The vast right-wing conspiracy got a new face on Oct. 18 as Robert Ray officially took over Ken Starr's post as independent counsel. After taking the oath of office, Mr. Ray stood on the steps of the federal courthouse in Washington to praise his predecessor's "extraordinary service to the country at great personal sacrifice over the past five years." The flashbulbs had barely stopped popping before Mr. Ray's own reputation was sacrificed on the altar of President Clinton's public-relations machine. White House aides immediately began phoning reporters to suggest a conflict of interest because New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Hillary Clinton's likely Senate opponent next year, had appointed Mr. Ray to his first prosecuting job back in 1988. "This whole thing is just a political deal to try to help Giuliani," charged presidential pit bull James Carville. "This thing stinks, and I'm going to start a fumigation program." The New York Times attributed to unnamed White House aides this description of Mr. Ray: "an ideologue unfit to conduct an impartial inquiry"-never mind the fact that until January of last year, Mr. Ray was a registered Democrat in New York City. (He is now registered as an independent in New Jersey.) Mr. Starr cited just those kinds of attacks as his reason for stepping down after spending five years as independent counsel. "To reduce the unfortunate personalization of the process, in particular in the wake of the inherently divisive impeachment proceedings, the wiser course, I believe, is for another individual to head the organization," he wrote in his resignation letter. The most important task facing Mr. Ray is writing the final report on the scandal-sodden administration. Before he can do that, he'll have to wrap up investigations of the White House travel office and the alleged groping of Kathleen Willey. He gave no indication of when that might happen. Staged Hillary Rodham Clinton's unofficial Senate candidacy is being ignored by some upstate New York media outlets, who complain they've been dissed by the first lady. WRNN-TV in Kingston will no longer cover Hillary Clinton's "listening tour" until she declares herself a candidate and grants interviews. Whitney Radio, which operates two stations in New Rochelle, also will discontinue coverage of the first lady's "staged events." Mrs. Clinton is ducking local media (outside the Big Apple bigshots), saying she won't do interviews until "after the first of the year," when she expects to make up her mind about running. Elizabeth Dole, on the other hand, won lots of media attention for her latest campaign event: her withdrawal from the Republican race for president. She said a lack of money spoiled her candidacy. "The bottom line is money," she said. "It would be futile to continue." She is the fifth GOP candidate to drop out this year. Mrs. Dole's departure leaves front-runner George W. Bush, conservative publisher Steve Forbes, pro-family activist Gary Bauer, Arizona Sen. John McCain, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, and talk-show host Alan Keyes in the GOP race. Educational Republican congressional leaders want some federal education spending reshuffled to the states, and are also proposing a five-year experiment to give poor or abused children vouchers for private schooling. One proposal would pay elementary students in low-performing schools up to $3,500 in tuition so they could go elsewhere. Another idea, from House Majority Leader Dick Armey, would allow governors to proclaim "academic emergencies" just as they declare public emergencies during natural disasters, allowing them to appropriate federal funds for relief. President Clinton has vowed to fight any such measure. Gun control or crime control? The nation's violent crime rate has reached its lowest point in more than a decade, but the debate over what causes crime hasn't changed at all. The FBI unveiled its Uniform Crime Report last week showing the overall violent crime rate-566 murders, rapes, robberies, and assaults per 100,000 residents-dropping to its lowest level since 1985. But what's the cause? Are fewer guns killing people or are more people who kill people behind bars? Criminologist Alfred Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University said a decrease in gun use is responsible for the drop: "The efforts to control the availability of guns, especially in the hands of young people, are having some effect." But Heritage Foundation researcher David Muhlhausen disagrees. "There is no direct evidence of gun control working or actually decreasing crime," he said. Stronger evidence links the decline in crime to longer prison sentences and higher incarceration rates, Mr. Muhlhausen said, both of which are state-initiated endeavors. From 1990 to 1997, the total state prison population grew by 7 percent annually, directly corresponding to seven consecutive years of declining crime. Mr. Muhlhausen gave some of the credit to "Truth in Sentencing" laws, adopted in 28 states and the District of Columbia since 1990, which require violent offenders to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence. "The fact is we are incarcerating more people than ever and they are serving longer sentences," he said. "Increasing incarceration length decreases crime because offenders are removed from the street." Octogenarian perp J.L. Hunter Roundtree may have been seeking an alternative to Social Security: bank robbery. Police say the 87-year-old homeless man walked into a Florida bank on Oct. 19 armed only with a note: "Robbery, give me the hundreds." Perhaps taking his place in history as the nation's oldest bank robber-an 82-year-old man hit a Colorado bank in 1989-he escaped with a black bag of money until customers tackled him in the parking lot. The suspect was unhurt. The No-Comment Zone Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), a Black Panther in the 1960s before he went to Washington in 1992, found violence reentering his life when his son was shot and critically wounded outside his home on Chicago's South Side. Huey Rich, 29, was raised by his grandmother and bears his mother's last name. Police say he was shot in the groin and thigh by two men pretending to be plainclothes police officers. They approached Mr. Rich and several friends, fired, then sped away in a car. They are still being sought by police. After a spate of waffling on the subject, Al Gore now says he wants President Clinton to campaign for him. Yet the Veep is still keeping a safe distance from his boss's baggage. In a fit of soundbite-ese, spokesman Chris Lehane said, "the president is a friend" of Mr. Gore's, but "every election is about the future and that it will be about his ideas and his vision for the 21st century." Political observers say Mr. Gore wants the benefits of association with a popular presidency but none of the liabilities of the president's scandals and moral failings. *The city of Seattle dropped a statue of Venus-a pregnant, naked figurine with hair in dreadlocks and a sparkling nose stud-into the city's largest community garden. The "Picardo Venus" squats beside a new children's play area and is the subject of a gardeners' revolt, with locals repeatedly covering the statue with garbage bags and plotting its removal. "She's glorifying fertility a little too much for kids, isn't she?" said Gloria Seborg, one of gardeners. "I mean, we don't want a bunch of pregnant kids." The city spent $6,300 on the statue. *Bill Gates says he doesn't want to take over the world and that the real megalomaniac is media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. "He's hiding behind me," the Microsoft founder told the British Broadcasting Corporation. "He's your man." Mr. Gates says running Microsoft is "not like owning a newspaper," referring to Mr. Murdoch's News Corp. empire, which includes everything from 20th Century Fox to the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Boston Herald. Mr. Gates, the world's richest man, tries to stay apolitical beyond his support of population-control programs. Mr. Murdoch plays on both left and right; while he puts neoconservative opinions in The Weekly Standard and The New York Post, his British newspapers display topless women, and the Fox Network pitches prurient programs to teenagers. Whither the killing fields? International forensics teams combing sites of reported mass graves in Kosovo have met with disturbing good news/bad news: few bodies. Experts from the Federal Bureau of Investigation have conducted two separate investigations. After visiting 30 sites reported to contain thousands of bodies, they found 200. A Spanish team, told to prepare for 2,000 autopsies, found no mass graves and only 187 bodies. For Kosovo Albanians with missing family members, the results of the preliminary investigations are not conclusive. Relief workers, based on interviews with refugees who were forced to dig graves or watch as Serb militants took away neighbors, say the reports of ethnic cleansing and mass murders should not be easily dismissed. Without hard evidence, however, the Clinton administration and NATO officials face tough questions to justify the four-month air campaign against Serb targets in Yugoslavia. NATO heads said the intervention in a sovereign state-its first-was required because of the "genocide" occurring under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. At the outset of the air campaign, on March 22, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons, "We must act to save thousands of innocent men, women, and children from humanitarian catastrophe, from death, barbarism, and ethnic cleansing by a brutal dictatorship." President Bill Clinton said, "What we are trying to do is to limit his [Milosevic's] ability to win a military victory and engage in ethnic cleansing and slaughter innocent people." Watching Wahid In the first democratic transfer of power in its history, Indonesia inaugurated a new president on Oct. 20. Indonesia's electoral assembly selected Abdurrahman Wahid, popularly known as Gus Dur, a Muslim leader with a reputation for coalition building. The vote took a surprising turn after the incumbent, B. J. Habibie, was spurned by the assembly the day before in a vote of no confidence. The assembly went on to defeat Megawati Sukarnoputri, daughter of Indonesian's founding president, Sukarno, and believed to be the most popular candidate. The vote brings to an end a transition period from 32 years of autocratic rule under President Suharto. He was forced to resign in May 1998, after months of ethnic street clashes and economic devastation from the Asian recession. Wahid watchers will be looking for signs that the new president is distancing himself from Suharto cronies and curbing use of military force in dealing with ethnic rivalries. East Timor could be a Waterloo, too. Mr. Wahid supported the referendum for independence but has been critical of UN administration of the divided province. The durability of his election will be determined by Mr. Wahid's health, as well. The 59-year-old president is nearly blind and weak from a stroke he suffered 18 months ago. Man knows not his time Julius Nyerere, the socialist founding father of Tanzania, died in London last week of leukemia. He was 77. Mr. Nyerere nationalized businesses and collectivized farmers in financially devastating attempts to impose Marxist ideology on the East African nation. But he is widely regarded as fostering democratic movements in sub-Saharan Africa. 0"I was expecting to pass on the good news that someone is going to rent our house," began an email message from missionary dad Bob Allen. "But at 3 a.m. I received a call that someone received a Mansion." That is how Mr. Allen told friends and relatives that his oldest daughter, 22-year old Kristen Allen, was killed by a drunk driver while waiting for a bus in Moscow. Miss Allen was just beginning her fourth mission to Moscow in four years, working at a nearby orphanage run by the Bill Gothard-affiliated Institute in Basic Life Principles. The Manhattan, Kansas, native had persuaded her parents and sister to join her only weeks before the accident. Miss Allen's 18-year-old sister, Kathryn, was with her when a Russian businessman plowed through the bus stop, on an otherwise deserted street, at 10:30 on a Saturday morning, Oct. 2. Kathryn was critically injured-suffering two broken legs and a concussion-but returned to Kansas last week after surgery in Finland.