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Beach Of Dreams

By Margaret Carlson

TIME, March 10 -- They built it--The New School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, sometimes known as Baywatch U for its Malibu setting--and he will come. Not in August, as he promised, but as soon as independent counsel Kenneth Starr can get rid of the pesky job of investigating the President and First Lady.

With his departure delayed until the Whitewater investigation is "substantially complete," Starr went back to work as if nothing had changed. But so much has. This latest incident leaves no doubts about Starr's ties to the far right. The school he will head was founded with a $1.1 million grant from Richard Mellon Scaife, the Pittsburgh newspaper publisher and heir to the Mellon fortune who funds some of the most virulent anti-Clinton organizations. Although former counsel Robert Fiske, the coroner and the FBI found that Vince Foster's death was a suicide, Starr reopened that investigation. Scaife has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Western Journalism Center, whose newspaper ads obsessing over the circumstances of Foster's death have pulled in nearly a quarter of a million dollars during the 2 1/2 years Starr has held the question open. A leak last week that the counsel had found no foul play may have been calculated to defuse criticism that Starr had dragged out the inquiry.

Starr admits he knew of Scaife's ties to Pepperdine and groups interested in the outcome of his Whitewater probe but insists nonetheless that there's no conflict. Starr's deputy John Bates says, "It's not political but legal judgment that matters, and Starr's remains impeccable." At the very least, as Joseph DiGenova, a former independent counsel and U.S. Attorney in the Reagan Administration, points out, "It's another unfortunate circumstance which is unnecessarily distracting." DiGenova faults Starr too for continuing his $1-million-a-year law practice, which includes tobacco clients, and for speaking at Clinton-basher Pat Robertson's Regent University. "Ken's a fine man, but he doesn't listen to criticism. He'd be better off if he had not represented certain clients or given certain speeches," says DiGenova. "He's made another terrible mistake, and there's only so much you can do to fix it."

What Starr has done so far to fix it is to express abject remorse swiftly and ignore his most vocal critic, the irrationally exuberant James Carville, who Mary Matalin, his wife, calls a "rabid dog" on the subject. The press has lost interest in Whitewater as yesterday's scandal, unlikely to deliver any Pulitzers and has moved on to overpriced White House overnights. Even Senator Al D'Amato wants no part of Whitewater. Starr may be tired of it as well.

The very reason for an independent counsel is that the Attorney General is beholden to the President for her job, so she can't be independent and impartial. Starr is now beholden to Pepperdine to hold open a job, for which it is partly beholden to benefactor Scaife. It may be the Scaife connection that prompted Starr's announcement in the first place. Maybe it's only appearances, but so is much of what counts as scandal these days. It's a heck of a time to say appearances don't matter after all.

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