The Clintons' failure to understand that publicly paid staff shouldn't be conducting private business is the root cause of much of their trouble.

For instance, the late Vincent Foster, deputy White House counsel, was conducting personal business for the president and the first lady despite the fact he was an employee of the American taxpayers.The latest example of presidential confusion on this issue is Clinton's claim that all his conversations with White House counsel Bruce Lindsay, including those of a personal nature dealing with the Monica Lewinsky case, should be protected under executive privilege.

And in some ways, the Secret Service's recently disallowed contention that its agents are excluded from testifying because of an implied privilege necessary to protect the president, is another manifestation of the public-pay-for-personal-activities syndrome.

To grant the Secret Service such privilege would turn duly constituted federal agents into private police who could not be forced to testify even though they witnessed a crime.

The three-judge federal appeals panel was right, of course, to uphold the lower court ruling denying any such privilege, and the Justice Department should take this no further.

It is difficult to believe that Attorney General Janet Reno actually believes in such a preposterous contention. One could only surmise then, if she moves ahead, that there is another agenda - the further stalling of independent counsel Kenneth Starr's already overly long investigation.

The Clintons have been in public office most of their adult lives, residing in houses paid for by, first, state and, then, federal taxpayers. As governor of Arkansas, Clinton rode in a state car, lived in a state-owned mansion, had tax-paid drivers and protectors, entertained on state funds and used state staff for any number of chores that might not have qualified. For the past six years, it has been much the same in the White House.

Is it any wonder that he and his wife sometimes get confused about the role of public staff members?

As first lady of Arkansas, Hillary Clinton certainly was no stranger to this confusion over public and private roles. She sat on the board of corporations that did business with the state, and she represented clients whose business could only be called in conflict with the state's interest.

As a Yale-educated lawyer, she must have known that some of what she was doing was at least skirting the ethical edge.

Many of those in the White House counsel's office and on the president's advisory staff seem to be excessively occupied with the president's personal problems. Presidential assistants spend an inordinate amount of time knocking the special prosecutor and putting the president's spin on any new revelation or allegation.

Should they be doing this at taxpayer expense? Probably not. They would be far better off refusing to comment on any of the personal allegations against Clinton, deferring that to his nonstaff political allies who also are not difficult to find.

The fact is that the president's and the first lady's insensitivity to the difference between public and private functions has been a major flaw in their public service.