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When Sen. Rufus Choate in 1856 coined a phrase by criticizing "the glittering and sounding generalities" of the Declaration of Independence, Ralph Waldo Emerson snapped back with: "Glittering generalities? They are blazing ubiquities!"

That was my chauvinist reaction when The Daily Telegraph, Britain's liveliest quality newspaper, dismissed President Clinton's second Inaugural Address as "banal."Banal it was not. (That word better describes the plodding poem read at the ceremony.) Although Clinton's reach for historical resonance hardly blazed with all-pervasive wisdom, his speech was a respectable effort, forcefully delivered.

In assessing his second inaugural, much depended on how you participated in the occasion.

If you watched as a conservative partisan, you could take umbrage at his pose of being above the battle. Who is this tricky triangulator - demagogue of Mediscare and rental agent of the Lincoln bedroom - to denounce as "petty bickering and extreme partisanship" congressional disagreement with his outrageous campaign misrepresentations?

If you nitpicked as a writer, you winced at his sentence fragments, at the awkwardness of shaping a hope into a chapter, and at the risk of building a speech on the theme of a new "promised land."

But if you let the ceremony wash over you as an American you gained an appreciation of what your president was trying to do.

He paid more than the usual obeisance to the black community. His reminder about the scourge of slavery, his evocation of Martin Luther King Jr. "at the other end of this Mall" and his "we shall overcome" are both payback for monolithic political support and a genuine expression of one of his few bedrock principles. The time for affirmative action is out of joint, but for Clinton to press his strength on race relations is good for the country.

He bestraddled the center like a would-be Colossus with "The pre-eminent mission of our new government is to give all Americans an opportunity - not a guarantee.

At the same time, Clinton replied to Ronald Reagan's inaugural "government is not the solution to our problem" with an oblique "government is not the problem and not the solution."

Few can argue with Clinton's welcome call for an assumption of personal responsibility, unless his simultaneous embrace of "a new spirit of community" turns out to be a euphemism for the continued assumption of that responsibility by government.

Viewed from across an ocean, the president acting as president comes across more vividly than when viewed inside our borders or D.C.'s Beltway. The office seems a bigger part of the man.

That's a thought to keep in mind as the second Clinton term reveals the tawdry secrets of the first. His popularity is at its peak in the post-election rush of patriotism, and this may be a good time to lock in profits on Clinton stock.

The investigations may bear bitter fruit; the economy may not prop up his ratings forever; decision-making will surely move to the Hill and then to his putative successor. Just as, in Clinton's stirring inaugural words, our actions at this moment in our nation's history will "define our course and our character," so will his reaction to the process of American justice define his own.

I like to think Bill Clinton will preserve, protect and defend that process, at whatever personal cost, remembering all that he represented on Inauguration Day.