IT WAS BACK in 1978 that a 31-year-old Arkansas attorney general and his wife were offered an investment that was too good to be true, and wasn't.
For nothing down they got a half-interest in a land speculation deal called Whitewater, which failed. Their partner, James McDougal, borrowed his stake from a thrift he owned, which went belly up at a cost to taxpayers of $73 million.
For such matters, some people in Arkansas never accepted Bill Clinton's election as governor. U.S. voters heard about this in 1992 and elected him president anyway. But enough suspicion piled up for the attorney general to order an investigation by independent counsel.
Six years, $52 million, four expansions of subject and two independent counsels later, here's what we've got: insufficient evidence to charge either Clinton with a crime related to the original target, Whitewater.
Anti-climax, yes. Surprise, no. Exoneration, no. Closure, no.
Independent Counsel Robert W. Ray will still report to the three judges who appointed him. That may taint the name of Hillary Rodham Clinton, whether she will have become a U.S. senator or not.
Mr. Ray has impaneled a grand jury to consider whether to prosecute President Clinton after he leaves office for having lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in a deposition for a civil lawsuit by Paula Jones.
The Whitewater investigation produced 12 convictions of persons other than the Clintons for crimes other than Whitewater. Alleged presidential misdeeds that were added to the counsel's inquiry produced one impeachment, but no criminal prosecution.
Part of the delay and cost is attributable to the Clintons' stone-walling. Treated as potential defendants, they acted as such.
The evidence was like the dog that did not bark in a Sherlock Holmes story. It was solid enough for a mythical detective to solve a fictional crime, not enough to take into a real court. The whiff of sleaze hanging over the Clintons remains for future historians to sniff.
This was an effort to nullify the 1992 election of Bill Clinton. Itcould have been vindicated only by success, and failed. It has not been an edifying experience.
Mr. Ray is picking up after his mentor and predecessor, Kenneth Starr. The sooner he closes shop, the happier everyone will be.
There is a lesson here, if only for excited young officeholders: The next time someone offers a deal too good to be true, call the cops.