President Clinton is not the first president to balk at having his business affairs investigated and ignore calls for appointment of a special prosecutor.

Almost 15 years ago, a federal grand jury investigation into then-Office of Management and Budget Director Bert Lance's operations of the National Bank of Georgia led to disclosure that President Jimmy Carter's family peanut business had received questionable loans.

It also turned up further allegations that some of the loan money may have been used in Carter's 1976 presidential campaign.

Public concern escalated when the trustee of the president's financial holdings refused to open the warehouse financial records to reporters.

After more than a month of damaging stories about the Carter peanut business and calls by Republicans for a special prosecutor, Attorney General Griffin Bell finally convinced the president that he had to do something.

Up to that point, Carter had balked at appointing anyone because there was no evidence he had anything to do with the mishandling of funds.

Although the law calling for appointment of special prosecutors was on the books, Bell opted for appointment of a prominent former U.S. attorney, Paul J. Curran, as "special counsel" with authority to investigate the matter independently but to bring criminal charges only with the approval of the Justice Department.

That solution brought on such an outcry that Curran was given full prosecutorial power four days later.

Seven months later, after an investigation in which the president was questioned under oath on four different occasions, Curran concluded there was no basis for criminal prosecution. But the 180-page report he made public cited numerous irregularities and was an embarrassment for the Carter family.

Bell did not appoint a special prosecutor even though the Ethics in Government Act had been approved one year earlier. That law and the independent counsel act that succeeded it called for an attorney general to seek appointment of an independent counsel in a situation where a preliminary Justice Department inquiry disclosed a potential violation of federal criminal law by a president, the attorney general or other specified high-ranking government officials.

Clinton's White House counselor, David R. Gergen, stressed that element of the law Friday in arguing that a special prosecutor is not required to investigate Clinton's involvement in the Whitewater Development Corp. and a failed Arkansas thrift, Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan. James McDougal, Madison's former owner and the Clintons' former partner in Whitewater, is under investigation by the Justice Department.

"What triggers the investigation by a special prosecutor," Gergen said on NBC's "Today" program, "is a specific allegation by a credible witness of potential violations of federal law. Now just tell me, who is the witness who's made an allegation? And what is the allegation?"

There are, of course, other triggering mechanisms for a special prosecutor under the independent counsel act and the reauthorization bill that passed the Senate last November but awaits action in the House when Congress returns later this month.

An attorney general, under the past and proposed Senate version of the law, can seek an independent counsel if he or she determines that an investigation into an alleged federal crime committed by someone other than the president or one of his top officials would result in a "personal, financial or political conflict of interest." That provision has been interpreted to focus on conflicts involving the attorney general.

If it were broadened to include the Clinton situation, that would mean any criminal investigation of friends or former business associates of a president or other top government officials could require appointment of a special prosecutor. The potential demand for special prosecutors under such an interpretation would be enormous.

Congress, through the House and Senate Judiciary committees, also has a means of proposing appointment of an independent counsel in a particular matter. Under the old law and the proposed new one, a majority of either the Democratic or Republican members of the Judiciary committees can vote to ask the attorney general to seek a special prosecutor. The attorney general is not required to do so, but must report back within 30 days on whether the request is being met.

In August 1992, Attorney General William P. Barr turned down a House Judiciary Committee request for an independent counsel to investigate allegations that Bush administration officials had been involved in U.S.-insured loans that may have bought arms for Iraq's military. Instead, in October 1992 Barr named a retired federal judge, Frederick B. Lacey, as special counsel in the matter. Lacey determined that no federal crime had been committed, a finding criticized by Democratic House members.

Of the dozen independent counsels appointed in the years since 1978 when they were first authorized by law, three are still operating.

Iran-contra independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh after seven years no longer has investigative power but awaits public release of his controversial report. His $36 million investigation ended with 10 convictions, two of which were overturned on appeal. In addition, President George Bush pardoned both former defense secretary Caspar W. Weinberger before his trial was to begin and a top former CIA official who also had been indicted.

Joseph E. diGenova, appointed in December 1992 to investigate White House officials' alleged involvement in the pre-election search of Clinton's passport files, is completing his investigation and is expected to report shortly.

Arlin M. Adams, appointed in March 1990 to investigate allegations of a conspiracy to defraud the government involving former Housing and Urban Development secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr., continues his inquiry in which eight individuals have been charged with crimes.