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FOR A COUPLE OF YEARS NOW, the investigation of Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr has occupied a huge place in the Washington imagination. The investigation itself has been largely impenetrable, conducted in secrecy before grand juries in Little Rock and Washington by prosecutors who have kept their lips buttoned. Those not privy to the probe’s inner workings felt free to speculate at will, ascribing to it whatever directions, goals, or motives they wished in a kind of political Rorschach test.

For many Republicans, the independent counsel’s inquiry had become the repository of all the dark secrets of Clinton corruption. To be sure, it did not yield those secrets up in time for the 1996 election, when an angry electorate might have arisen to throw the lot of the Clinton crowd down the ethics sewer. But the day of reckoning was surely coming. Kenneth Starr, independent counsel, was the deus ex machina who one day would ring down the curtain on a fundamentally illegitimate and corrupt political machine.

And last week, the deus ex machina came crashing to earth with the announcement that Starr was leaving his job on August 1 for . . . Malibu, where Pepperdine University holds some very attractive real estate and where Kenneth Starr signed up to serve as the dean of two graduate schools. Conspiracy? Corruption? Coverup? Hey, surf’s up, dudes.

Then when Starr announced, at week’s end, that he was postponing the singing of “California, Here I Come” until date uncertain, the surprise and confusion that had swept through Washington reached new heights. Twice in five days, all the elaborately constructed conceptions of the investigation were smashed to bits. In perfect keeping with virtually everything that came before them in the inquiry, Starr’s announcements were utterly opaque. No one knew what the hell it all meant.

At first, Democrats were gleeful; surely this meant that the independent counsel was not going to indict the president and first lady. Republicans were angry; surely this meant that the independent counsel was not going to indict the president and first lady. To quell the speculation, Starr took the occasion of a speech he was delivering near Washington to announce that it was dangerous to draw any conclusions about the investigation from his decision to leave it. Naturally, this only fueled the speculation. Was he implying, then, that the president and first lady were not off the hook?

Meanwhile, Starr continued to be vague on when, exactly, he was formally leaving — or even if he was, although it sure seemed he was — and whether he would be writing a report on his investigation before his departure, or even after. The law requires an independent counsel to issue such a report at the completion of his investigation. But would the investigation be complete? How could it be, with former Arkansas governor Jim Guy Tucker, whom Starr convicted last year, up for a second trial in September?

What about other possible indictments? What about an interim report or reports, as the law allows? How could Starr walk away from the investigation without delivering his judgment on possible criminal wrongdoing on the part of the Clintons themselves? Didn’t he owe that to the office of the presidency? Did he take his service as an independent counsel investigating the president so lightly?

Maybe so. Starr has never devoted himself full-time to his independent counsel duties. He has continued his private law practice (as the independent counsel statute allows). He continued to give speeches (nothing in the statute said he couldn’t) at such venues as Liberty University, the progeny of Clinton arch-enemy Jerry Falwell. He even (again, nothing says you can’t) gave money to Republican candidates for office in the past election cycle.

But then came the second announcement, the one in which he said he would stick around after all.

Starr does not exactly have a reputation for being mercurial or prone to flights of fancy. Yet his behavior had all the earmarks of self-indulgence and unseriousness, which are hardly attractive qualities in a public figure. This man is a highly successful barrister, a former appeals-court judge, a former solicitor general Was he, all of a sudden, a toothy, four-eyed flake? What was the story with this guy.

There have been varying portraits of Kenneth Starr painted in the past few years. First there is the Sellout Starr. At the very right tip of the Republican Right is the group that has long regarded his investigation as a sham, and the independent counsel as a stooge of the liberal media, the establishment, etc. These are the folks who believe the investigation has acquiesced in a cover-up of the death of deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster, has failed to probe events at Arkansas’s Mena airport, and has averted its gaze from a string of suspicious deaths in Clinton’s home state.

Then there is the Straightshooting Starr. Starr partisans describe him as having the keenest of legal minds, the highest of ethical standards, and the steely resolve necessary to follow an investigation wherever it may lead. They are generally the ones who have been angriest at Democratic efforts to demonize him. Starr’s personal political views don’t matter, they have said; how he conducts his investigation does. Indeed, no one has proffered a shred of evidence that the conduct of the inquiry has been anything but professional. Democrats who have worked for him say he has been upright at all times. He even went to the length of hiring former Watergate Democratic counsel Sam Dash as his ethics adviser.

Maybe there was no more to his initial announcement than met the eye, the Straightshooting Starr supporters say. Pepperdine offered Starr a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity to build an institution in an area where he has roots. Besides, his effort to depart the investigation stands in honorable contrast to Lawrence Walsh’s refusal to shut down the Iran-contra investigation because Walsh just couldn’t bear the thought of retiring to Oklahoma.

Next comes the Slippery Starr. Some on the right see him as a cautious politician — not in the partisan sense, a Republican out to avenge Richard Nixon by bringing down a Democratic president, but in the sense of carefully weighing the political implications of his every move and calculating how each step will be perceived by a world whose esteem he values above all. The Slippery Starr is ambitious and has many different constituencies. He must not alienate his conservative base, not if he wants some future public role beyond that of dean or rich lawyer. At the same time, he must not pander to his base, lest he lose his claim on the mainstream. And he must cultivate a reputation for thoughtfulness and integrity among open-minded liberals, the Washington Post editorial-page types who can be immensely helpful with the Left when the time comes — but who also have the power to cause serious trouble with the mere arch of an eyebrow.

The Slippery Starr is the sort of fellow who would think about indictments not merely on the merits of each particular case, but also about the impression he would create. One target might be too big; another too small; another just right. His prudence is justified, for his record is hardly perfect; in court, he won one big case and lost the other.

Finally, there is the Soft Starr, who sticks to his convictions only up to the point at which they come under serious fire, and then abandons them. The Soft Starr prefers to live to fight another day, and if that’s not possible, prefers just to live another day.

The partisan Democratic view of Starr has not been particularly nuanced: Call him Sneaky Starr, ambitious stooge of big-money special interests, a ruthless tobacco-defending, school-choice-advocating conservative ideologue who would do anything and everything he could to destroy the president.

All these competing Starrs are the imaginings of his allies and his enemies; of people who have seen him at close range and people who have had a chance to judge him only secondhand; of those who owe him and those who are disinterested. Which, if any, is the real one? Again, who the hell knows?

All we do know is that for the better part of a year, Democratic loyalists have tried to make Kenneth Starr the issue. This has come in the form of what Ted Koppel has called a stream of faxes from the White House detailing Starr’s alleged conflicts of interest; James Carville’s media-savvy invective against him; and even the musings of the president himself to public television’s Jim Lehrer on the alleged Starr vendetta. Republicans have steadfastly resisted Democratic efforts to make Starr the issue. Let the investigation take its course, they have chorused.

Was Starr trying to act nobly in the belief that, fairly or unfairly, Democratic attacks on him have poisoned the public’s faith in the disinterested nature of his inquiry? Did he forget to read the independent counsel statute and assume that his deputies could finish up for him when, in fact, a new counsel would have to be named? Or was there some less highfalutin reason for his attempted exit — the sun and sand, without the Washington heat?

At week’s end, was he trying to act nobly yet again by saying he would stay on because the pursuit of truth really did need him? Or did he revisit his decision because of Washington heat — this time from conservatives as well as liberals?

Either way, Starr has handed his enemies on the left a victory. He has made himself part of the issue for as long as the Whitewater inquiry lasts — which is just what James Carville wanted all along.