IT was about four years ago that a young governor from Arkansas was pawing the ground and trying to decide whether to run for president. Bill Clinton, along with his wife Hillary, had come to Washington to discuss the subject with journalists at a Monitor breakfast. It was the first time that the Washington press got insights into Clinton's views on national issues and where he would take the country if elected.
I decided to review a tape of what was said at that gathering after some recent events that have caused many observers to conclude that Clinton has no inner core of beliefs - or that if he has such convictions and goals, he has blurred them of late.
There was Clinton's recent depiction of the country being in a ''funk'' - which he soon thereafter, at a meeting with the same Monitor group, called a ''misspeak.'' Later he told business people that he had made a mistake in raising taxes and then, in explanation, said the Republicans had made him do it.
Finally, Clinton has told a columnist that he was not pleased with the welfare- overhaul plan he proposed and had ''lost the language'' of the moderate approach to governing that helped him win in 1992.
One interpretation is that Clinton, having moved to the left in pushing a liberal approach after being elected, is now repositioning himself toward the center in order to be reelected.
Mr. Clinton said a good deal at that 1991 breakfast about the ''great burden'' on presidential candidates ''to reconnect the American people with the political process and make them believe in it again.'' He said he was assuming that burden because ''if they have no hope in the process they can't be a part of the vision I offer.''
How was he going to persuade Americans to once again believe that their leaders can solve the immense problems facing this country? Clinton said ''credibility'' was the answer - which he would achieve by demonstrating ''through common sense and consistency'' that he means what he says.
I ASKED him that morning about his political philosophy: Did he view himself as a liberal or a conservative? He said he thought his approach to governing could not be so defined. He cited some Arkansas civil rights legislation he had gotten enacted which, he said, ''I suppose might be called liberal.'' Then he mentioned his backing of welfare reform - ''which might be looked upon as being conservative.''
Who were Clinton's heroes? His answer: ''Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt among the Democrats and Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt among the Republicans.''
Several times at that question-and-answer session Clinton stressed the urgency, as he saw it, for quick enactment of tax-relief legislation for the middle-income group. But he also made it clear that one of his first orders of business would be to put through an ''affordable'' health-care program - with wife Hillary heavily involved.
My reading of these Clinton breakfast utterances is that he knew very well at the time where he wanted to take the country and that to do so he would have to establish credibility with a disillusioned public. He was saying that by governing with ''common sense and consistency'' he would be able to bring and keep the American people behind him.
It seems to me that through zigging and zagging in both his actions and words, Clinton has failed to come up to the standard he set for himself at that breakfast. A new Washington Post poll shows the American people are giving him low marks for leadership.
That may be too harsh a judgment. Clinton is a most likable fellow who means well and puts endless energy in trying to do what is right. But if he is to be a truly successful president, he must learn (if the voters give him a second term) to set an agenda and stick with it - consistently.
To be a truly successful president, Clinton must set an agenda and stick to it.