WASHINGTON - On paper, the most visible achievement of the $52 million Whitewater investigation that ended quietly yesterday was the 12 convictions of assorted Arkansas figures racked up by prosecutors over the years.
But the investigation, which began more than six years ago with a look at an Arkansas land deal and grew to be the most expensive and wide-ranging government inquiry in U.S. history, appears to have left its stamp on everything from the Clinton presidency to public sentiment about government.
Especially in light of the independent counsel's statement yesterday that he found insufficient evidence that either of the Clintons committed a crime related to Whitewater, many analysts and historians say the inquiry deepened the nation's weariness with partisan politics and left taxpayers feeling ill-served.
"The average response to the fact that the Whitewater investigation is finally shutting down is a sense of, 'What was that all about?'" says Katy Harriger, a political science professor at Wake Forest University and an expert on the independent counsel.
She says she believes Americans decided - long before yesterday's anticlimactic ending to the saga - that the investigation by Kenneth W. Starr and his successor, Robert W. Ray, "was too high a price to pay for what we got - not just in dollars, but in the national political psyche."
Mark Rozell, a Catholic University professor of politics and editor of "The Clinton Scandal and the Future of American Government," says: "I don't think people came away from this in any way thinking this was good for the republic. It has fueled cynicism in government - in case there wasn't enough of it already."
Most analysts agree that the Whitewater inquiry grew so unwieldy that it proved to be the death knell for the independent counsel statute, which was not renewed by Congress when it expired in June last year.
Democrats, soured by Starr's pursuit of President Clinton, joined Republicans, who had long opposed the law, in letting the clock run out on the statute. Even Starr testified at a Senate hearing that the statute was "structurally unsound" and could not meet the expectations the public had for it. Attorney General Janet Reno, too, was satisfied, based on her experience with the law, to let it elapse.
Harriger, author of "The Special Prosecutor in American Politics," says the Whitewater investigation taught the nation a valuable lesson on "what you can do and what you can't do with the law." She says Whitewater, along with the Iran-contra probe, showed that the Constitution and the political arena provide ways to deal with allegations of political wrongdoing short of a full-blown criminal investigation. The Whitewater inquiry raised the question, Harriger says, of "whether these kinds of allegations merited a hammer instead of a fly-swatter."
The investigation that began in 1994 with Robert B. Fiske - who was appointed special prosecutor by Reno - nearly bookended Clinton's two presidential terms.
Many scholars say the Whitewater scandal - which in early 1998 was expanded for the fourth time to include the Monica Lewinsky affair and thus led, at least indirectly, to Clinton's impeachment that year - came to define Clinton's presidency as much as any policy initiative.
"From Day 1," says Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who is director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans, "the whiff of scandal surrounded him. 'Whitewater' became the code word for Clinton corruption. He was never able to escape the rap that there was a sleaze factor to anything Bill Clinton did."
Stephen Wayne, a Georgetown University politics professor, said the Whitewater inquiry undercut Clinton's early efforts to produce a health care package and "changed the Clinton presidency from one of offense to one of defense."
What's more, he says, Whitewater, coupled with the health care debacle, emboldened Republicans and contributed to their takeover of Congress in 1995.
The drumbeat of alleged Whitewater-related misdeeds throughout the mid-1990s, as the Republican-led Congress conducted its own hearings, also empowered the conservative wing of the Republican Party, with conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh and the American Spectator magazine enjoying popularity unequaled before or since.
Ray has yet to decide whether to bring criminal charges against Clinton, after he leaves office, for his actions in the Lewinsky matter. But given that the six-year investigation of the original Whitewater land deal, led by three different prosecutors, resulted in no findings of criminal wrongdoing by either of the Clintons, some scholars suggest that history will view Whitewater largely as a partisan political attack on the Clintons.
Though Whitewater joins Teapot Dome and Watergate as the major political scandals of the 20th century, says Brinkley, "out of those three, Whitewater turned out to be a dry well."
"There was a lot of digging - going deep, deep, deep for years, years, years. People will see it as a partisan vendetta against the Clintons. They were the symbol of the '60s counter-culture liberalism. Whitewater was supposed to be the sledgehammer to smash these two '60s liberals."
On the other hand, some analysts say they believe the investigation, if nothing else, enlightened the public about the dynamics of the Clinton White House and the character of its chief occupant and, therefore, was worth the time, money and energy.
Roger Pilon, vice president for legal affairs at the Cato Institute, says Whitewater will ultimately be viewed as an example of the Clinton administration's "utter contempt for the rule of law" and "the lengths to which an administration will go to preserve power."
"The $50 million spent on this investigation is a pittance compared to what Congress spends every day," says Pilon, editor of an upcoming book, "The Rules of Law in the Wake of Clinton." "If all we got from that is a picture of the inner workings of this administration, it was money well spent."
The two sides agree that the scandal that has surrounded Clinton and led to his impeachment will form a prominent element in any presidential biography of him.
But Brinkley contends that Clinton's survival in office - after having withstood impeachment and outlasted the independent counsel's Whitewater investigation - has lent the president a kind of folklorish quality.
"Clinton is like the sole survivor on the island," said Brinkley, referring to the popular television show "Survivor." "I don't think Clinton leaves office with his integrity intact. Whitewater contributed to the loss of that integrity. On the other hand, his ability to survive under the most daunting circumstances will be seen as a quality that will awe future generations."