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The drama of FBI director William Sessions' defiant refusal to be shown the door could have ended only the way it did.

He had to go.The controversy had gone on too long. Sessions had lost credibility not only with President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno but also with the country.

In the end, Clinton did what he had to do.

He said that he acted slowly because he did not want to appear to be politicizing the bureau. But once again, as it had been with the Waco conflagration, it was Reno who stood up and took responsibility for both the delay and the final decision.

Reno avoided accusing Sessions of the specific misconduct charges leveled against him but said that he had exhibited "deficiency of judgement" and no longer commanded the necessary "respect and confidence" of the law enforcement community.

She stressed that she herself - not the president - had concluded that Sessions was not capable of properly leading the bureau. It was tidily done on her part.

The president looked a lot less decisive, however, and a bit peevish about being pushed to the wall.

Since last fall, Sessions had battled internal Justice Department charges of unethical conduct that undermined his stature and his effectiveness as FBI director.

Sessions, a Republican, insisted the accusations were unfair and trumped up by Bush administration malcontents to get rid of him. Once having pointed the finger at Sessions, however, the Bush administration left his fate up to Clinton.

Reno's private review of the charges against Sessions apparently discredited some complaints but did not leave him with a clean slate. And publicly the cloud over him never lifted.

In government, the appearance of probity can be as important as the actuality. The reputation and morale of the FBI was at stake here.

The FBI is, and should be, an independent investigative bureau impervious to insidious outside political pressure. That is why the director is given a 10-year-term designed not to coincide with the change of administrations. And Clinton and Reno were correctly sensitive to the fact that they were Democrats firing a Republican.

Sessions relied upon that insulation to resist the increasingly obvious fact that he was overstaying his welcome. In this, he made the mistake of so many officials, including certain presidents.

Sessions may well have been unfairly treated by the Bush administration. Until the turmoil began, he was not viewed as a bad director. The questions raised had to do with abuse of personal perks rather than with gross bureau mismanagement.

But government, including the FBI, must be accountable to the public. The unseemly struggle to stay on had complicated the bureau's ability to address the urgent complications of fighting crime in an era when foreign terrorism has spread to our own shores. Tarnished directors do not make strong leaders.

Clinton is vulnerable to doubts about his ability to control his own government. He is only now displaying a strong hand at the helm after months of stumbling through messy on-the job training.

It was imperative - both as a political and a crime-fighting issue - that Clinton get the showdown over with and move on.