LAST week, we saw three Bill Clintons in action: the thin-skinned politician, the maturing president and the simplistic pitchman.
It began with an outburst of self-pity. At the end of an interview with William Greider and Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone magazine, a Clinton nettled by questions about his ideological firmness blew up:
"I have fought more damn battles here for more things than any president has in 20 years," he blustered, "with the possible exception of Reagan's first budget, and not gotten one damn bit of credit from the knee-jerk liberal press, and I am sick and tired of it, and you can put that in the damn article."
Warming to his whining, he boasted of his early leftward lurch: "Look what I did. I said the wealthy would have to pay their fair share, and look what we did to the tax system. . . Did I get any credit for it, from you or anybody else?" He then switched from Johnson Treatment to Nixon self-delusion: "Do I care if I get credit? No."
Oh, but he cares so much: "And you get no credit around here for fighting and bleeding.
"And that's why the know-nothings and the do-nothings and the negative people and the right-wingers always win. Because of the way people like you put questions to people like me."
So shut up, you radic-libs; your mean questions are making your only president blubber all over his new Oval Office carpet.
After this puerile display of petulance, a quite different president made his appearance. As a Roosevelt Roomful of media biggies gathered for a NAFTA-eve briefing, the president seemed to just wander in before the administration briefers.
His easy presence made you feel that a pro was in charge of the country. When his aides came in (on cue, but seemingly late) he mock-chastised them for keeping us heavy hitters waiting: "You mean you let these guys talk to each other?"
Mr. Clinton then sat down for 10 minutes of serious questioning on Chinese trade and human rights, explicating policy with sophistication. He knew he had NAFTA's passage in his pocket, the result of wheeling and dealing in the grand tradition. He would use this victory to impress the Asian leaders in Seattle and -- as part of a "triple play" -- use the North American and Asian groupings to leverage a lowering of European tariffs.
That was impressive. The second Clinton had a foreign economic strategy, the support of Republicans, and was prepared to risk the wrath of Labor in leaning on Democrats to stick in his linchpin. His underrated White House armtwisters -- the firm of Daley, Emmanuel & Paster -- delivered for him.
But then, in Seattle, yet another Clinton emerged.
To deal at the highest level with China after Tiananmen Square, three great facts must be understood.
First, China and the U.S. share an interest in stopping nuclear spread, especially to the rogue regime in North Korea. Second, China's economic boom depends on continued U.S. purchases. Third, the next generation throughout Asia looks to us to induce Beijing to let its new economic freedom spill over into political rights.
However, asked about resuming summit relations without some progress on human rights in return, Mr. Clinton's sloppily prepared answer was: "I don't think that you ever lose anything by talking to someone, as long as you're honest."
What simplistic nonsense! In diplomacy, "talking to someone" -- especially after a crushing of democracy -- has a great value to the ostracized perpetrator. When the Soviets sought a summit with Nixon in the '70s, Henry Kissinger made them pay a price in prepared concessions before a meeting. Jimmy Carter could not condone the invasion of Afghanistan by "talking to someone." Not even Sinophile George Bush could instantly resume regular relations after Tiananmen.
If Mr. Clinton was determined to make a pre-emptive concession, he could have said: The time was ripe to express my conviction -- face to face with Chinese leaders -- that free markets go hand in hand with human rights.
At least that would have dealt honestly with reality and offered hope to dissidents. But in his eagerness to avoid offending the sensibilities of the Chinese president, the third Clinton -- naive or deceptive -- insulted the intelligence of every American.
Whining, inspiring, oversimplifying -- which Clinton will emerge next year?
William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.