***Free political prisoner Susan McDougal****

Inquisitor Starr like a figure out of history's dungeon

WHAT an ironic and original way America has found of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the darkest spirits of the Renaissance, those twin apostles of intolerance who brought us the Grand Inquisitor and the real Bonfire of the Vanities: Torquemada and Savonarola.

Modern Spain has been perplexed to find a way to commemorate Tomas de Torquemada, the Dominican monk who used his post as royal chaplain to persuade the pope to grant him the authority to kindle the fires of the Inquisition.

Now we have the solution, certainly as far as the White House is concerned: Spain can kick off its ceremonies with America's candidate for a new Grand Inquisitor, Kenneth W. Starr. The special prosecutor would show how far we have come since those barbaric days. There are no burnings now, yet in the implacable pursuit, Torquemada might recognize a tamed but kindred spirit.

And, in Italy, even the city of Florence, which he once ruled, has found the right tone elusive in its bid to commemorate the Puritan mystic Savonarola, burned at the stake 500 years ago in May. Now we have it: President Clinton should just about be taking the stand in the Paula Corbin Jones trial on the exact anniversary.

Savonarola seized power in that glorious Florence of the Renaissance, the city of Leonardo de Vinci and Michelangelo. Its energies and lust for beauty and riches made Florence as essential to the formation of our modern character as Rome.

To Savonarola, it was the very fount of wickedness, and he sought to scourge it clean. These days, his weapon would be a TV channel. Then, it was political opportunism; he used the invasion of the French to provoke a political revolution to establish the Christian Commonwealth.

Once Savonarola was in power, his first task was repression of all vice and frivolity. Gambling was outlawed. Harlots were compulsorily reformed. In a burst of cultivated civic hysteria, the rich and splendid were summoned to toss their garments and jewels into the original Bonfire of the Vanities.

Torquemada and Savonarola live on because they have become archetypes: of fanaticism, of intolerance, of the unshakable faith that the end justifies the means. They are awful warnings, which remind us of the need to cherish our sense of proportion and of the ridiculous.

We know from the totalitarian nightmares of our own century what this can mean: the implacable interrogator who will never be satisfied; the guilt that spreads to a target's family and friends.

It is one of America's proudest achievements that it confronted and overcame both Nazism and communism, those nightmares of history from which we are finally supposed to have awoken. Yet, one illuminating aspect of the latest pursuit of alleged sexual antics in the White House is the way it poses the question: Are we really done with the joyless inheritance of the dreadful inquisitors?

Perhaps, we have not finished with the probe that never stops, in a cause whose importance sweeps coldly aside any consideration of cost or proportion or mercy. It was just 500 years since the deaths of these two forbiddingly devout men. Not far away at all, when you think of it.

The year 1492 has been hammered into most American children as that protean moment when Christopher Columbus set sail from Spain to discover the Americas. But it was also the year the Jews of Spain were deported by the Inquisition.

It is at this point that the fashionable metaphor of Starr as the new Grand Inquisitor strains beyond breaking point. America does not have a Torquemada on the loose. Keeping Susan McDougal in prison because she will not tell him what he wants to hear is not even a pale shadow of the tactics of the Holy Office.

And if we startle at learning of the way our modern special prosecutor deems that the honor of the republic requires false friends with hidden microphones, and questions a young woman for eight hours without the benefit of a lawyer, well, there is no doubt that Starr's intentions are pure and authorized by law, to ensure that the White House is not occupied by a murderer, a crook or a sinner.

By asserting that the White House aide Vincent W. Foster Jr. did commit suicide while in deep depression, Starr has cleared up the first point. After more than three years and $30 million, he has shown that some of Clinton's old Arkansas acquaintances and business associates were crooks, which was pretty clear already. But the president, so far, seems innocent of much beyond gullibility and unwise friendships. And if Clinton be a sinner, the opinion polls are clear that the American public is not much bothered. They were electing a president, not a saint.

At this point, when we consider the gap emerging between Starr's legal and moral purposes, the metaphor of Torquemada and Savonarola becomes useful. It is less because the squeamish find a faint American echo of the Grand Inquisitor in the relentless pursuit of the Clintons, but because of the shocked, shocked, reaction of some Americans to the reports of serial sexual depravity in the White House.

The question is really the degree of moral horror displayed. This is, after all, an America where pornography is the biggest entertainment industry after gambling. At $8 billion a year, the porn trade grosses more than the box office, video rentals and all the drama theater, art galleries and concert halls combined.

The contrast is extraordinary between a Puritan America that reels in primmest shock from the sexual antics of its leaders and a lewdly licentious America whose strip malls offer peep shows, lap dancing, massage parlors and "Girls, Girls, Girls." And the intriguing feature of the latest Clinton firestorm is the way these two Americas of Bible Belt and lewdly loosened belts have suddenly collided, with the evening news opening with warnings about the following story being too steamy for the children.

Savonarola would love to get his teeth into this modern Sodom. And our Savonarola wannabes fulminate on the religious channels, just a click away from the "adult" movies and the ads for phone sex. It was a similar collision of the prim and the prurient, or perhaps sacred and profane, which inspired Savonarola to plunge Florence into an orgy of sanctimony.

But the lesson of Savonarola is that his Florentine republic of Christian fundamentalists could not last. Great cities are not long ruled from a monk's cell. Great wealth will not be forever gainsaid. People, however furiously their Puritan passions may flame, cannot indefinitely withstand the temptations of the flesh.

They grow tired of the moral rigors of a Savonarola. They become ashamed of the excesses of a Torquemada. They understand that Christianity has survived, not because it has such implacably austere defenders, but because it was inspired by one who embraced an adulteress and said, "Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone."

Walker, European editor of Britain's Guardian, is author of The President We Deserve: Bill Clinton's Rise, Falls
and Comebacks