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Starr finally enters the chamber

Embattled independent counsel gets to defend his four-year probe to House.

To the public he has been little more than a sound bite delivered with a forced smile. Now, after four years, he gets to tell his side of the story.

The details of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's case against President Clinton are well known, of course. They are contained in the many boxes of evidence he delivered to Congress this fall.

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But when Mr. Starr makes his scheduled Nov. 19 appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, it will mark his first chance to publicly explain his actions. It will also mark Americans' first chance to see past the stereotypes and judge for themselves what sort of man has been pursuing the president.

"We already know the evidence. That's why his style and his image, are going to be so critical," says Robert Denton, a specialist in political communication at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va.

The impression Starr makes in his hearing testimony might well determine the course of Congress's impeachment inquiry, say lawmakers and outside experts.

Republicans are hoping that during the two hours of his presentation the experienced litigator will come across as a calm voice of reason. If he does, this scenario goes, voters might see past the swirl of salaciousness and counteraccusations and refocus on what Mr. Clinton did, and what he said about it later.

Democrats want to make Starr and his office the focus of the hearing. They plan to use their question time to talk about such things as whether the independent counsel improperly leaked information to reporters, or whether he had too cozy a relationship with lawyers for Paula Jones.

Such an approach would amount to investigating the investigator - and it's something the House Judiciary Committee's GOP leadership is likely to resist.

"There are appropriate forums to investigate the independent counsel; an impeachment inquiry of the president is not one of them," said panel chairman Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois in a letter to Democrats this week.

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Not just a jowly face

If nothing else, Starr's testimony will put a voice to his well-known face and will perhaps change the way the public thinks about him.

One thing working in his favor is that he will be starting with a low base of expectations. Almost 60 percent of Americans have a negative opinion of Starr, according to one recent poll. The image hung on him by the president's defenders, that of an overzealous, prim prosecutor, is the one that has gained the most public currency.

But he is a person, not a puritan, say his defenders. They claim his words will show a reasonableness that has so far been missing from his public persona.

Indeed, his past legal record has shown instances of independence. He is not the doctrinaire conservative his critics portray.

As a federal appeals court judge, he surprisingly ruled in favor of The Washington Post in a high-profile libel suit brought by former Mobil Oil president William Tavoulareas, for instance. As solicitor general under President Bush, Starr went against White House wishes by supporting the rights of government whistle-blowers on a particular case.

As a judge and a lawyer he is a classic 1990s Washington type: a conservative driven by ideas, not a thirst for political battle.

Even on rare moments away from work he is often immersed in thought. His wife, Alice, once told an interviewer that drives in the country were one of their favorite recreations.

"I drive. Ken reads," she said.

Not apolitical, either

This does not mean that the political arena holds little interest for Starr. Indeed, the native Texan left Harding College, a Christian school in Arkansas, after only 18 months before heading to Washington to study political science at George Washington University.

After law school and various high-profile clerkships, Starr was poised to become the youngest partner ever named by the powerful California-based firm Gibson, Dunn, and Crutcher.

Then his mentor at the firm, William French Smith, was named attorney general by President Reagan, and he asked Starr to follow him. The young lawyer left the firm five days before his partnership was to take effect and never went back.

It is no secret that he made this jump, and numerous others, in hope of reaching his ultimate goal: a seat on the Supreme Court. For him, it would be the ultimate irony if the high-profile independent counsel assignment has made him too controversial a figure to ever win a coveted high court seat.

Will minds change?

Starr's Judiciary Committee appearance will come at the end of long months of wearying news about the matter of former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and Clinton.

At this point, will anyone be swayed by what he has to say? "I would be surprised if minds were changed," says John Barrett, a professor at St. John's University School of Law in New York.

How the media portray his appearance will be as important as the appearance itself, since so many Americans will hear of it only through the filter of television or newspapers.

But at the least, Ken Starr will be a more impressive witness than many expect, his defenders say.

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