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When Patrick Gray was the bumbling FBI director during the Watergate morass, Richard Nixon and his men used Gray as a pigeon and sneered behind his back.

"I think he's a little stupid," said Nixon on tape.

The thing is to "let him twist slowly, slowly in the wind," said henchman John Ehrlichman.

Fast forward to the present. The FBI director is Louis Freeh -- no bumbler, nobody's pigeon and far from stupid.

But the Clinton & Co. strategy toward Freeh has queasy echoes of Nixon 25 years ago. They're not only letting Freeh twist slowly in the wind, but using the FBI boss for dart practice.

Anonymous cheap shots and snide no-confidence remarks aimed at Freeh are, I submit, a wonderful way for this White House to sink itself in deeper trouble.

If this is a calculated plot to muscle Freeh into resigning, it's sure to boomerang against a White House crew under investigation.

If it's a prelude to Clinton bluntly firing the FBI director -- well, Clinton has forgotten Watergate's smarmy lessons.

The embattled prez would demean an agency most Americans, despite recent fiascos, view through a shining prism of crime-busting G-man movies. And Freeh gets high marks from Congress, FBI agents and the public as a tough, professional lawman.

Not a brilliant move to stage a Clinton vs. Freeh showdown.

But it's more dangerous when the president, vice president, staff and political donors are under FBI heat for potential charges of conspiring to skirt campaign laws.

Sure, tensions between the FBI and White House are part of the Washington game. J. Edgar Hoover allegedly held Jack Kennedy's sexual capers as a hammer over JFK's head.

But the sly way the Clinton White House has undercut Freeh is extraordinary.

Clinton spokesflack Mike McCurry was parroting the prez when he cutely dismissed Freeh, "He's running the FBI the best he can."

When Clinton was asked at his 91-minute press marathon if he "had confidence in the FBI director," the answer was a rambling dissertation that translated: No.

"On this confidence business, I think there's too much back and forth on it. I don't want to get into it," dodged Clinton.

"I don't think it's fruitful to keep spinning that around."

That was the phoniest character reference since George McGovern praised running mate Tom Eagleton, "I'm behind him 1,000 percent." Then dumped him.

Freeh, who must own a bulletproof ego, insisted, "Doesn't bother me. . . . My job is not to make people happy or please them or be a loyal subordinate."

Maybe. Friction between Freeh and Clinton's White House has been aggravated by nitpicking rhubarbs.

Clinton was steamed that top aides were kept in the dark about FBI evidence of Chinese political influence.

He was enraged when Freeh said, after agency files wound up in the White House, "I and the FBI have been victimized."

The relationship tumbled downhill.

Iciness became a polar chill when Freeh's memorandum, urging Attorney General Janet Reno to sic a special counsel on Clinton/Gore '96 money tricks, was leaked.

Clinton's edginess toward Freeh wasn't soothed when the FBI boss said agents would still probe '96 Democrats for "conspiracy, bribery, currency violations." He threw in "espionage."

Freeh's coziness with Republicans hypes White House suspicions.

How good is Freeh? In 1993, Clinton extolled him as "a legend in law enforcement." He had been a street agent (known as "Mad Dog" for his tenacity), prosecutor and federal judge.

He took over an FBI shattered by Waco and Ruby Ridge disasters. Despite blunders, especially the Richard Jewell fiasco, he's rebuilt morale.

Sure, Freeh has a 10-year term. Only Clinton has the power to remove him.

In the FBI's 70-year history, only one director, William Sessions, was fired.

The president who swung the ax was Bill Clinton.

Firing Freeh would be the dumbest move this administration could come up with. It would smack of Nixon at his Watergate worst.

Maybe Bill Clinton has forgotten what a real firestorm feels like.

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