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A Lawyer Departs: What Will It Mean For the Clintons?

"What does it mean?" is the breathless question of the week. That North Koreans are defecting? That American Airlines is cutting fares? That the Mavs and Nets are trading nine players?

No. The biggest question is why the independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, with the fate of the Clintons in his hands, is leaving this summer to become a dean at California's Pepperdine University.

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A change in prosecutors has been a matter of interest around here since the first of them, Archibald Cox, was purged by his target, President Nixon, 24 years ago. But this is different. Mr. Nixon knew what Mr. Cox, who was going after White House tapes, had in store for him. In 2-1/2 years, Mr. Starr has gotten nine plea bargains and three convictions in his Whitewater investigation in Little Rock. There were two acquittals, and three more defendants are scheduled for trial in September.

But these are only the foothills. What does it mean for the Starr-crossed first family that, on Presidents' Day yet, it is announced that the prosecutor who President Clinton once said was obviously out to get him is leaving?

The White House is said to be cautiously elated. The pundits will give you a broad spectrum of surmises. ABC consultant Bill Kristol: "Obviously he wouldn't leave if he were about to do something of such constitutional import as indicting the president or first lady." The Legal Times's Stuart Taylor: "It seems less likely," but not impossible, that the president or first lady will be indicted. The Brookings Institution's Stephen Hess: "It's the clue that things are going to be happening pretty fast in the next few months."

My preference goes to Bob Franken of CNN, who says: "It would certainly be wrong to read this one way or the other."

Starr, apparently surprised by all the excitement, says it is "wrong" and "misguided" to make any judgment about the investigation, which he says is moving along. What do we know for sure, or nearly sure, about the investigation? We know Starr and staff have been evaluating their evidence to see what kind of case they have against higher-ups that would warrant indictment and stand up in court. We know further testimony is being sought from Webster Hubbell and Jim and Susan McDougal on matters involving the Clintons.

But, because the outcome of the Starr investigation is more likely than any other single event to determine Mr. Clinton's place in history, we yearn to know more. And so the search for grave portents in the coming departure of a lawyer, who already has had several careers as judge, solicitor general, practicing lawyer, and independent counsel. And now ready for another career change to academe, near the beach in Malibu - if, in fact, he does leave. In the face of strong criticism, Starr indicated that he might postpone his departure.

* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.

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