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ANOTHER BULLET DODGED

Independent Counsel Robert Ray's terse ending of a six-year Whitewater investigation with the dismissal of seven allegations against President and Mrs. Clinton comes at a good time for New York voters. Whatever its impact on Bill Clinton's presidential legacy, it shortens a shadow over the Clinton-Lazio Senate race here.

After $52 million and years of questioning, the probe ends only with repeated findings that the evidence is either "inconclusive" or "insufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt" that the Clintons crossed a legal line. That's far from a moral vindication, but it's also a lot less than any reasonable person could have expected from a $52 million investigation.

There will be more years of debate between those who see the investigation as whitewash and those who view the charges as bilgewater. But the discussion now will be waged outside official and legal arenas. That's over. For the campaigns of Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Republican opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, there can and should be even more focus now on the future than on the past.

Still, Ray's inability or unwillingness to bring this chapter to a conclusive ending is a disappointment.

His less-than-sweeping exoneration of the Clintons for their roles in the 1980s Whitewater real estate venture in Arkansas - a spin-off of an earlier investigation of the Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan failure that cost taxpayers an estimated $73 million - leaves a lot to be desired. If the probe didn't find substance in the charges, he should simply have no-billed the Clintons. If there was substance, the evidence should have gone to a grand jury for an indictment.

This dismissal does neither. It seems to say there was some substance, but not enough. A chance to evaluate that decision won't come until next year, when some "limited pending matters" are settled by courts and Ray's full report finally is filed.

Those limited matters continue to pose questions about Clinton's presidency, which ultimately will be evaluated by history and not by the courts. They include, as Ray noted in a little-quoted part of his statement, the fact that "as in the Travel Office investigation, this office experienced delay caused by the White House and others involving both the production of relevant evidence and the filing of legal claims that were ultimately rejected by the courts."

In light of the outcome, the Clintons' apparent stonewalling of the probe - enough to irk the independent counsel, but not enough to provide "sufficient evidence" of obstruction - looks both unwise and unnecessarily damaging.

In the meantime, though, the focus remains much more solidly on Ray's ruling that, except for pending appeals and an ongoing look at White House handling of records, "the Madison Guaranty/Whitewater investigation is now closed."

After six years and a hobbled presidency, it's about time.

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