He repeated again and again, I'm still here and I'm still working. But his tone said something different. President Clinton's news conference yesterday was limp, reflective, meandering--taps rather than reveille, a lion in winter.

Maybe that's the best possible news for America. Because, as we've learned so emphatically, nothing gets Bill Clinton's energy flowing like a walk on the precipice of political catastrophe. No more war, no new scandal, no fresh horror in a schoolyard or federal building: When the president is boring it means all's right with the world.

Clinton's exchange with reporters lasted an hour and a quarter and rambled over a stupefying range of questions, from the highly personal to the tediously obscure. The president was, as always, unstumpable--he knew every jot and tittle of domestic policy and geopolitics. He didn't confuse the Good Friday Accords with the Dayton Accords or vice versa. He knew precisely how many more hours per week parents are away from their children compared with 30 years ago. He remembered every part of every multi-part question and, sooner or later--usually later--got around to saying something about every single part.

Only once did Clinton summon any passion--when he decried the savagery of Slobodan Milosevic. If the people of Serbia want as their leader a man who sanctions murder and rape, fine, Clinton said, but they won't get "one red cent" from the United States. And he pounded the podium with his finger.

Not with the whole fist--Clinton pounds the podium with his fist to underline positive assertions. When he is talking about bridges and hope and brotherhood. The single-finger podium-punch has always been the ominous one, reserved for foreign dictators, terrorists, right-wing conspirators and government shutdowns.

It is his strongest gesture, ever since he was forced to give up wagging his finger.

The purpose of the session was to launch a final offensive, to lay out one more legislative campaign. The president said he would "use all the powers available to me as president, working with Congress and with my executive authority" to push gun control, Medicare reform, education spending and free trade.

There wasn't a lot of zest in his voice, though. Instead, the press conference recalled other moments in the Clinton saga when the storm clouds had all cleared and he seemed to doze off in the sunshine.

Someone asked him about Chinese spies stealing secrets from American nuclear labs, and the investigating committee led by Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.). "There were actually two separate organizational recommendations that he made in the alternative," the president said in reply. "Either that the labs could be put under an independent board or that the labs should be taken out of the present hierarchy of organization, because of the culture--you know, the committee--the Rudman group talked a lot about the culture of the labs and its resistance to oversight. He said another alternative might be to take it out from under the present organizational structure and make it directly answerable--the labs directly answerable to the secretary's office. And he posed those things in the alternative."


A new election has gripped Washington, sooner than anyone really expected, and it is impossible to look at Clinton now without thinking that his time is running out. Clinton did some not-so-subtle campaigning, mentioning the good works of his wife, a likely Senate candidate, and praising the announcement speech given by his preferred successor, Al Gore. And as Clinton observed several times, "elections are about tomorrow."

Clinton is increasingly about yesterday.

He spoke slowly. He thought a long time over certain answers. And so there was lots of time to look at him, to notice that his hair has now gone completely white, which prompts you to think back to the early days of his presidential campaign, eight long years ago now, when reporters speculated that he was tinting his hair gray to look more serious. Time to notice how trim he is, which calls up those jogging shorts and impromptu trips to McDonald's and drop-bys at every doughnut shop in New Hampshire.

Can it really be coming to an end? All of a sudden yesterday it felt like the final act has begun, and we are into that phase--last felt in the waning years of the Reagan administration--when the country starts thinking back on something that is still happening.

CAPTION: At yesterday's news conference, contemplation of days gone by.

CAPTION: At his Old Executive Office Building news conference, the president was not overly energetic but as always he was well informed on all the issues.