The most important lawyer in America this year is Kenneth Starr, the Whitewater independent counsel.
Starr has the awesome responsibility of passing the most definitive official judgment that we will get in this election year on whether President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton are lawbreakers, or liars, or both. And it's time Starr began working at that job full time and resolving the key questions.
This has already taken longer than it needed to, perhaps in part because of Starr's part-time status. In an era of deep public cynicism about government, it will take consummate skill, wisdom, balance, and attention to detail to bring the investigation to a satisfactory conclusion. And Starr must operate under conditions that won't make it easy for his work to inspire public confidence:
Starr is a politically active, conservative Republican, former solicitor general with ambitions to return to high office-whether by winning a Supreme Court appointment, by running for the Senate, or otherwise-and thus has an incentive to please the Republican leaders who are now bent on driving President Clinton from office.
Starr has expanded and prolonged an investigation that began more than two years ago, and was proceeding more expeditiously under his predecessor, Robert Fiske Jr. Starr had no prosecutorial experience. And he has continued to make very big bucks working part time for private clients, including a conservative foundation that has also financed some of the president's most virulent critics, as well as tobacco clients and others that are locked in combat with the Clinton administration on various fronts.
Given all this baggage. Starr must work especially hard to dispel suspicions that his million-dollar-a-month investigation is tainted by a subtler brand of the partisanship than pervades the parallel probe being conducted by Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y).
The suspicions about Starr have so far been muted because he began with an estimable reputation for good judgment, decency, and fair-mindedness. But some who praise Starr for judicious handling of the early stages of his investigation-former White House Counsel Abner Mikva, for one-are now 'Very dismayed" (in Mikva's words) by things like Starr's "hot-dog trick" of hauling Hillary Clinton before a grand jury "for the purpose of creating a public spectacle," and by the appearance that Starr is to some extent letting D'Amato set his agenda.
While he is technically a prosecutor, Starr's most important function is to shed useful light before the election on the miasma of allegations known as Whitewater. He should report his central findings to the nation (via the special court that appointed him) no later than August; it would be an outrage to issue a late-breaking "October surprise," and it would be an abdication of responsibility to maintain a no-comment posture on his key conclusions and the facts underlying them until after the election.