President Clinton, we now find out, is "an extraordinarily gifted . . . brilliant man of politics with an enormous ability to connect to the American people," a man of "extraordinary empathy, immense charm."

And Clinton could have avoided all this sordid impeachment business if he and Monica S. Lewinsky, way back in January 1998, had only come clean, had just said, "all right, the cat is out of the bag, it's time to be forthcoming and forthright."

Says who? Says none other than independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, in an interview with an Irish television and radio station. Despite the "very difficult setting" and "unhappy circumstances" of his and Clinton's relationship, Clinton was "unfailingly gracious" and polite, Starr said, according to an account of the interview in yesterday's Irish Times.

Starr, in Ireland for a speech at Trinity College Dublin, demurred when asked if Clinton was "fundamentally corrupt," saying he didn't want to "get into characterizations."

Starr said his report showed that in "very sensitive circumstances" Clinton "was unwilling to tell the truth." Starr acknowledged that lying about a private relationship might be "understandable" or even "human," the Times said, but it was "not acceptable" to "lie under oath."

But again, Starr said he also thought it was necessary to "keep the entire individual in mind . . . we're all mixtures of good and not so good and there's an enormous amount of good and talent there in my judgment."

Starr thought the soon-to-be New York Democratic senatorial candidate, Hillary Rodham Clinton, while "very gifted, extraordinarily bright, very talented in a number of areas," didn't have "the basic gregariousness and warmth that the president really unfailingly shows," Starr said. "She's a bit more distant, a bit more cool."

Only to be expected given how she feels about him.

Acid Reins

Loop Alert! Do not, repeat, do not, go to the House plaza today at 2 p.m. for the announcement of a bill to reward businesses that voluntarily act to reduce air pollution.

The bill was to be unveiled by Rep. Rick A. Lazio (R-N.Y.), who's weighing a conservative challenge to New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) for the 2000 Senate nomination. (A Senate version is sponsored by John H. Chafee [R-R.I.], Connie Mack [R-Fla.] and Joseph I. Lieberman [D-Conn.].)

But David A. Keene, head of the American Conservative Union, sent Lazio an "urgent memorandum" Friday expressing "deep concerns" from the "entire conservative community" about Lazio's "reported plan to join with a liberal Democrat" and introduce the bill. (That would be Rep. Calvin M. Dooley [D-Calif.], a leader of the conservative "Blue Dog" Democrats.)

Keene said he was "baffled" by Lazio's intention to "go radical" on the issue and hoped Lazio would "seriously consider the enormous political and policy downsides of supporting it. . . . I would be surprised if those conservative leaders whom you are currently courting in New York do not share our view on this."

So no announcement today. Lazio's going to meet with opponents of the bill to review their concerns. Stay tuned.

Lost Between F and G

Folks at the Office of Federal Housing Enterprises Oversight might have wondered yesterday why their brown-bag lunch speaker, Richard S. Carnell, assistant secretary of the treasury for financial institutions, was a bit late.

Carnell showed up at the front guard's desk, saying "I'm here to give a speech," and wanting to know where it was to be. The guard had no idea but suggested he find out what floor it was on.

Carnell called his office and was told the fifth floor, whereupon he showed his Treasury Department ID and signed himself in at 12:15. But when he got to the fifth floor, there was hardly anyone about. He asked a receptionist where the conference room was. She pointed out the little room down the hall by the kitchen. He went to find no one there.

A somewhat agitated Carnell then asked the receptionist where his contact person was but the receptionist didn't recognize the name and, to be helpful, searched her staff directory. Carnell, who is leaving the department this month to teach at Fordham, finally figured it out: He was at the headquarters of his archenemies, the Federal Housing Finance Board at 1777 F St. NW. The oversight office is at 1700 G St. NW.

A Carnell spokesman said there had been some confusion about the location, possibly because Carnell had been invited to the American Bar Association lunch by the finance board's former head of congressional affairs, this even though Carnell and Treasury had criticized the board and its banks for collecting federal subsidies and making beaucoup bucks despite straying far from their original mission of helping banks and thrifts finance home mortgages.

"Rick was pleasantly surprised," the spokesman said, that "after so many policy disagreements, the board would invite him to lunch. Rick's only disappointment was that it was a brown-bag lunch, especially considering what experts people at the board are with getting free lunches." Ouch.