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Lao-tzu can show Clinton the way

President Clinton could have saved Judge Stephen Breyer from a version of the Chinese water torture by following an ancient treatise on the art of governing, the Tao Te Ching or Book of the Way.

Written more than 2,000 years ago by Lao-tzu, a contemporary of Confucius, it can show Clinton the Tao ("way") to repair his political fortunes.

"Hold on to the center." As a candidate, Clinton portrayed himself as a new Democrat, a moderate committed to centrist policies.

"Just stay at the center of the circle," Lao-tzu wrote. "You will endure forever."

Once inaugurated, Clinton veered from the center, leaving people to believe the real Bill Clinton is a donkey in sheep's clothing. Putting David Gergen in the White House and keeping Lani Guinier out of the Justice Department isn't enough to foil that suspicion.

"His constant practice is humility." Lao-tzu warned that "the Wise Person avoids extravagance . . . He doesn't glitter like a jewel but lets himself be shaped by the Tao as rugged and common as a stone."

Clinton seemed to fit this model at first, stressing his humblebeginnings. Then plain Bill started hobnobbing with Hollywood stars and their hair stylist, learning the hard way that "one who puts himself on display does not brightly shine."

"Deal with the most vital matters." During his campaign, Clinton said, "The American people are hungry for action," and he has duly proposed new programs. But as the polls record his sinking popularity, he has found that his appetite for action gives the public indigestion.

As Lao-tzu observed: "Governing a large country is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking."

To avoid spoiling his administration, Clinton should adopt the three Zen rules for action:

Rule 1: Do one thing at a time. Clinton must concentrate an the ultra-important issues. His economic package has first priority. After Congress enacts that program, the nation will be ready for health care and (in its time) welfare reform.

Rule 2: Pay attention to what you are doing and, when your mind wanders, bring it back. Clinton acknowledges that his administration has lost focus.

Rule 3: Repeat Rule 2 10,000 times.

"Don't presume to be leader of the world."

Seeking greater intervention in Bosnia, Clinton supported one plan after another but abandoned them all. Finally, he signed on to a plan that he had previously denounced. Totally ineffective in Bosnia, he confirmed Lao-tzu's dictum: "Rushing into action, you fail."

"The farther you go, the less you Know."

Candidate Clinton asked to be sent to Washington to end gridlock. Once there, he began traveling the countryside to mobilize support against a Congress that hesitated in backing his proposals.

The Tao Te Ching asked, "Why should the Lord of the country flit around like a fool?" Stay in Washington, Mr. President, and _ as you promised _ make government work.

"The Master does't talk, he acts." Clinton can redeem his administration, but only if, as Lao-tzu said, "people can trust his words." The public is suspicious of smooth-sounding promises. It would be better, as the Tao Te Ching put it, to "Just show people the results."

"Failure is an opportunity."

Lao-tzu believed failure gives the wise leader an "opportunity to correct his own mistakes." He advised the leader to "consider those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers."

How should Clinton handle criticism? Lao-tzu counseled, "When (a great man) makes a mistake, he realizes it." Having realized it, he admits it. Having admitted it, he corrects it.

Clinton has reacted to publicity about his follies by becoming angry with his critics in the press. Asked whether he zig-zagged on the way to nominating Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court, Clinton cut the question short and stormed away from the microphone.

The time has come for the president to heed Lao-tzu: "Close your mouth . . . blunt your sharpness . . . and soften your glare."

Richard Littell is a lawyer.

New York Times