Did anyone think he would go gentle into that good night?

That is not Bill Clinton's style. He is already experiencing acute pangs of withdrawal from power. His wife is walking out on him to run a race in New York for the Senate. His partner, the vice president, has turned on him, as the polls tell him he must do if he is to fight free of the Clinton drag.

All that lies ahead is an endless panorama of other people in the spotlight. There will be daily reports from Hillary's slugfest with Rudy Giuliani. Al Gore will be at the head of the throng that will trail him from state to state, the press, the staff, the advance men, the heralds, bearers and courtiers. For someone as needy as Clinton, someone who needs cameras and attention like oxygen, it is a preview of purgatory. He will be rattling around the White House with only Buddy for company.

Will he be waiting by the phone for calls summoning him to rescue either one of them? He might wait a long time. Both might regard him as an issue they would rather not discuss.

Hillary wants to prove that anything Bill can do she can do better. Gore is struggling to show he is his own man. Both have said they believe in Clinton's programs. The day the House voted impeachment, Gore spoke to an impromptu rally on the White House lawn and said that Clinton "will be regarded in the history books as one of our greatest presidents." But not a stellar husband and father, Gore added recently. The president has been reported both as miffed (in the New York Times) and not miffed (in The Washington Post).

As for Hillary, she is in a paradox: hailed by women as a feminist, while at the same time she is saluted as a martyr who stood by her wandering husband. Bill Clinton is the matchless money-raiser of his party, but the little woman may not ask for his help with cash. Hers is coming in at a satisfactory rate--she may drain off some from Gore.

Clinton is handling this crisis in his usual fashion, that is by denial and compartmentalization. He wants people to understand that he is not just relevant but calling the shots and still able to make Republicans sweat. You'd have thought his administration was at mid-morning, not late afternoon, if you saw him in the East Room on Tuesday, announcing a major initiative on Medicare. His speech, preceded by solemn high briefings from Cabinet stars and top White House staff, was delivered to an audience studded with Capitol Hill celebrities from both parties and was interrupted with applause.

Who could argue with the proposition that nobody in these halcyon days should have to choose between buying food and prescription drugs? Even House Republicans, who deplore federal spending of any kind and think people should pull up their socks, cannot think that old people should die or end up in the hospital because they couldn't afford their medicines. Republicans conceded the merits of the cause while withholding judgment on the specifics of the Clinton plan.

Can Clinton force Republicans to come to heel on prescription drugs and make them unwilling accomplices in the fashioning of his legacy? Will they feel self-conscious about facing the electorate with a meager record of accomplishment? They renamed National Airport after Ronald Reagan and rolled back some gun laws, but even George W. Bush might have trouble carrying them over the threshold with such thin fare.

Maybe they will see an opening for negotiation on their favorite issue, tax cuts. Clinton wants to spend the $5.7 trillion surplus on repairs to Medicare and Social Security instead. Possibly they will offer to come to the table and hope to score points on the marriage penalty tax, inheritance tax and capital gains.

Republicans learned the hard way that butting heads with Bill Clinton is not always the answer. Closing down the government over budget disagreements can be costly. They might let Bill Clinton be the comeback kid one more time. It will gall them, but it's better than looking cruel to old folks.

In his speech, Clinton recalled a 1992 encounter during the New Hampshire primary with an elderly couple in a Nashua senior housing project. They wept as they told him they could not afford $200 a month for drugs on a fixed income of $800. Many reporters remember the scene. The woman collapsed in tears in Clinton's arms, and he murmured, "I'm sorry." It was the first demonstration of his powerful gift for condolence.

It's on display again. Smile when you call him a lame duck.