But it was not just the Whitewater inquiry that ended: the ghost of Watergate flitted briefly through Washington yesterday, as one of the safeguards that was prompted by the scandal was also removed.
Webster Hubbell is a close friend of the Clintons, a former legal colleague of Hillary Rodham Clinton and a Clinton administration official. Yesterday he pleaded guilty to lying to cover up work he did on a failed Arkansas land deal, work he did with Mrs Clinton. He escaped prison by pleading guilty; and he also pre-empted the possibility that the First Lady, now setting her sights on the New York Senate seat, might have to testify.
In the courtroom, as Mr Hubbell was sentenced to one year's probation, was a chubby, balding, middle-aged man whose face became only too familiar to the Clintons last year: Kenneth Starr. Mr Starr, who has led the legal onslaught on the Clintons, had cut short his holiday in Ireland to be there for the moment that in effect spelt the end of his investigation. There will be no more prosecutions from the Starr inquiry; Mr Starr can now return to his office, write his final report and return to normal life.
It was, Mr Starr said, "a just and appropriate" conclusion. And it had become necessary, because at midnight yesterday the law that gave Mr Starr his authority also came to an undignified end.
The law, which was used to investigate everything from alleged cocaine snorting by senior White House officials to Bill Clinton's sexual adventures, had become widely discredited. The saga of Monica Lewinsky drove a stake through its heart.
After Watergate, it was thought vital to ensure investigations of the top officials in the executive branch be removed from the President. Special prosecutor Archibald Cox led the inquiry into nefarious behaviour by President RichardNixon, but it was the President who demanded his removal. Two top government officials resigned rather than fire Mr Cox in what became known as the "Saturday Night Massacre." The result was a law that allowed special prosecutors to be independent of government, a classic Washington gambit and one that fails more often than not. The law had been reauthorised every five years, with one short lapse. This time, Congress turned off the life-support machine.
When Lawrence Walsh was appointed to investigate the Iran-Contra scandal in the Eighties, Republicans felt he was conducting a partisan witch- hunt. His inquiries led to numerous indictments, including one for Lt- Col Oliver North, who confessed to organising complex deals to arm the Contras in their war against Nicaragua, and to taking a Bible to Tehran to trade arms for hostages.
When Mr Starr took over the investigation of Whitewater, an Arkansas land deal in which the Clintons were involved, Democrats screamed the same thing. As Mr Starr's investigation moved further from Arkansas and closer to Mr Clinton's crotch, the screams grew louder. In an investigation that cost $40m (pounds 25m) and took five years, Mr Starr produced a report that detailed in embarrassing detail the President's sexual escapades but which did not result in impeachment. Republicans and Democrats concluded the law did not work: the independence that had been so valued had led to a lack of political accountability.
It also cost a great deal of money for often paltry results. In one of the more bizarre and painful investigations, Donald Smaltz spent $15m investigating gifts to the agriculture secretary Mike Espy worth $35,000.
The law became a bizarre legal roundabout. Jacob Stein was appointed in 1984 to investigate charges of financial improprieties by Attorney General Edwin Meese, but there were no indictments. A decade later, Mr Stein re-emerged as a lawyer for Monica Lewinsky.
Mr Starr thought the law should end. Four other independent counsels will also continue down their trails and there are attempts under way to rewrite the law in an acceptable way but, from now on, it is the Justice Department that will appoint special prosecutors. That means that Janet Reno, the Attorney General and a Clinton appointee, will draw all the fire.
The Washington Inquisitors
Arthur H Christy
Appointed in 1979 to investigate charges that Hamilton Jordan, President Jimmy Carter's chief of staff, used cocaine.
Jacob A Stein
Appointed in 1984 to investigate charges of financial improprieties by Edwin Meese III, attorney general at the time.
Lawrence E Walsh
Appointed in 1986 to investigate Iran-Contra affair. Obtained convictions; some were overturned on appeal and others pardoned by President Bush.
Whitney North Seymour
Appointed in 1986 and won perjury conviction of Michael Deaver, who served as deputy chief of staff to President Ronald Reagan.Reuse content