Many Americans would prefer to forgive or forget accusations of private sexual indiscretions by President Clinton. But one thing they will not tolerate is a prosecutor they suspect is waging a politically motivated witch hunt.
That's the story that emerges from recent polls that show Bill Clinton at the height of his popularity - a 68 percent approval rating by a Time Magazine/CNN survey - despite a week of allegations, leaks, and gossip concerning his alleged extramarital relations with a former White House intern.
In contrast, independent counsel Kenneth Starr is losing ground in polls gauging public support of his efforts to investigate the president. Only 43 percent of Americans polled said they feel Mr. Starr is conducting a responsible investigation, according to the Time/CNN poll.
With numbers like that you'd think it was Mr. Starr who was the target of the grand jury.
There is more than a bit of irony in the fact that the man whose investigation was launched to explore allegations of illegal business dealings involving the Whitewater development in Arkansas more than four years and $30 million ago is now himself perceived as a big part of the problem.
It wasn't all his own doing, although critics say the independent counsel has strayed far from his investigation's original focus. Starr's plunge in the polls also shows that a campaign of accusation and innuendo waged by Clinton supporters could be taking a heavy toll on the credibility of the independent counsel.
In 1994, Starr was a man with a near universal reputation in Washington for fairness and integrity. But that was before he undertook the job of investigating the president and first lady.
Hillary Rodham Clinton sounded the battle cry in a recent television interview, accusing Starr and his staff of being part of a "vast right-wing conspiracy" to destroy her husband.
Starr calls the allegation "nonsense."
William Bradford Reynolds, who served with Starr in the Reagan Justice Department, goes further, calling it "character assassination."
Mr. Reynolds and other long-time friends and colleagues say Starr understands and accepts that sharp criticism comes with the turf. The independent counsel's job description includes the potential that that evidence he gathers could bring down a sitting president.
"They were hiring a tiger not a pussy cat," says Alex Kozinsky, a federal appeals court judge in California who has been a close friend of Starr's since they both clerked at the US Supreme Court for Chief Justice Warren Burger in 1976. "It is never easy to investigate the president. I can see how someone might view his actions as being politically motivated, but knowing Ken as well as I do I know this is not the case."
FRIENDS and former colleagues say it is "ludicrous" to suggest that Starr, a former federal appeals court judge and former solicitor general of the United States (who argues the government's cases before the US Supreme Court), would engage in unethical, illegal, or improper behavior.
But others aren't so sure.
"I don't recognize him," says Abner Mikva, the former White House counsel and former chief judge at the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia where Starr was a judge from 1983 to 1989. "I've known him since the 1980s but this is not the person I knew at the court of appeals and as solicitor general, or even the person I dealt with when I was at the White House."
Mr. Mikva, now a law professor at the University of Chicago, says he is troubled by the special prosecutor's pursuit of sexual allegations against the president. "This is not what federal law-enforcement officers normally do," he says. "He is bottomfishing."
Friends and other supporters of Starr say any doubts about the independent counsel's motives or fairness will evaporate when his investigation is complete. They say his professionalism and impartiality will be obvious then.
"It is a common tactic of people under investigation to try to throw mud at the investigators. So those efforts have to be taken with a grain of salt," says John G. Roberts, who was Starr's deputy when he was solicitor general from 1989 to 1993.
Starr's credibility has been attacked by those who say his Republican credentials and long-time ties to several conservative organizations suggest he has a political ax to grind against the president. This allegation is bolstered by reports that his selection as independent counsel in 1994 by a special three-judge panel came shortly after two conservative Republican senators held a private discussion with one of the judges on the selection committee to lobby for Starr to get the job.
Starr has also been criticized for accepting a future post as a dean at Pepperdine University in California. The new position is funded in part by $1.1 million donated by Richard Mellon Scaife, a conservative billionaire who has underwritten several organizations whose primary purpose appears to be to attack and attempt to undermine the Clinton presidency.
The open-ended mandate of the independent counsel law has also been a focus of critics. According to neutral observers, Starr's investigation is taking too long. But because the grand jury process is by law secret the public has little idea what he is doing, and there are no checks or balances written into the law to ensure in mid-investigation that Starr's efforts are worth all the time and money being expended.
THERE are other costs of his investigation as well, such as the damage done to the nation of having a presidency operating under a perpetual cloud of suspicion.
"I wouldn't ever assume he is investigating something to prove something. It is just as likely he is investigating something to disprove it," says Tex Lezar, a Dallas lawyer who served with Starr in the Justice Department in the early 1980s.
But that is little consolation to Democratic activists who fear the ever-expanding investigation will likely make it more difficult to elect Democrats to Congress later this year.
Those who know Starr well say he will not be swayed by public criticism and attacks from either side. They say no matter how nasty the White House's anti-Starr campaign grows, he will not turn partisan and vindictive, as some Clinton supporters have suggested.
"If there is any justice out there, time will show him for what he is, an honest, straight-shooting guy," says Judge Kozinsky. But the judge quickly adds, "Whether there is any justice in Washington is, I think, an open question."
Loren Allen Smith, chief judge of US Claims Court in Washington dates his friendship with Starr from 1980. "He has a very strong moral sense," he says of Starr. "I think at a very deep level it affects the way he deals with people and views the world. He is just a person who I think is fundamentally decent."