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Whitewater's New Starr

FORMER United States Solicitor General Kenneth Starr enjoys a reputation for fairness and thoroughness. Under other circumstances, his appointment as the special counsel investigating the Whitewater affair would be a solid move - but we are not sure it was necessary.

In naming him to replace Robert Fiske Jr., a three-judge federal panel cited the recently renewed Independent Counsel Act's intent to protect the counsel from the appearance of political conflict of interest. Mr. Fiske was appointed by Attorney General Janet Reno in January after the White House came under increasing pressure to name an independent counsel. This was its only option; Congress had not yet renewed the Independent Counsel Act.

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Fiske, however, came to the job as a moderate Republican and an aggressive former federal prosecutor who had successfully tried several high-profile cases. He also was said to know when to forgo bringing cases to trial when in his view the evidence was insufficient to win. This leads to justice that keeps the taxpayer in mind, but it hasn't satisfied his more-conservative party colleagues on Capitol Hill. Fiske had found no reason to prosecute the key players for discussions between the White House and US Treasury officials. He had found no evidence to contradict the view that White House deputy counsel Vincent Foster Jr.'s death was a suicide unrelated to Whitewater. And he had not completed his work. One wonders if the change would have been made had grand juries indicted several top administration officials. Interestingly, two of the three judges on the panel that named his replacement are GOP appointees and helped overturn two significant Iran-contra convictions.

So far, Mr. Starr, also a Republican (and a legal counsel to the church that publishes this newspaper) has refused to speculate on the details of how he will handle his work. He says he first wants to consult with Fiske. He also must build his team. This suggests a methodical approach that could be a defense against the probe being driven from the back seat by the GOP right in Congress. For President Clinton, the change could keep the case's profile high enough long enough to distract Congress and the public from more-pressing issues and spill into the 1996 presidential campaign. Yet if Starr's findings corroborate those of his predecessor, they should bring a final curtain down on what so far has largely been bad political theater.

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