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It was never possible to escape the smell of partisan politics in the Whitewater probe, anyway.

But can President and Mrs. Clinton get a fair shake with a Whitewater independent counsel who has never been a prosecutor but is a Republican activist on the record with anti-Clinton opinions?With the appointment of Bush administration Solicitor General Kenneth Starr, the investigation into the financial dealings of the Clintons while he was governor of Arkansas takes on a new dimension of politicization.

Republicans are openly gleeful to have in place a conservative lawyer who has publicly opposed Clinton on at least one other legal issue with the potential to damage his presidency. The same GOP activists who complained about Lawrence Walsh's seven-year probe of Iran-Contra as wasteful and partisan now urge Starr to go back over old Whitewater ground and do his best, no matter how much it costs or how long it takes.

Starr has a reputation as an honorable and intelligent lawyer, but he comes to his task with deeper partisan involvement than past independent counsels who have headed other probes of possible government wrongdoing.

Starr says that he approaches his task of probing Whitewater with "no preconceptions at all."

But Starr certainly has a partisan predisposition against the Clintons in general. And that makes questions about his objectivity both inevitable and essential.

He lost his job as solicitor general when Clinton beat President Bush; he considered seeking a GOP nomination for the Senate; he regularly contributes to GOP candidates; he has taken Paula Jones' side in her sexual harassment lawsuit against the president. And he was selected by a GOP-dominated judicial panel headed by the judge who overturned Lt. Col. Oliver North's felony conviction.

If Starr is indeed intellectually and morally above reproach, he should respond by bending over backward to be scrupulously fair.

But Clinton's foes are counting on Starr to do a number on Clinton, and that expectation may be hard for him to resist. People - even lawyers, or perhaps especially lawyers - do respond to their friends. And whether to indict or not is a matter of judgment, and judgments can be colored by personal perception.

Republicans were discontented with independent counsel Robert Fiske Jr., who found no one to indict in the Vincent Foster suicide or the clumsy communications between Treasury and White House officials. They complained Fiske wasn't "aggressive."

The judicial panel said Fiske's appointment by Attorney General Janet Reno failed to preserve the "appearance of independence." But it had no trouble with an "independence" characterized by outright political opposition rather than legal neutrality.

An especially troublesome factor here is that Starr has never been a prosecutor. He lacks the experience to distinguish substantive evidential trails from legal garbage - either deliberately strewn or innocently circumstantial.

One test is whether he accepts Fiske's findings or reopens those portions of the investigation that his predecessor has already closed.

Barring some gross negligence on Fiske's part, there would seem to be no rationale other than politics for going over the suicide of Foster in public again.

There is more legal basis for reopening the question of the White House-Treasury contacts, given the contradictory testimony offered during the congressional hearings by administration officials. The possibility of perjury charges exists.

The job of independent counsel is seldom easy, and fairness is often in the eye of the beholder. But never has a counsel begun his task under so much political suspicion and with so little reason for public confidence in his integrity.