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This column was supposed to start with the following paragraph:

"President Clinton is taking leadership in a critical area of American life - or death. There are many things the United States needs, but none more important than presidential leadership in the war against drugs."When I read it, it seemed familiar. Pulling out my drug files, I found I had written one version or another of that paragraph every year since Clinton became president, sometimes several times.

Some columns announced happily that here we go, he is taking anti-drug leadership at last. Some said heavily that he really had not done it after all, that he could catch the ball from time to time but never ran with it. And others were pleas to Hillary Rodham Clinton, the vice president, his friends, anybody, to get him to understand that it was his job.

One look into our mirrors and we know that no president can cure the illnesses in our national soul that allowed drugs to burn out the brains of millions, spread disease and make whole neighborhoods prisoner. The responsibility has to be taken by parents, schools, churches, business, press - and by the addict.

But it is also true that the White House must become what no president has really made it - the power center and pulpit for the struggle against this dreadful epidemic.

Unless the president does his duty against drugs and we ours, consistently, we have no right to chatter about reducing crime or recapturing the right to walk our streets without dread.

And that's the easy part. As Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., keeps shouting in our national face, there's not much point in giving the addict therapy unless business and government try to give him skills that will get him into a job and out of the gutter.

Clinton is trying again to lead on drugs. He has taken three steps. They are important individually and have the additional strength of being intertwined.

First, he made Barry McCaffrey, a highly respected Army general, director of national drug policy. Drug czar it used to be called, but czarship it never was.

Still, the right man, given the right presidential support, can work out a coherent national policy and then lead, push and pull Congress and the bureaucracy into carrying it out. So far, no director has done that. The first, William Bennett, had the intellect, but left after a year. The next director - I forget his name. The third, Lee Brown, former police commissioner of New York City, got a promotion to cabinet rank by Clinton, followed by a budget whack.

McCaffrey, a man of thought, range and quiet drive, is off to a good start where it costs most - Congress and the White House. This man is not shaft-prone.

The president also raised the budget for interdiction, law enforcement, education and therapy to $15.1 billion, a 9 percent increase. McCaffrey's appointment will help to get it through Congress.

And on Thursday Clinton endorsed the McCaffrey strategy of more focus on the current danger point - the increased use of drugs among grade-school children.

Good steps, all three. But Clinton, and his drug director, in public dance around an international drug scandal. Mexico has become the transfer center for 70 percent of the cocaine and 50 percent of the marijuana arriving in the United States. That is the same Mexico under the same government that Clinton bailed out with $50 billion in loans and credits.

One day soon Clinton will have to sacrifice delicacy about Mexican smuggling or claims to anti-drug leadership.

As I was about to say at the beginning: There are many things that the people of the United States need but none more important than presidential leadership in the war against drugs. Do it, do it.