 give some indication of the reasons behind Starr's decidedly negative image.

  • At one point in November 1998, when given a choice, 53% of Americans said Starr was acting more like a "persecutor" while only 39% said he was acting more like a "prosecutor."
  • One of Starr's most controversial actions was his decision to send the "Starr report" containing Monica Lewinsky's explicit descriptions of her sexual encounters with Bill Clinton to Congress, which in turn released them to the public. The public disagreed with these decisions. On September 10, 1998, 71% said that the sexual details in the report should not have been released to the public, while only 26% said that they should have been.
  • Americans tended to feel that Starr's motives were more political than professional. In January 1998, when Starr was first becoming widely known, 48% of the public said that Starr was "mostly trying to damage President Clinton politically," while just 38% said that Starr was attempting to "find out the facts." By June 1998, 57% of the public agreed with the "damage politically" explanation, compared to 38% who agreed with the "find out the facts" alternative.

At the same time, it is important to remember that the charges developed by Starr's office -- that Clinton obstructed justice and committed perjury -- were not disregarded by the American public. In a February poll conducted just before the Senate vote on impeachment, 73% of Americans said they believed the perjury charge and 49% said they believed the obstruction of justice charge. Additionally, although the public maintained its highly unfavorable opinion of Starr, Americans downgraded Bill Clinton significantly during the year on measures such as his honesty and trustworthiness, their favorable opinion of him "as a person," and his moral leadership.

Finally, despite the low opinions of Kenneth Starr and his motivations, the entire Lewinsky impeachment situation did not cause Americans to disparage the concept of the office of independent counsel. In a March poll, only 17% said that the independent counsel law should be totally abolished, while 32% wanted it kept as is, and another 48% said that they wanted it kept, but with some modifications.

Survey Methods
The results below are based on telephone interviews with randomly selected national samples of 711 and 1,021 adults, 18 years and older, conducted February 9 and March 5-7, 1999, respectively. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95 percent confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is plus or minus 4 percentage points for the February 9 poll, and plus or minus 3 percentage points for the March 5-7 poll. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

February 9, 1999
Now I'm going to read the two charges against Bill Clinton for which he was impeached by the House of Representatives and is now on trial for in the Senate. As I read each one, please say -- regardless of your view about removing him from office -- whether you think that charge against Clinton is true or not true.

A. The charge that Bill Clinton committed perjury by providing false and misleading testimony about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky to Ken Starr's grand jury

True 73%
Not true 24
No opinion 3

B. The charge that Bill Clinton obstructed justice by trying to influence the testimony of Monica Lewinsky, his secretary, and others in the Paula Jones lawsuit

True 49%
Not true 45
No opinion 6

March 5-7, 1999
Next, I'd like to get your overall opinion of some people in the news. As I read each name, please say if you have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of this person -- or if you have never heard of him or her. First,… . How about ... [READ A; THEN ROTATE B-U]?

  Favorable Unfavorable Never heard of No opinion
Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr
99 Mar 5-7 24 66 4 6
99 Feb 19-21 31 62 3 4
99 Feb 4-8 30 61 3 6
98 Dec 28-29 32 58 4 6
98 Nov 20-22 34 56 3 7
98 Oct 9-12 (*) 31 60 2 7
98 Sep 14-15 32 55 5 10
98 Aug 21-23 30 55 5 10
98 Aug 10-12 26 54 8 12
98 Aug 7-8 28 52 7 13
98 Jun 5-7 29 50 11 10
98 Feb 13-15 27 46 12 15
98 Jan 30-Feb 1 25 42 19 14
98 Jan 28 (*) 20 38 21 21
98 Jan 24-25 26 27 24 23
98 Jan 23-24 24 24 29 23

Do you approve or disapprove of the way Kenneth Starr is handling his job as independent counsel?

Approve 28%
Disapprove 64
No opinion 8

(*) one-night poll

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