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The independent counsel investigating U.S. President Bill Clinton in connection with the Whitewater scandal has determined that neither the president nor his wife “knowingly participated in any criminal conduct . . . or knew of such conduct.” The investigation, announced Mr. Robert Ray in a summary released last week, is now closed. But if “Whitewater” is over, the investigatory machine it established has not shut down. Related investigations continue and the scandal will be irrevocably tied to the Clinton presidency. The impact of Whitewater spread far beyond the White House. It destroyed reputations and claimed lives. It unleashed a partisanship in American politics that will take years to bridge. Worst of all, there is little hope that the real lessons of Whitewater will be absorbed by the individuals and institutions that should study it most.

Whitewater shadowed the entire Clinton presidency. During the 1992 campaign, Mr. Clinton was forced to answer questions about the failed 1978 real-estate development. It mushroomed into a full-scale investigation in 1994. In six years, two special prosecutors, Mr. Ray and his predecessor, Mr. Kenneth Starr, spent more than $52 million as they dug into it and a web of controversies: the suicide of one of Mr. Clinton’s closest friends, the alleged misuse of FBI personnel files, hush money, and the affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

For all that time and money, 12 people have been convicted. Mr. Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives. Mr. Clinton and his wife have been exonerated, however — and not just once, but three times. In a 1996 report to the U.S. Resolution Trust Corporation, the federal agency that dealt with failed savings-and-loan associations like that associated with Whitewater, the law firm of Pillsbury, Madison & Sutro completely cleared the Clintons of wrongdoing in the case. Two years later, during the House impeachment hearings, Mr. Starr told the House Judiciary Committee that he would not seek indictments of the Clintons over Whitewater. And now Mr. Ray has reached the same conclusion.

Some argue that this is how a system of checks and balances is supposed to work. Yet the cost of this investigation — not only in monetary terms — and the results seem dreadfully out of proportion. The willingness of both the president and the Congress to let the special-prosecutor law lapse is proof that something has gone wrong.

There is ample blame to go around. One does not have to believe in a “rightwing conspiracy” to concede that there are elements in the United States who have a dislike of Mr. Clinton that is visceral. They have been unflinching in their efforts to drag him through the mud and out of office. They have been assisted by a White House that has been clumsy and inept in its handling of the various charges. Delay, obfuscation and outright deception have drawn out the investigation, and provided yet more grist for the mill of those who dislike Mr. Clinton.

Finally, it must be acknowledged that there has been a failure on the part of the media as well. The hunger for “scoops” when combined with new media outlets has ratcheted up the competition for stories. The truth has suffered in the process. Numerous stories have gone out during the Whitewater investigation that were proven later to be either misreported or false. Retractions and corrections are never as prominent as the original stories. The recent developments in the sad story of U.S. nuclear scientist Mr. Wen Ho Lee are proof that lessons are not being learned.

And even though Mr. Ray’s report says Whitewater is over, the investigations continue. Now attention has been turned to allegations that White House staffers intentionally withheld e-mail from the special prosecutor. Mr. Ray has impaneled a grand jury to see whether Mr. Clinton should be indicted after he leaves office for obstruction of justice in the Lewinsky case. Ms. Kathleen Willey Schwicker, a former White House volunteer who claimed that Mr. Clinton groped her, announced last week that she would sue the Clintons for violating her privacy by releasing letters she had written to the president. Mr. Clinton is fighting efforts by the Arkansas state bar to rescind his license to practice law because of statements he made during the Lewinsky investigation.

Mr. Clinton’s eight years in office will be permanently associated with the shabby real-estate deal that went sour. Future historians may well claim that Whitewater and the related scandals defined his presidency as much, if not more, than the economic expansion that has entered the history books as the longest in the postwar era. What they and we will never know is what could have been done if the nation’s energies and attention had not been so squandered.

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