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Four years ago, with four days to go before the presidential election, Iran-contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh indicted former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger on a charge of lying to Congress. Not only did Walsh indict Weinberger, but he chose -- he was not required -- to release at that time a piece of prosecutorial evidence that seemed to implicate President Bush in the scandal.

It was front page news. The effect on the campaign was immediate. President Bush, who had been closing the gap with Clinton, was stopped cold. As Mary McGrory noted: "Bush's attempt to wrest the election away from the economy and into character was succeeding. In the past few weeks Clinton underwent a sinking spell in the polls. But now the . . . character issue has boomeranged big time." With "Walsh's tomahawk between his shoulders," Bush's comeback collapsed.

The mainstream reaction to Walsh's tomahawk throw was best expressed by the New York Times. Its "Editorial Notebook" weighed the issue of justice vs. partisanship and came out applauding: "If Lawrence Walsh had suppressed this information, the public would have been justifiably angry. Angry enough to wonder why we bothered to have an independent counsel."

Anthony Lewis echoed the applause, calling Walsh's 11th-hour court filing "a powerful example of the need for an independent counsel on such politically charged matters."

Here we are four years later. Another president, another special prosecutor, another looming election. What is the spin this time on pre-election indictments?

Kenneth Starr knows far more about the myriad scandals of this administration than probably anyone. But he won't be telling. He may be handing down indictments in the coming months. But this time, there will be no "October surprise," no indictments on the eve of the election.

Why? Perhaps because Starr is not ready. But certainly because he knows that, his impartiality having already been subject to relentless assault by the White House and its sympathizers, the very legitimacy of his investigation will be attacked if he does anything between now and Election Day. His whole prosecution would be in danger of being discredited.

He can hardly expect the Times to applaud this time a refusal to "suppress" vital information that the electorate, in choosing a president, might be "justifiably angry" to be denied. Indeed, the Times recently defended Starr from charges of partisanship, arguing that "he has thus far (my italics) proceeded professionally and prudently in guiding his investigation so as to not disrupt the election."

Note the "thus far" -- this was written on Sept. 26 -- a not-so-subtle warning against Starr taking any later action that might "disrupt the election."

And note the double standard at play. Either you say prosecutors should time their indictments so as not to interfere with elections. Or you say prosecutors should proceed as if elections don't exist. But you cannot give Walsh a pass, indeed accolades, for skewing the '92 election, and then imply -- as the White House's anti-Starr campaign has been doing for weeks -- that Starr would be guilty of prosecutorial abuse were he to do the same in '96.

We have one other instructive example of highly relevant information suppressed before Election Day. Four years ago, Sen. Bob Packwood was being pursued by various press outlets trying to verify rumors of sexual misconduct on his part. He denied everything. Nothing came out before Election Day. He won, and then the truth came out in a torrent.

In this case, the pre-election suppression of truth was so blatant that a petition was actually brought to the Senate Rules Committee by a coalition of Oregon voters to overturn the election on grounds of fraud. The petition went nowhere -- prudence dictated against invalidating an election on grounds of lying, lest the entire system of American elections face extinction -- but the point was made. Information of vital importance regarding the character of the candidate had been, by repeated acts of deception, suppressed. The people had been cheated.

Not by the press, mind you. It had simply not been able to verify the Packwood stories by Election Day. Packwood had succeeded in having his denials hold out long enough to stave off election defeat. But they did not stave off post-election disgrace.

A similar scenario would likely envelop Bill Clinton, except for one thing: A senator cannot pardon himself. A president can -- not directly, of course, but by pardoning those who could testify to his wrongdoing. Clinton has the power, which he refuses to renounce in this case, to keep his crooked associates from suffering -- and singing.

Consider: Before the election, Whitewater indictments are abjured because of a pre-emptive campaign of intimidation charging the prosecutor with partisan malice. After the election, indictments are dissolved by presidential prerogative. A neat trick.

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