Clinton's `rabid dog' sinks his jaws into Whitewater

They could hardly be more different: the cool, pin-striped Republican prosecutor, and the ranting, bluejean-clad Democrat political consultant. And now Kenneth Starr and James Carville are adversaries in a battle that would be comic were the stakes not so high - Mr Starr's independent counsel investigation of President Bill Clinton and the First Lady.

Throughout a recent career which has taken him from a key role in Mr Clinton's 1992 election campaign to a marriage with an equally belligerent Republican political operative, Mary Matalin, Mr Carville has always had the knack of getting himself talked about. Rarely though has he generated as much verbiage as now.

Hardly was the 1996 election over than he embarked on a new mission: an unholy war against Mr Starr, held by Mr Carville to be an ambitious, self-seeking Republican bent on bringing down the Clinton presidency by fair means or foul. To stop that happening, the consultant announced he was setting up an organisation to attack Mr Starr.

The reaction was predictable: media and political uproar, accusations that Mr Carville's campaign against an independent federal prosecutor amounted to an obstruction of justice - all fuelled by Mr Clinton's reluctance to publicly disavow his quarrelsome former aide. In fact, the presidential silence was predictable, given Mr Clinton's complaints that Mr Starr was "out to get him".

Ms Matalin was not going to let a happy marriage get in the way of some old-fashioned Democrat-bashing. Her husband, she told Fox TV, was "a frothing, rabid dog", acting as a front man for the President. To which Mr Carville commented: "I went home and bit her."

Obscured by this vaudeville is an issue that increasingly troubles constitutional experts and less partisan politicians: that the institution of the special counsel, set up to cope with the unique case of Watergate, had been devalued and turned into a cheap party political weapon.

Opinions are mixed on the merits of the Carville enterprise. For some, an overdue spotlight has been turned on a process that no longer works; others argue that his partisan antics have only obscured the issue and delayed real reform.

Even Archibald Cox, the Watergate special prosecutor fired by President Nixon in 1973, believes the system must be changed by limiting such investigations to a tiny handful of the country's topmost officials and to offences committed in office - not, as in the case of Whitewater, to events back in Arkansas a decade or more before Mr Clinton entered the White House. As well as the President, three other past and present Cabinet officers are the object of prosecutions, also for alleged wrongdoing that does not remotely measure up to Watergate.

Like almost every other critic of the system, Mr Cox advocates strict restrictions to prevent open-ended "fishing expeditions". The Whitewater probe, for instance, has already lasted three years (longer than Watergate) and cost some $25m (pounds 16m), yet no charges have been levelled against Mr Clinton. Several of those who have been tried and convicted were punished for crimes only distantly related to the land deal "scandal".

Mr Starr, meanwhile, continues imperturbably about his business. Nobody beyond his staff, and certainly not Mr Carville, knows when, or even if, further indictments will come. It is considered unlikely, however, that he would press charges against Mrs Clinton, let alone her husband, without overwhelming proof of guilt on an issue that ordinary Americans can understand.

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