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Win, Win, Win

They called each other's bluffs and in the process worked out a deal that ought to satisfy virtually everyone except the fanatics on both sides of the aisle.

The last-minute deal between President Clinton's lawyers and the Independent Counsel's office is a practical solution to a intractable problem.

It spares the country the possibility of an ignominious criminal trial of a former president for sex-related offenses. It saves time and money and ends, once and for all, the divisive seven-year investigation which began as a look at a land-deal in Arkansas and morphed several years later into a probe of the President's sexual proclivities.

For the President, the deal makes sense for several reasons. First, of course, he avoids the real possibility of a humiliating, public, circus-like trial and the much more remote possibility of a criminal conviction.

The President also avoids the tremendous expense that defending against such an indictment and trial would have entailed. Already in debt for millions of dollars for the legal help he received during the impeachment proceedings, you can imagine why Mr. Clinton would have wanted to avoid incurring millions more in legal fees and costs.

The deal also allows the President to save his reputation in the history books. Even though the deal requires him again to concede that he was misleading and evasive during the Paula Jones' deposition, there is no chance now that Mr. Clinton will go down as the "President Who Was Indicted After He Left Office."

For someone as concerned about his legacy as Mr. Clinton appears to be, and for someone with clear aspirations of continuing on the world's stage, this is no small matter. Finally, the deal permits the soon-to-be-former President to start his new life free from the encumbrances of his old one.

For Robert Ray, the independent counsel who succeeded Kenneth Starr, the deal also makes sense for several reasons. First, even in the most ordinary of cases, prosecutors are required to weigh the risks of trial and the benefits of conviction against the certainty of a settlement deal.

Ray must have done this balancing test, too, and discovered and decided that his chances of indicting the President, much less convicting him, were not terribly great.

That's because unless Ray had uncovered additional evidence of perjury or obstruction of justice against Mr. Clinton that was not made public during the impeachment trial, the criminal case against the President simply was weak and not likely to get stronger during a trial.

Such a trial likely would have occurred in a venue favorable to Mr. Clinton (the District of Columbia) and, of course, against a defendant who leaves office as one of the most popular presidents of all time. These are not what most prosecutors would describe as "winning conditions."

Ray also "wins" by appearing much more reasonable than his predecessor, and by forcing the President to at least concede again soe of the essence of the case against him. Ray wins by ending his investigation on his own terms without waiting for a judge or jury to do it for him. He wins by becoming, in history's eyes, the person who helped avoid the zoo that a Mr. Clinton indictment and trial would have generated.

For President-elect George W. Bush, meanwhile, the deal permits his new administration to take office free of the Clinton scandal, and it allows the new president to dodge a huge political bullet which was speeding at him. Now Bush won't ever have to decide whether to pardon his predecessor — and you can imagine his sigh of relief at that turn of events.

It is unlikely that Mr. Bush would have or could have put any direct pressure on Ray to make this deal, but that doesn't mean that the new chief is disappointed. I suspect, in fact, that he is elated even if this means big Clinton headlines on Bush's big day Saturday.

Meanwhile, in a separate deal, the folks who have been pressing their case to disbar the President from the practice of law in Arkansas also come away with some goodies. The President won't be disbarred — an unlikely scenario anyway — but he will pay a fine, which likely would cover the costs of the disbarment proceedings to-date, and he will be suspended from the practice of law for five years.

That's not an insignificant penalty for the president, especially when you consider that he already paid approximately $90,000 in related fines last year ordered by a federal judge in Little Rock.

On the other hand, suspension is a lot less significant than disbarment and it certainly leaves open the possibility that Mr. Clinton one-day can practice and teach law near his presidential library.

For all of these reasons, then, there is nothing particularly surprising about this deal except maybe for the timing of it. Many legal experts had figured that any such deal would have come next week, or in the coming weeks, once Mr. Clinton returned to private life.

But come to think of it, now that the deal's been announced, we probably shouldn't have been surprised that it came just hours before the new president is to be sworn in. Mr. Clinton's sense of timing is legendary, as is his ability to upstage his political rivals.

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