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The ruler of a great power had shown kindness and friendship to a new nation. So its leader wrote a letter of appreciation and of his country's realities.

"Within our territories there are no mines either of gold or silver, and this young nation, just recovering from the waste and desolation of a long war, has not, as yet, had time to acquire riches by agriculture and commerce."But our soil is bountiful, and our people industrious, and we have reason to flatter ourselves that we shall gradually become useful to our friends."

At the inauguration of the 42nd president, those words from a letter by George Washington to Sultan Mohammed III of Morocco in 1789 were in my pocket and mind.

They possess those qualities Americans would most like to distinguish their nation and presidents, and occasionally even do: common sense, dignity, candor, a decent modesty joined to a comfortable sense of self-worth, and, in world affairs, loyalty and faith.

At inaugurals, each of us listens for a word that touches our own sense of national purpose. Most people at the Capitol saw President Clinton as a dot. But each had a clear, unobstructed view of himself.

The passage I hoped for came toward the end. The president spoke of America's greatest strength - the power of "our ideas" - and said: "Our hopes, our hearts, our hands are with those on every continent who are building democracy and freedom. Their cause is America's cause."

Bent for brevity, Clinton did not explain just why freedom's causes have to be ours. What's in it for us?

At least in part he has explained it in other talks. Democracies do not go around slaughtering each other, a fact that tends to increase American longevity. The more democracies that exist, the less American blood is likely to be spilled abroad.

Also, the American system prospers economically and politically in concert with other free nations, even if sometimes we threaten not to drink their white wine.

Dictatorships can be good customers for a while, particularly for arms. But the stronger the tyranny becomes, the quicker it presents a political price the United States cannot pay - Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, or Saddamite Iraq. Why we expect Communist China, with its burgeoning military might, to be different is a puzzle, unless we again put cash register ahead of international security and individual freedom.

Political freedom may not be "our" idea and certainly was not during slavery. But Clinton was right: It is our greatest strength abroad.

I have lived in nations oppressed by communist despotism and nations oppressed by poverty. Almost every day, the longing for the freedom America represented could be touched. Poles threw roses in the path of Richard Nixon because he was the vice president of the United States. In India, college students filled lecture halls to hear almost every visiting American, roses of attention.

The hopes of and for America often had cost to those who held them. In every war, every crisis, the United States asked the help of other peoples. It was given in belief that political freedom was transferable and that the United States would be its conduit. Without that trust, for most of the world the United States would be just real estate.

To Clinton and his chief of staff Thomas McLarty: Freedom's causes need supporters in the administration. The transition has squeezed most of them out.

To journalists: The whole beauty of journalism is that every day we get another crack at the story, to get more information, assuage cruelties, adjust our heads, correct mistakes.