WASHINGTON -- There was a certain irony in the fact that Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt was cleared by a special prosecutor while the Senate was debating whether to outlaw "soft money" in political campaigns.
If soft money, meaning totally unregulated contributions to political parties, had not been part of the process, Mr. Babbitt would not have been the subject of the special investigation in the first place.
The issue in the Babbitt case was whether the Interior secretary rejected a plan to operate a casino put forward by Indian tribes in Wisconsin because other tribes running competing casinos contributed $230,000 in soft money to the Democratic Party.
The other question was whether Secretary Babbitt acted at the direction of the White House and then lied about it.
After 18 months, independent counsel Carol Elder Bruce concluded she couldn't find evidence of a criminal quid pro quo or sufficient evidence to prosecute Mr. Babbitt for lying to Congress. End of story, right? On the contrary, the whole episode leaves a bad taste.
The sad truth is that, although he was cleared, Bruce Babbitt will always carry the burden of having been the target of one of these special prosecutions.
At one point, he seemed a logical and excellent possible choice for the Supreme Court. It would take a brave president to nominate him now and face the prospect of the whole controversy being raked over before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As Mr. Babbitt himself complained in a radio interview recently, in the political and media culture of today, there is a "presumption of guilt" rather than of innocence.
In Mr. Babbitt's case, whatever tarnish he has acquired is a crying shame. In two terms as governor of Arizona, he won a reputation as a bright, capable politician with a sense of humor and a penchant for candor.
When he competed for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, for example, he was the only candidate willing to talk out loud about the necessity of using means tests to get control of entitlement programs.
Mr. Babbitt's campaign didn't carry him beyond the New Hampshire primary. But he did acquire a following of smart and capable people much coveted by some of the other campaigns.
A second sad truth about the investigation is that anyone who knows how politics works must suspect the casino decision was influenced by political considerations even if Bruce Babbitt was not the official responsible. That is the way politics is played. Friends get favorable treatment from those they put into office and help stay there.
No one would be shocked to discover that, as Mr. Babbitt suggested at one point, White House adviser Harold Ickes was pushing for a decision from the Interior Department on the casinos.
What made the whole episode so smelly, however, was the amount of money contributed by those tribes opposing the new casino to the Democratic National Committee. Their generosity certainly had the appearance of a payoff. Just the idea of some Indian tribes contributing $230,000 is a little jarring.
It shouldn't be jarring, however. We already know that many entities -- corporations, labor unions, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers -- made huge unregulated contributions to both political parties in the 1996 campaign.
What is lacking most often is that appearance of a quid pro quo, meaning some governmental or political action that apparently came as a direct result of the money. When one appears as blatantly as in this case, some investigation seems to be essential. If Bruce Babbitt ends up paying an unfair price, that's the way the system works these days.
But it doesn't have to work this way in perpetuity. At this very moment, the Senate is considering the McCain-Feingold proposal to end soft money.
It wouldn't force the politicians to stop doing things for their friends. But it would cut down on the cases in which huge contributions obviously have a purpose.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.