THE only thing worse than having to figure out every twist and turn in the Whitewater case is the possibility of having to start over from the beginning.
But with the abrupt replacement Friday of special prosecutor Robert Fiske Jr., starting the investigation over remains an option for the new independent counsel, Kenneth Starr.
At a weekend convention of the American Bar Association in New Orleans, Mr. Starr would not say whether he would start over or just review the work of his predecessor and pick up from there. But at the very least, the investigation into President and Hillary Rodham Clinton's Arkansas real estate venture, known as Whitewater, will be delayed as Starr and any new people he brings into the probe get themselves up to speed. Democrats are unhappy with any development that pushes the case closer to Clinton's expected reelection bid in 1996.
Following are some questions and answers about the appointment of Starr and what it means:
Why was Fiske selected in the first place, and now suddenly replaced?
When Fiske was appointed last year, the nation's independent counsel law had lapsed. So when political pressures surrounding Whitewater made appointment of a special counsel necessary, the only option was for Attorney General Janet Reno to appoint one herself. She named Fiske, a Republican prosecutor with a reputation for integrity.
Meanwhile, Congress renewed the independent counsel law. The three-judge panel empowered with naming a counsel could have chosen Fiske, and indeed was expected to. But in the panel's statement, the judges expressed concern over an appearance of a conflict of interest, because Fiske had been named by Ms. Reno, a Clinton appointee. The judges stated they did not aim to ``impugn the integrity of the Attorney General's appointee.''
What had Fiske concluded thus far?
After 10 months, Fiske had completed the first phase of his investigation. He concluded that White House and Treasury officials had violated no laws when they discussed the Whitewater matter. In addition, the death of White House lawyer Vincent Foster a year ago was ruled a suicide.
Were Republicans satisfied with Fiske's work thus far?
Not entirely. Some conservatives complained that Fiske overly limited the scope of the just-concluded Senate Banking Committee hearings into Whitewater. Fiske's toughest critic, Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R) of North Carolina, has voiced concern that Fiske did not adequately investigate Foster's death. Last Wednesday, Senator Faircloth also alleged a series of connections between Fiske and Clinton administration officials, such as former White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum's recommendation that Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence Walsh hire Fiske.
Who is Starr and how is he viewed?
He has been a US district judge and was solicitor general - representing the US government before the Supreme Court - during the Bush administration. Now in private practice, he served as an honest broker for the Senate ethics committee when he reviewed the diaries of Sen. Robert Packwood (R) of Oregon.
Some members of both parties have hailed Starr's choice for independent counsel, not only for his reputation as a straight shooter but also because of his staunch Republican credentials. If Starr absolves the Clintons of wrongdoing in Whitewater, this conclusion will likely be accepted by both parties.
Some Democrats are concerned that Starr has already offered public positions on the president's legal matters. In the case of the sexual harassment suit pending against Clinton by Paula Jones, Starr stated on television in May that he did not believe Clinton should be immune from lawsuits during his presidency.
But Starr never formally entered this opinion in a ``friend of the court'' brief, though he says he had considered doing so.