Dear Mr. President:

Thanks so much for giving me a column idea, which is always what I want most, especially in Christmas week. I hasten to reciprocate--with a stocking stuffer, advice about your Christmas list. I understand it may include a request for legal costs incurred during the long unpleasantness with Ken Starr, the eminent fisherman/pornographer.

Here's my answer: You should--and you shouldn't. On Whitewater, by all means get your money back. That was a total waste of time for everybody. There's a phrase in the Independent Counsel Act, which applies perfectly to your case. It's "but for"--and it means that if anybody but an obsessed Clinton-hater had been in charge, you would have been off the hook years ago.

Starr acted like a Keystone Cop: pawed at your past in Little Rock; snooped around on stuff on which the statute of limitations had long since run; grilled your state troopers about your nocturnal prowlings; bullied your White House secretaries and staff, and after $47 million and five years, came up clueless.

Starr's leaden-footed Capitol Hill collaborator, former senator Al D'Amato (R-N.Y.), held Capitol Hill hearings to which he repeatedly dragged all your helpers. They ran up legal bills of hundreds of thousands of dollars in mortgage payments and children's college tuitions.

Mind you, I think there should be special compensation for people subjected to D'Amato's clowning and kvetching, but the law does not provide. Your poor underlings weren't "targets" of the independent counsel and not officially part of his investigation, but they are still paying for working at the White House. If you get your legal fees back, you should share them with these Starr victims.

D'Amato's star witness, Jean Lewis, the "whistleblower" from the savings and loan agency whose testimony was supposed to demolish Clinton, was deftly shredded by Richard Ben-Veniste, counsel for the Democrats on the Whitewater Committee. He brought out the fact that she was as possessed by anti-Clinton demons as Starr himself.

The so-called independent counsel was through until Linda Tripp washed up on his doorstep with the electronic equivalent of filthy pictures, tapes of your talks with Monica Lewinsky. As you know, he fired up the Republicans, and the House impeached you just in time for Christmas last year. The Senate agreed with the country and let you go. But you're not a defender of the Constitution, as you now try to present yourself. You're lucky.

You have, if you don't mind my saying so, a tendency toward self-pity. We all do, of course, but you don't fight it much. And you have good reason to feel sorry for yourself--the first lady walking out on you, your vice president running away. You're not getting credit for what you did so well, Northern Ireland. The men vying for your job never mention your triumph; they're too busy telling us what they will not do in foreign policy to notice that enlightened meddling in another country's business can be a constructive use of a president's time and prestige.

By the way--and I know I'm getting off the track--had you considered some special Nobel for the chef at Winfield House, the U.S. ambassador's place in London? George Mitchell was the presiding genius, but I'm not sure he could have pulled it off without the cook. He gave the North of Ireland negotiators a succession of meals that must have been ambrosia to the Belfast palate, which is subject to such abominations as something called "an Ulster fry," a breakfast dish that includes black pudding--which is made from pigs' blood. Decent, digestible food--not overcooked Brussels sprouts and mutton--can change hearts.

But to get back to the subject, yes, you were exonerated in the Monica matter, which makes you eligible for reimbursement, but that doesn't mean anyone wants to go through it all again. You just ask the mothers who had to explain oral sex to 8-year-olds on the drive to the soccer game.

Of course, you get crazy when you read about Newt Gingrich's divorce papers and discover that while he was raving on the House floor like Cotton Mather about sin in the White House, he was engaged in an adulterous affair with a choir singer. And you reflect on what your idol Jack Kennedy got away with, and you think "life is unfair," as Kennedy said. Call in Buddy and tell him about it.

You will not be forgiven if you bring all the squalors back. The taxpayers have suffered enough. And you should keep in mind that your date with Clio, the muse of history, is coming up and that she is as exacting as a New Hampshire primary voter. She'll tell you to pay the fees for your folly and be glad you can.

Merry Christmas.