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Whitewater Rafter

Kenneth Starr's on-and-off abdication last week made him look more like a Whitewater rafter than independent counsel. First he said he would leave his post by Aug. 1 to take a university deanship. After an onslaught of criticism, he said the deadline was a mistake and he would stay as long as necessary. Assuming he doesn't swerve again, two hopes emerge:

1. To restore confidence, Mr. Starr will be more thorough and expeditious than ever in completing his many-faceted investigation. That should mean going at it full time without such criticized diversions as representing tobacco interests and giving speeches.

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2. As a man presumably chastened by making a mistake, he may recognize that other people - including subjects of his scrutiny - can make mistakes. These should be distinguished from intentional wrongdoing, with no condoning of the latter. Total fairness would help dispel the charges of partisanship that have lingered since the appointment of a conservative Republican to set the record straight on a Democratic administration.

Only Starr himself can disprove those who believe his performance has already made him "damaged goods" to be returned to the shelf.

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