The question is a bit snotty and all gotcha. Wasn't your championing of the environment and labor rights before the World Trade Organization in Seattle just political theater to benefit Al Gore?

Bill Clinton flexes the maximum jawbone. He gives a hint of the wigwag smile. And he explains . . .

The evolution of trade and his philosophy on same. He limns intellectual trade rights, wage levels in Pakistan and the interplay between economic well-being and peace efforts in Ireland and the Middle East. The parentheticals track, his verb choices are smart and march in agreement.

"Ten years from now, we'll all take it for granted that we've come a long way in integrating trade and the environment and labor," Clinton says. "That's what I think and that's what I believe."

It's not unlike watching a BMW, fully loaded, the sunroof back, the heated seats, the Blaupunkt speakers blasting. No curves, no spin, a 180-kilometer-an-hour purity of performance. It's December and a press conference in the bowels of the cement box that is the State Department, and up there on the stage, hand jauntily in pocket and press corps in the palm of his hand, the president is wowing 'em again.

So you have again the fractured promise of William Jefferson Clinton. Oxford Bill with the political skill set of a veteran Chicago ward heeler. More intellectually supple than Al Gore without the rent-a-wreck personality. More politically attuned than George W. Bush, and he really reads the books.

He looks fine. The pie-sized bags under the eyes have shrunk, the steel net of hair is perfect, and he knows just when to shoot an ironic side glance to the crowd.

Perfect.

Then you recall, or wait for the reminder that comes in the form of a question late in the press conference, that just 10 months ago Clinton parlayed an outsized libido and a too-slippery way with the truth into the national humiliation of an impeachment vote.

Since then he's led a war in Kosovo, fended off Republican tax cuts, and fought battles on health care and international security. So maybe there was too much hysteria in the post-impeachment rattle that he was a duck too lame to walk.

And yet . . . there are the losses that rise like red welts on the skin of his administration. The nuclear test ban treaty. The patients' bill of rights. The health plan, the constant investigations, the petty deceits.

He still commands the stage, can move with ease from Cuba to the budget, saying much about what he can and playing artfully mum on questions of diplomacy. But the moment is past when he can entirely escape history's gravity.

He's talked China and Taiwan, Syria and Iraq, health care for the disabled and more money for after-school programs.

Yes?

"Mr. President," a reporter says, "just a couple of minutes ago, you said that most of life's greatest wounds are self-inflicted. . . . I wonder if now you can tell us how much of the pain you went through last year was self-inflicted and how much due to excesses by other people--political, and Mr. Starr's excesses themselves, sir?"

That muscle deep in the big jawbone clenches and unclenches. The answer comes rapid-fire.

"Well, the mistake I made was self-inflicted and the misconduct of others was not."

That's it. Next question. Yet even as he midwifes peace negotiations in Washington and gets the front page in Seattle, a fin de siecle atmospheric attends now.

The kid aides are gone, to television network finishing schools where they delight in dissecting Dad. The spouse is out of the house, too, trying to raise a political career in the Broadway klieg lights. Even Gore, Mass. Avenue Al, is y'alling through Tennessee, only sometimes acknowledging the existence of the beast known as the Clinton-Gore administration.

"Obviously, he's not around as much," Clinton says of his running buddy. "We don't have lunch every week, and I miss that terribly. . . . But I have no criticism of it. I think he's doing what he ought to be doing."

So he's left with his peace talks and his books and that head crowded with historical analogies and who knows how many regrets and lessons learned. Toward the end of the press conference, a reporter rises, a bit apologetic. "I'm afraid this is in the pop-quiz category of questions," she says, a reference to the Boston political reporter whose question revealed the lightness of Bush. "I'd like to know what your pick of the man of the century would be."

His choice isn't surprising: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But he does not deify the man. He quotes Oliver Wendell Holmes on Roosevelt's capacity as a leader rather than an intellect. He talks about the Great Depression and World War II, about Roosevelt's success in establishing Social Security and overcoming his polio.

"He understood that reality is more than the facts before you. It also is how you feel about them and how you react to them," Clinton says. "That the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And this was much more than just a slogan to him. He had lived it before he asked the American people to live it."

In this summation, as with so many Clinton moments, it's hard not to hear the voice of a contender, made smaller by his own weaknesses.

CAPTION: "Reality is more than the facts before you," President Clinton said recently, perhaps reflecting on his own life. "It also is how you feel about them and how you react to them."