Starr's Final Act

No, Kenneth Starr is not going to go away now that President Clinton has admitted to misleading people about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. The independent counsel still has to prepare a final report on his four-year probe. He's already issuing new subpoenas to tie up prosecutorial loose ends.

This should not be cause for anguish or anger. Mr. Starr's work has to be completed. The investigation has been extraordinarily long, but a lot fell within Starr's purview: the Whitewater land deal, then travelgate, filegate, and, finally, the Lewinsky matter. The latter was quickly determined by the Justice Department to warrant an independent counsel, and Starr, being on the job, was the logical choice.

The Lewinsky affair was never a purely "private" matter, as the president's defenders have argued. Whatever happened took place in the official residence, probably in the course of working days. And the specific allegations of perjury and obstruction of justice touch the fundamental workings of the justice system.

Starr's final report on this matter is likely to land, soon, on congressional desks, for consideration as grounds for impeachment The report may reach beyond Lewinsky to an alleged wider presidential pattern of hedging the truth in order to avoid culpability.

The independent counsel can send a report to Congress only if he believes a case can be made for impeachment. But Congress may not agree. The members of the House Judiciary Committee have the initial call. They are led by Republican Henry Hyde of Illinois, who is widely viewed as fair-minded, if staunchly conservative.

Few members of Congress, and few average Americans (according to polls), want to see the president removed because he lied, under oath, about extramarital indiscretions. Much depends on how strong an obstruction case Starr has built.

Political motivations also enter in. Republicans would rather see a weakened Clinton remain in office; Democrats don't want the stigma of impeachment or resignation.

No one wants the disruption of national life, and the distraction from foreign and domestic policymaking, that an impeachment proceeding would bring. Many Americans, understandably, feel the country has already endured more than enough of both.

Yet what's at work is the legal machinery of American government, both the Constitution and the Watergate-inspired independent counsel law. When this crisis is past, and its lessons learned, the counsel law will no doubt get a thorough tuning.

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