In his speech to the nation Monday night, President Clinton made a significant error. Despite his assertions, a president's private actions are indeed the public's interest. History, the schoolmaster whose lessons usually come long after the class has left, teaches this to anyone who will listen.

For example, evidence now has surfaced that President John F. Kennedy had Clinton-style inappropriate relations with Ellen Rometsch, who also happened to be an East German spy. Ample evidence exists of a similar encounter with Judith Campbell Exner, who had ties to the Mafia. Could anyone argue that these were merely private matters?Presidents, because of their unparalleled position of power, are natural targets for spies, deal-makers and people with unscrupulous characters. They also wield authority and influence over the lives of others. Their private acts often do affect the nation. Their character flaws cannot be shoved into a private compartment that is separate from their public lives. Their lies, particularly on sworn depositions, cloud all their other statements and actions with the dust of skepticism.

Those who believe otherwise should ask themselves, if the CEO of any corporation did what Clinton admitted Monday night to having done, would that action be the business of anyone else in the corporation? Of course it would. By the same measure, the president is, in effect, the nation's CEO. The people are the stockholders, and his actions, particularly those with another employee in his office, are the people's right to know.

And so Clinton's main premise Monday night, that his relations with Monica Lewinsky were "private" and "nobody's business but ours," is false. If nothing else, he lost the chance to claim this by his months of, as he said, misleading people and giving a false impression. But the very notion that moral conduct is inconsequential is wrong.

The office of the presidency is in crisis, perhaps as seriously so as at any other time in the nation's history. At the very least, Clinton's ability to effectively lead has been sapped of its strength, like a power plant struck by lightning in a storm.

But the American people should remember two important things. The first is to withhold final judgment. Independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr will present his report to Congress, which will detail all the evidence and allegations gathered. The House of Representatives ought to examine the evidence free of any political considerations, then decide if any further action is needed. As always, the law, not persuasive speeches or political name-calling, should be the determining factor. Americans, although clearly weary of this story, don't yet know all the facts.

Second, and most importantly, the people must remember that constitutional government is stronger than any one person and remains sound. The executive branch may be suffering a crisis, but the United States still is functioning. The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, created a three-pronged system that can carry the nation through such crises. And, while people may have lost faith in the current chief executive, they should never lose faith in the office itself, nor in the process that puts someone there.

This situation is not exactly new. In 1884, candidate Grover Cleveland was confronted with news stories that he had fathered an illegitimate child. He decided the best way to handle the problem was to "tell the truth," which was that the allegations were true.

As biographer Allan Nevins wrote, Cleveland made this decision because he believed that "From the truth, he had nothing to hide." He won the election and is generally viewed with respect by historians.

Clinton has taken a first step toward rectifying what he did wrong. That is, he has acknowledged the misdeed. We hope, as all Americans should, that he is not hiding from any other truth of significance. Just as history teaches that private deeds are of public consequence, it also teaches that few things of consequence can remain secret for long.