TO: President Clinton RE: Putting the bully back in the bully-pulpit

As you ponder your next major address, Mr. President, take heed of the old joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto. After the two compatriots are surrounded by hostile Indians, the Lone Ranger turns to his faithful Native American sidekick and says, "Looks like we're done for, Tonto." To which Tonto raises an eyebrow and replies "What do you mean we,' kemo sabe?"

When I hear your speeches these days, I know how Tonto felt. Your oratory goos with the presumptuous use of the first-person plural pronoun. Phrases such as "we must," "we should," "we have to" and "we will" now form the squishy cornerstone of your second-term bully pulpit. In your State of the Union, you warned that "we must be shapers of events, not observers, for if we do not act, the moment will pass and we will lose the best possibilities of our future."

What "events" must be shaped? Who currently is an "observer?" What "moment" will pass? What "possibilities" will we lose? Just as the Lone Ranger's one-for-all declaration tried Tonto's loyalty, your ubiquitous references to "we" make me -- and perhaps other voters as well -- feel less collective responsibility for pursuing the kind of social change you seek.

Your second inaugural address was a good example. "Government is not the problem, and government is not the solution," you said. "We, the American people, we are the solution." Excuse me, but that is the rhetorical equivalent of a morphine drip. "We" this and "we" that makes "we" dazed listeners feel "we" are no longer personally obliged to change our behavior. You seem to suggest that some other person or institution among the great collective will solve the problem of, say, family breakdown or Medicare insolvency.

If you don't believe me, try substituting "someone" for "we" in some comments you made on election night: "My fellow Americans, {someone has} work to do, and that's what this election was all about . . . {someone has} work to do to keep our economy growing steady and strong, by balancing the budget . . . {someone has} work to do to make the permanent underclass in the country a thing of the past. . . . {Someone has} work to do to strengthen our families; to help our parents succeed at home and at work; to keep our children safe from harm."

You're certainly not the first president to use the "we" word repeatedly to invoke a sense of the collective, however forced. Pundits, too, routinely use this lazy man's shorthand to obscure their distance from the man in the street. Yet "we" is better used sparingly and in reference to an identifiable group. At the start of Lincoln's second term, the Civil War was drawing to an end. But at this moment of national crisis -- when Lincoln might have felt well justified in appealing to the collective -- he used "we" just six times in his inaugural, compared with 38 iterations in your 1997 address. And when Lincoln did resort to using "we," he spoke with an eloquence and concreteness that was missing in your "we are the world" prescription for the nation's ills. "With malice toward none," Lincoln said, "with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace."

Traditionally, presidents have relied on the w-word precisely because it is so amorphous. It's less risky to say, as you did in last year's State of the Union, that "we have all agreed to stabilize the Medicare trust fund" than, for example, to say, "I will seek to bail out Medicare by proposing legislation that will reduce physicians' take-home pay and raise affluent seniors' insurance premiums."

Political consultants will tell you that voters will revolt if they are asked to sacrifice in any concrete fashion for the good of the country. Don't take them too literally. In a classic essay in 1946, George Orwell wrote that English prose, notably that of politicians, had become "ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts. The point is that the process is reversible."

So is your overuse of "we." Perhaps you really mean to say that "we" means "everyone." Yet everyone does not truly have "work to do" to balance the budget or to help parents succeed at work. In future speeches, you'd do better to pinpoint who is responsible for reducing drug use in high schools or for curbing street crime. Naming names is a prerequisite to redressing any of those ills. We -- that is, the American public -- can take it. We might even welcome your candor.

Next week: How to end a speech without saying, "And God bless America." David Whitman is a senior writer at U.S. News & World Report