AS LONG AS historians remain interested in American politics in the 1990s they are likely to debate the merits of Kenneth Starr's investigation. The parameters of the debate are already stark. Mr. Starr's defenders see him as a voice of principle who stood firm for the rule of law and courageously spoke unpopular truths about a president who had disgraced his office yet remained inexplicably popular. By contrast, Mr. Starr's detractors see him as a kind of demon who embodies everything puritanical and intrusive about contemporary American conservatism and whose zeal against a president from a different party led him on a crusade to bring him down, with whatever collateral consequences.

The reality is that neither of these narratives aptly describes Mr. Starr or the very mixed legacy that he left on resigning his post this week. Mr. Starr was given an almost impossible task. He was asked to address authoritatively a set of essentially unrelated public integrity questions of varying degrees of seriousness. The impossibility of his job was partly his own fault, since he made the mistake of accepting--and sometimes seeking--additional matters to review. But it is unclear whether anyone with such broad jurisdiction could have avoided being perceived as President Clinton's personal prosecutor.

Mr. Starr's own errors contributed greatly to this perception. At times in his investigation, he clearly lacked perspective--going full throttle after relatively marginal characters and pursuing imprudent litigation and investigative strategies. He also had a maddening tendency to ignore appearances--even at the expense of the public credibility of his investigation. This was particularly regrettable because the circumstances of his own appointment, which followed the dismissal of the widely admired Robert Fiske for inadequate reasons, begged suspicion. Rather than allaying this concern, Mr. Starr seemed to taunt his doubters by maintaining his law practice and his relationship with conservative causes.

Yet the sum of Mr. Starr's faults constituted a mere shadow of the villainy of which he was regularly accused. The larger picture is that Mr. Starr pursued his mandates in the face of a relentless and dishonorable smear campaign directed against him by the White House. He delivered factually rigorous answers to the questions posed him and, for the most part, brought credible indictments and obtained appropriate convictions. For all the criticism of the style of his report on the Monica Lewinsky ordeal, the White House never laid a glove on its factual contentions. The various ethical allegations against him have mostly melted away on close inspection. At the end of the day, Mr. Starr got a lot of things right.

The temptation to make Mr. Starr into an emblem of something flows out of the need to make a neat story out of a complex and messy history. But it is exactly the complexity of Mr. Starr's investigation that belies any attempt to make it stand simply for any set of virtues or vices in the legal system. Mr. Starr, in our view, should be remembered as a man who--hampered alike by intensely adverse conditions and by his own missteps--managed to perform a significant public service.