I spent the day The Videotape was released at the New York University Law School's symposium on globalization.

The first lady and scholars and bankers and U.N. officials were mapping a "third way" between laissez-faire capitalism and the welfare state.Then, in the afternoon, President Clinton arrived to talk about "Strengthening Democracy in the Global Economy" in a forum with three other heads of state and government. More genial blather, I expected.

But no - the president posed the hard questions the others had avoided: What kinds of problems are not amenable to "third way" solutions? How do you persuade a public, or a legislature, to deal today with a problem that won't surface for 10 years, such as Social Security?

I asked a constitutional law scholar what he had thought.

"That was the most intellectually serious president of my lifetime," he said. "And I can't believe we'll get another for a long time. What a waste."

That, I said, was exactly what I had been thinking.

The president stayed and talked - about the problem of the long term, about Kosovo, about anything. I had met him only once before, after a 1991 debate, and then, too, he had stayed for hours, debating and delineating.

It seemed then that this man could break the ideological deadlock of left and right - no one had yet coined the phrase "third way" - and could instill in public life something of the intellectual vitality we associate with the Kennedy years.

And yet, the Clinton administration has been haunted, almost from the outset, by a sense of wasted possibilities. President Clinton, unlike Prime Minister Blair, faced a hostile, highly conservative Congress. At the reception, he said with a smile that at times he could see the merits of a parliamentary system.

Whatever might have been has disappeared quickly with the failure of health-care reform, the disastrous 1994 elections and the subsequent ascendancy of Dick Morris and "triangulation" - a debased variation on the third way, in which the president reduced his ambitions almost to nothing.

Perhaps a man less intent on survival could have found a way to rally the nation to his side. Yet the Republicans were determined to deny Clinton significant legislative victories.

But we didn't know then how profound the waste would turn out to be. After Monday's symposium, I came home, turned on the television and heard, "If the person being deposed kissed the breast of another person . . . "

That's what it had come to. Democratization and the forces of global capitalism were inside the bubble, rarefied and faintly preposterous. The all-pervading reality was that the president was facing the prospect of impeachment for refusing to admit that he had touched Monica Lewinsky when she had touched him.

And yes, of course, the president was very much to blame for the fix he was in. He shouldn't have done it, and he shouldn't have lied.

But the world has not been kind to him. It has given him an avenging prosecutor, a ravening media and a Republican majority quietly sharpening its knives.

To Clinton's critics, it is obvious how history will apportion the blame for this colossal waste. But it isn't obvious to me.