WASHINGTON -- President Clinton has developed an unfortunate reputation for kowtowing in a desire to please everybody.
For that reason, it comes as refreshing news that he and Vice President Al Gore have told Ross Perot, by way of CNN the other night, that they won't be going to Dallas in August for his roundup of presidential candidates and other national political leaders.
While expressing his "respect" for Perot's United We Stand, America organization, Clinton said on "Larry King Live" that he would settle for having the membership "review my record in terms of what they said they wanted done in 1992, because I have done, or advocated, a vast majority" of what they said they wanted.
Without reference to Perot, the president said he was busy doing his job and, "I don't think the president should start politicking too soon."
Not said but implied was the basic question of why the president of the United States should accept or encourage the notion that Perot should be able to set himself up again, as he tried in 1992, as a presidential kingmaker.
At that time, after having suddenly withdrawn as an independent candidate himself, Perot started hinting he might reconsider.
In effect, he summoned leaders of the Clinton and George Bush campaigns to Dallas where they dutifully paid homage to him in the transparent hope of keeping him out the race.
The whole business was an embarrassment to the Clinton and Bush campaigns, but their leaders -- although not the candidates themselves -- swallowed their pride and recited how their respective candidates were supporting key objectives of the Perot "volunteers."
In the end, however, their efforts were to no avail. Perot re-entered the race and walked off with 19 percent of the vote.
This time around, Perot again is flirting with an independent candidacy.
The context are meetings he has inspired around the country of United We Stand, America state organizations. They are being asked to consider whether the group should form a third party.
According to the Dallas headquarters, all nine declared or about-to-declare Republican candidates, including on-the-edge Gov. Pete Wilson of California, have said they will be at the August conference.
The gathering is being called ostensibly to consider whether the two major parties have addressed the major issues on the organization's agenda sufficiently, or whether their failure requires formation of a third party.
In addition to the Republican candidates, other leaders of both parties, including House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Senate and House Democratic leaders Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt, and the two major-party chairmen, Republican Haley Barbour and Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd, are also expected.
Just as in 1992, a Perot candidacy figures to be more of a threat to the Republicans than to the Democrats because United We Stand, America members are believed to be more conservative than liberal, and hence would likely drain votes from the GOP nominee.
That is all the more reason that Clinton might have been expected to play along with Perot's little show in August.
Instead, he has elected to be "presidential" in this instance, making the point that he is above succumbing to any command performance from the Texas billionaire as he once again tries to shoehorn himself into the presidential political picture.
None of this is to say, however, that sentiment for an independent candidacy, by Perot or somebody else such as Colin Powell or former Connecticut Gov. Lowell Weicker, is not just as strong as it was in 1992, or even stronger. Reports from the United We Stand, America meetings in the 50 states, says Perot spokeswoman Sharon Holman, not surprisingly indicate great enthusiasm for a third party -- but, she adds, with reservations about the technical problems involved in forming one.
Any such reservations, however, will not stop Perot from staging another of his impressions of a reluctant citizen resisting the call to public service, while demanding that the two major parties shape up according to his agenda.
That he will have to do so without Bill Clinton's personal cooperation won't stop him, either.
Nevertheless, the president deserves credit for not allowing himself to be used as a pawn in this latest Perot chess game.