BILL CLINTON was asked over and over if he ever smoked marijuana. He always came up with an evasion that sounded like a negative answer but wasn't.
Finally pinned down by a quite specific time-and-place question, he had to admit it.
His performance reminded me of Bull Nair, a character in the novel "From Here to Eternity." Nair was one of a group of soldiers about to be questioned by police about consorting with people they should not have been consorting with. One soldier says, "I'm scared. Why do they want to call me for? I never been out with one. In my whole life."
Nair says, "Neither has none of the rest of us."
Another soldier says to him, "In your whole life?"
Nair replies, "Oh, you mean in my whole life."
Too-clever-by-half answers keep getting Clinton in trouble. Yet imprecision is, as he told Phil Donahue, beneficial in public life. There is so much conflict in politics that anything candidates can do to make things smoother, less confrontational helps. Senators who say to their worst enemies in debate, "My distinguished and PTC honorable friend. . ." are playing democracy's game. So are presidents who try to finesse such fight-provoking issues as abortion, civil rights, taxes by waffling.
Bill Clinton's artless dodging was just practice for his first presidential press conference. And he needs a lot of practice. But at least he's moving in the right direction. Two years ago he made the terrible mistake of being specific in an answer to a question. Running for a fourth term as governor, he pledged unequivocally not to seek the presidency in 1992.
Really good politicians avoid specifics -- and falsehood. One explained to reporters once, "You make a mistake if you think we lie to you, but you make a bigger mistake if you think we tell you the truth."
I have reluctantly come around to becoming a Bill Clinton fan. Why? Because he is the only Democrat actually running for president.
But what about Jerry Brown? According to his confidant, Jacques Barzaghi, a French film maker, the Brown candidacy is "less a pursuit of political advancement than Mr. Brown's latest exercise in personal growth, an extension of Zen meditation and travels with Mother Teresa in Calcutta," wrote a reporter who interviewed Barzaghi on the campaign trail. Barzaghi said, "What really makes Jerry tick, what makes him run, is the sense of suffering he is experiencing."
Speaking of suffering, Bill Clinton is not exactly a hedonist, himself. He said he smoked but didn't inhale or enjoy marijuana. Earlier he said he played golf at a segregated country club -- but only nine holes. Earlier he said he listened to but did not like or laugh at an offensive joke Bob Kerry told.
Get the pattern? Recently an editorial cartoon in the Arkansas-Gazette showed a television news anchor saying, "In a related news story, Clinton admitted he had commited adultery but said he didn't like it."