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George Bush's lead-pipe guarantee has disintegrated before our eyes.

That famous statement, delivered with such gusto at the Republican National Convention in 1988, has been repeated so many times that no one could possibly forget it."The Congress will push me to raise taxes, and I'll say no, and they'll push, and I'll say no, and they'll push again. And all I can say to them is read my lips: NO NEW TAXES."

Aides to Bush were not fond of the wording, although they did not disagree with the message. They told Bush speech-writer Peggy Noonan that in the history of the presidency there had never been an acceptance speech with a personal organ reference.

But Noonan kept putting "read my lips" back in because it sounded definite and could not be subject to misinterpretion.

Until last week.

Suddenly, the president agreed to make a bipartisan statement with the Democrats about raising taxes to bring down the deficit. But he and his aides still refused to admit that the major promise of his campign has gone up in smoke.

So how hard should we be on the president?

Most Democrats will be easy on him because voters who want to blame someone will have to blame both parties. Many Republicans, however, especially those up for re-election, are embarrassed. They fear voter backlash, while the president has two more years to allow voters to forget.

So some Republicans have accused the president of "selling out."

The truth is that by this standard, virtually every modern president has sold out. The problem is that the most popular issue of every presidential election is co-opted by the winning presidential candidate for maximum political advantage.

Then after the election the president sees the issue very differently.

Is that hypocrisy? You may think so, but the fact is that most presidential candidates, no matter what their previous experience, do not understand the key issues well enough to make campaign promises.

Especially those that will never be broken.

They have to be president for a while before all these things become crystal clear.

Some examples:

- Woodrow Wilson was elected president in 1916 on the popular slogan, "He kept us out of war." This was a presidential candidate dedicated to the principle of neutrality.

- Herbert Hoover's most famous slogan in 1928 was "two cars in every garage." He made heavily exaggerated statements about the economy. "We in America today are nearer to the final triumph over poverty than ever before in the history of any land . . . we shall soon with the help of God be in sight of the day when poverty will be banished from this nation."

- Franklin D. Roosevelt promised in 1940, "Your boys will not be sent into any foreign wars."

- In 1964, Lyndon Johnson promised not to escalate the Vietnam War. "We don't want our American boys to do the fighting for Asian boys. We don't want to get involved in a nation (China) with 700,000,000 people and get tied down in a land war in Asia."

- In 1968, Nixon promised to end the Vietnam War with a secret plan.

- In 1980, Ronald Reagan promised to balance the budget and get rid of the embarrassing, indefensible federal deficit.

Then Bush got his own urge to make a promise. There is no question that raising taxes is preferrable to a worsening, frightening deficit. But there is still that nagging realization that here is a president whose promise has not been kept. And why did he make it in the first place?

Our only hope is that the next presidential election will produce two idealistic candidates who will be wise enough to say, "I refuse to make silly promises that I can't possibly keep."

Then we'll be angry because we have no idea how they stand on the issues. We might have to read their minds.