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Starr's words of praise for the President

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton will be the recipient of a surprise Thanksgiving gift this evening: an accolade from the man widely seen as his Enemy Number One, Kenneth Starr. In an interview to be broadcast on ABC television today, the eve of the holiday, Mr Starr is asked for his personal opinion of Mr Clinton as opposed to any legal view he might have, and his answer, as released in advance excerpts by ABC, reads as follows:

"Extraordinarily talented, wonderfully empathetic, and I've been with people in the course of this work who are very close to him and think he inspires just tremendous affection and loyalty by a wide range of people."

The praise from Mr Starr, who is blamed by many in the White House for singlehandedly plotting the President's downfall, comes in the course of an hour-long interview conducted by the doyenne of American television interviewers, Barbara Walters. She is also scheduled to interview Monica Lewinsky early next year.

In the broadcast - seen by some as the latest in a series of attempts by Mr Starr to improve his overwhelmingly negative image with the American public - Mr Starr also intimates that his office could have handled some aspects of the Lewinsky case better. These included the fact that Monica Lewinsky's confidante and betrayer, Linda Tripp, went directly from giving information to the Starr investigation to see lawyers acting for Paula Jones in her sexual harassment lawsuit against Mr Clinton. This exposed the Starr team to criticism that they used privileged information in their own investigation.

Mr Starr's apparent lack of personal animosity against Mr Clinton was the second bonus in a day for the President. Earlier, the Attorney-General, Janet Reno, announced she would not seek an independent prosecutor to investigate allegations that Vice-President Al Gore lied when he was questioned about his party fund-raising activities. Ms Reno said the evidence of lying by Mr Gore was "so insubstantial that there are no reasonable grounds for further investigation".

Mr Gore had been accused of not telling the truth about fund-raising calls he allegedly made from his White House office in contravention of a law that forbids the use of federal property for party political purposes. The Attorney-General's decision, attacked by Republicans as political, means Mr Gore's expected bid for the presidency in 2000 will not be handicapped by impending legal proceedings.

The impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, meanwhile, looked set to continue, after the Republican majority on the House of Representatives judiciary committee made known that it had scheduled an additional public session next week to debate the definition and consequences of perjury. The clear aim is to present perjury as a serious crime and to compare the behaviour and treatment of "ordinary" citizens with the behaviour and treatment of Mr Clinton.

Resentment has been voiced, especially in some military quarters, about what is seen as leniency towards the President for failings that would have any member of the military court-martialled.

Even as Republicans gave the impression that they had no intention of letting the President off lightly, a new hint of compromise was in the air. A senior Democrat on the judiciary committee, William Delahunt, confirmed that he was preparing to table a motion that would support some punishment, but not removal from office. "Whether it's described as a rebuke, a condemnation or a censure," he told the Boston Globe, "it would be short of impeachment."

Were the committee to agree a compromise along these lines, the impeachment process could be halted by a vote of the House of Representatives without being passed to the Senate.