The Nation's Pulse

The Question on the Staircase

What I should have asked Kenneth Starr.

By 10.28.05

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I wish I had asked Ken Starr a different question when I met him a couple of years ago at the annual dinner of the Massachusetts Family Institute (MFI). Starr gave the featured address, a riveting lecture on the Michael Newdow Pledge of Allegiance case, where he was part of the defense team representing the Newdow child's mother, Sandra Benning, before the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court punted, as you will recall.

Afterwards, the MFI let a bunch of us line up at a mike and ask questions. I got there third, determined to ask one I had been thinking about for a long time.

I HAD ACTUALLY MET JUDGE STARR one on one about an hour before, in the men's room. He and I had both done the same thing: retired there a bit earlier than was polite, right in the middle of a (bad) dessert. I was doing the usual. The judge was grooming himself for his appearance onstage.

"Oh, hello, Judge Starr," I said. "I'm Lawrence Henry of The American Spectator."

"Hello," he said, beaming. Given the circumstances, we did not shake hands. (Long ago, I was reminded, I had met the late Judd Rose, ABC TV news correspondent, in a restroom before a wedding. Once again, I was doing the usual. Rose was pulling off jeans and sweatshirt and changing frantically into a tux. He was the best man.)

Before I could say more, Starr said, "You've got a new format, don't you? It looks good."

I made some response about the magazine's restored status under Bob Tyrrell, and remarked, "I guess we started your troubles inadvertently, a long time ago."

"Ah, well," he chuckled.

"Nice to meet you," I said. "I'll be looking forward to hearing you."

"Nice to meet you, too."

And I left.

SO I WAITED IN THE LINE, rehearsing my long-thought-out question, which was:

"Judge Starr, back during the troubles, someone said you had a 'tin ear for politics.' Everybody picked it up. Do you think, in fact, you have a tin ear for politics?"

Lesson here, journalists: Do not ask veteran political figures sophisticated political questions to show how clever you are and to elicit, as you hope, some breakthrough response. Practically, it will get you nothing. Even if you make an experienced politico think an unexpected thought, he will not say it in public now, without thinking it over a long time first.

For the record, Starr said, "I had written instructions (as Special Prosecutor). I had a job assignment." And his instructions didn't include political game-playing, which he said, he did not do.

Somebody else asked him a much better question, which you can find answered in my column, "Make Them Fear You," here.

WHAT I SHOULD HAVE ASKED, in the spirit of what the French call "esprit de escalier," or "staircase wit," a clever remark you think of too late, was this. It had the additional virtue of my really wanting to know, and now I still do:

"Judge Starr, during the troubles, James Carville called you a 'hymn-singin' Fundamentalist.' You had told an interviewer you liked to relax in the evening by taking walks and singing hymns to yourself. What hymns did you especially like to sing? Were they of the 'find a solace there' variety, or more like 'put on the Gospel armor?'"

Starr would have known the larger implications from the lines I chose. We Christians do signal one another like that. (See my column, "Sweet Hour of Prayer" here.) The first comes from "What a Friend (We Have in Jesus)," Joseph Scriven and Charles C. Converse, third verse:

Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care?

Precious Savior, still our refuge -- Take it to the Lord in prayer.

Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer.

In His arms he'll take and shield thee. Thou wilt find a solace there.

The second, from the third verse of "Stand Up for Jesus," G. Duffield and G.J. Webb:

Stand up, stand up for Jesus, stand in His strength alone;

The arm of flesh will fail you -- Ye dare not trust your own.

Put on the gospel armor, and, watching unto prayer,

Where duty calls, or danger, be never wanting there.

Ken Starr is a hero of John Wayne-like proportions to the members of the MFI, who are themselves in large part hymn-singin' Fundamentalists. The question would not have embarrassed him, and I expect he would have answered it with a careful selection of hymns straddling the prayerful and the exhortational.

The follow-up might have caught him off-guard: "Would you care to lead us in a hymn?"

Because the crowd wouldn't have let him back out. No matter the quality of the Starr singing voice. (N.B. His speaking voice is much richer and less nasal in person than on TV. I wonder if broadcast engineers had it in for him, the way press photographers did for John Ashcroft when they regular focused on the A.G. with Justice's boobs in the background.) He would instantly have been joined by a thunderous chorus of hundreds.

He might have thrown it back to me: "Why don't you do it?"

Gotcha. I'm a singer. I would instantly have sung "Stand up, stand up for Jesus, ye soldiers of the Cross..."

Or maybe he would have led a hymn without hesitating. Maybe Ken Starr leads hymn sings all the time.

Just picture it. Ah, well.

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.