NEW YORK -- For a politician who is supposed to be so slick, Bill Clinton makes a remarkable number of gaffes. The problem seems to be that he is trying to be too clever.
Everyone in politics has known for four years that it is possible for a candndidates of 1988, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee and former Gov. Bruce Babbitt of Arizona. They fessed up and everyone said ho hum.
Given that history, the mystery of the Clinton episode is that he took such pains for so long -- at least as far back as last July -- to duck the question. He did so by saying, even as recently as last week, that "I have never broken the laws of my country." It was only when a reporter raised the question of his time as a Rhodes scholar in England that he admitted using pot "a time or two" in England, adding disingenuously that he "didn't inhale" and didn't like it. What a relief.
The predictable result has been 24 hours of ridicule here in New York where the primary is a week away and the Arkansas Democrat is fighting for survival. It is not what a candidate needs when he is trying to convince the country and his party that he is a serious competitor for the White House in November.
The problem for Clinton is the context of the marijuana flap, minor though it may be. New polls show half the Democrats here give him negative marks on personal integrity. Using tricky language to duck the drug question obviously contributes to that perception.
Nor is this the first time Clinton's response on a touchy issue has been artful. When the question of his draft status was raised, for example, he said that one reason he went back into the draft pool was the experience of seeing other young men from his hometown in Arkansas killed in Vietnam. But when Clinton's letter from London explaining his decision surfaced later, it showed he was making himself available for the draft to retain his viability as a political leader later in life.
This is not the first time, either, that Clinton has shown this puzzling political clumsiness. Professionals were totally at a loss to explain how a Democratic candidate for president could be so obtuse as to play golf at an all-white club in Little Rock while taking a break from the campaign. Clinton admitted "a foolish mistake" and tried to pass it off as an aberration. But it became apparent later that it was by no means the only time Clinton had played at the same segregated club.
None of these episodes has been enough in itself to halt Clinton's relentless march toward the nomination. He has won almost 1,000 of the 2,145 delegates needed to assure the nomination. He could reach that figure with about 40 percent of the delegates at stake in remaining primaries and caucuses.
Nor does Clinton have any genuine competition at this point. Jerry Brown may have won the Connecticut primary and may be dogging Clinton's heels here, but it is politically and almost arithmetically impossible for him to reach the 2,145 delegates needed for nomination. As a vehicle for protest, Brown has become a potent force, but the Democratic Party would even take a chance on a brokered convention if that were necessary to prevent Brown from becoming the nominee.
Given these realities, it is fair to say that Clinton's only opposition is himself. And the wise guys here are wondering if he isn't losing that contest. As one pro-Clinton consultant put it privately, "Every day he makes it worse."
At this point, there are two obvious priorities for Clinton. The first is to assure his success here by demystifying Jerry Brown. He is trying to do that with intense use of television commercials attacking Brown on his proposal for a 13 percent flat tax to replace all existing taxes on both businesses and individuals.
The second, and more important, assignment for Clinton is to regain the sure-footed posture he attained earlier as a potential opponent to President Bush.
But Clinton can reach neither of these goals playing cute word games on where and when he used marijuana. He's supposed to be a smart politician, and he has just a week to live up to his reputation.