THE UNIMAGINABLE HAS happened.

Bill Clinton, love him or hate him, has been accused of many things.But never this: never giving a short, bad speech.

Words have always saved him, and there was some expectation that as he addressed the nation Monday night, he'd reach into his alchemist's bag of oratorical wonder and mint a fresh batch of golden words to explain his foolish fling with a former White House intern young enough to be his daughter.

But the unimaginable has happened.

Clinton's words failed him.

You don't have to believe me.

Just listen to the words of a friend.

"It's almost like he didn't say anything," Tim Valentine said.

Valentine, an investigator for the Palm Beach County State Attorney's Office, knew Clinton since the days they lived across the hall from each other at Georgetown University.

Valentine isn't a good friend, but he's good enough to have been invited to the White House a couple times and to have received personalized Christmas cards from Clinton every year. And he's good enough to want his old friend to succeed.

But after Monday night, he's not sure that's possible anymore.

Valentine saw too much anger and not enough contrition in Clinton's words, and saw Clinton's words as piling more sandbags around the bunker, rather than finding a way to climb out.

"When I was up there the end of May, and I spoke to him, he just felt that (Special Prosecutor Kenneth) Starr was after him, and that everybody was after him," Valentine said.

"The best policy is to be truthful, but the guy is really stubborn, he really is," Valentine said. "I was really taken back by the end of the speech, when he lashed out. Even if Starr was off the wall and overly aggressive, that wasn't the time to bring it up. I just write it off to Clinton's stubbornness."

Valentine was hoping that Clinton would have restricted his emotions Monday to remorse, rather than anger, and that his powerful passages would have been about his own actions, something he talked about in vague, lawyerly terms.

"It's not a question of getting the sordid details," Valentine said. "He just needed to show an emotional side. He needed to shed a tear or bite that lip.

"I was upset by his anger. I just feel that he's not going to have any power at all from now on. How can you demand respect? You have to earn it. How can you say, `Follow me,' when you're not a leader?"

In the seven months since the Lewinsky affair became public, Valentine wanted to believe Clinton and took heart in the spirited defense of the president taken by his wife and aides.

"I looked to read the aides," he said. "The way the aides were so staunchly attacking Starr, it made me wonder."

But then the way Clinton reversed his public denials with this brief, combative speech, which talked of "legally accurate" yet misleading words and "a failure to volunteer information" only made Valentine feel worse.

"The language didn't upset me, the level of contrition upset me," Valentine said.

To Valentine, Clinton had always been a man with an incredible aura, a glow that drew you to his light.

But after Monday night, Valentine wondered if his old friend had begun the gradual process of losing that light.

For Valentine no longer felt drawn.

Just mysteriously suspended.

New York Times News Service