People used to rag on poor Bob Dole -- the pre-Viagra Bob Dole -- for his verbal tics as a presidential candidate. For instance, he used to say "Whatever" whenever he was stumped for something to say, which was often. Another tic, on display hourly on the campaign trail, was "That's what it's all about."

"The children," the candidate would say, "that's what this campaign is all about." "It's about character -- that's what this election is all about." And so on, through "the future," "leadership," "where we're going," "experience" -- the campaign, the election, whatever, was about all those things, depending on the time of day. Unfortunately, Dole's improvisational reliance on the phrase "what this campaign is all about" was taken (correctly) as evidence that he didn't have a clue what the campaign was about, and that he didn't much care to find out.

Dole's inarticulateness was all the more painful in contrast to his opponent's preternatural fluency. If you asked President Clinton what the campaign was all about, he could unspool a tripartite answer, lovingly rehearsed, trimmed to fit the audience before him and the time available. Of course, the answer might not have been true -- President Clinton's reelection campaign was about getting President Clinton's reelected and nothing more -- but you had to admire his skill in getting the patter down. Getting the patter down is in fact his greatest skill. It's what he's all about.

Which makes his rhetorical performance of recent weeks especially odd. With the war in Kosovo bearing down, the president's fluency has left him. This war -- what's that all about? Well . . .

"When we see slaughter or ethnic cleansing abroad," he said in a speech last week, "we should remember that we defeat these things by teaching and by practicing a different way of life, and by reacting vigorously when they occur within our own midst. That's what this is about."

"The peace of Europe is important to the future of the children in this room today," he said on April 1. "That is, in the end, what this is about."

"First of all, we must always be working on ourselves," he said on April 6. "That's really what this is about."

"If we want people to share our burdens of leadership, with all the problems that will inevitably crop up," he said on March 23, "Europe needs to be our partner. Now that's what this Kosovo thing is all about."

"But just remember this," he said on the same day. "It's about our values."

And on April 1, he quoted Franklin Roosevelt: "'More than an end to all wars, we want an end to the beginnings of all wars.' That is what we are trying to achieve in Kosovo." In other words, that's what it's all about: an end -- at last! -- to the beginnings.

If this confusion sounds Dolean, it is Dolean, so to speak, in a Clintonian way. The president's first extended attempt to explain his war came during a speech to a union group on March 23. It was a very long speech, full of sentences that were very long.

"With all of our increasing diversity in America, I wanted an America that really reaffirmed the idea of community, of belonging, the idea that none of us can pursue our individual destinies as fully on our own as we can when we want our neighbors to do well, too, and that there is some concrete benefit to the idea of community that goes beyond just feeling good about living in a country where you're not discriminated against because of some condition or predisposition or anything else that has nothing to do with the law and nothing to do with how your neighbors live their lives, and that what we have in common is more important than what divides us."

In this riot of subordinate clauses -- unparsable and essentially incoherent, redolent of high sentiment or low bromide, depending on your point of view -- it is the last phrase that is most telling. Somewhere around the fiftieth or sixtieth word, the president must have realized that this zeppelin of verbiage he had sent aloft was in danger of drifting heavenward, never to return. Sensing trouble, he lunged for the guy wire of one of his favorite platitudes and so at last managed to pull the enormous vessel safely to the earth. In that last phrase you can almost hear the sigh of relief. What we have in common etc. has for years recurred in the president's speeches as a verbal safe haven, a touchstone; We should lift people up, It's the right thing to do, and This is a very great country often serve the same purpose, grounding him in familiar territory when his love of talking for talking's sake threatens to send him spinning into space. Here, however, in his first Kosovo speech, what we have in common served an even more convenient purpose. The sentiment itself soon became his chief means for justifying NATO's bombs, and for explaining "this Kosovo thing."

"People are still killing each other out of primitive urges because they think what is different about them is more important than what they have in common," he continued. This is a more succinct phrasing of his essential point: that Slobodan Milosevic has what we might these days call an issue with diversity -- with "difference." Diversity is Serbia's strength. Milosevic just doesn't know it yet. "He acts like he wants to take Serbia back to the 14th century," the president, sounding perplexed, told a group of military families on April 1, "back to 14th century values, 14th century ways of looking at other human beings." But Milosevic is not along in his delusion. You can find this kind of totally retro way of thinking all around the world. "You can see it in the Middle East, in Northern Ireland," the president said. "You can see it in the tribal wars in Africa."

And you can see it here, too -- right here in the USA. As presidents do in times of crisis, Clinton has been forced to shoehorn references to Kosovo into all his speeches, regardless of the audience. This makes for some odd transitions -- to a gathering of electronics dealers, for example, he felt compelled to point out that those persecuted Kosovars are, let's not forget, potential customers: "the little people who may never even see most of the things you invent and sell and market, but who could if they could live in peace." (We bomb so that you may someday sell them VCRs.) But at an event booming "hate crimes" legislation, the president made the thematic transition seamlessly. It was his most remarkable statement on Kosovo to date. For he found a commonality between ethnic cleansing abroad and anti-gay and anti-black violence here at home. "To see what is going on in the Balkans," the president said, "and to see these terrible examples of violence here in our own country -- it's very humbling."

And so it is -- but not so humbling that the president hasn't been able to tease from these seemingly unrelated acts a unified-field theory of human acrimony. The IRA = the PLO = the Hutus = Slobo = the crackers who did in Matthew Shepard. And you and me, too: It turn out we're all culpable. Even the president!

"We know that inside each of us there are vulnerabilities to dehumanizing other people simply by putting them in a category that permits us to dismiss them, or that permits us to put them in a category so that on a bad day, when we're feeling especially bad about something we've done, we can say, well, thank God I'm not them. And it is a short step from that -- a short, short step from that -- to licensing and even participating in acts of violence."

("You might want to put some ice on that.")

So that's what it's all about: crushing the universal Id. The president does recognize that some are more culpable than others. "We're not for anybody's hate crimes," he noted; still, he's a believer in proportional response. When you or I have a bad day, we might drag somebody behind a truck. When Milosevic has a bad day, the whole Balkan Peninsula suffers. So to combat hate here at home, the president recommends that "the Justice Department and Education Department include in their annual report card on school safety crucial information on hate crimes among young people." To combat hate in Kosovo, the president recommends bombing.

These are deep waters, as the waters surrounding the president often are. And you might think they're a little deeper than they need to be. Psychologizing a military action will always sound less plausible than using the concrete language of geopolitics. But you can't really blame the president for going Freudian. His earliest efforts to explain his action in simpler terms were fated to fail. Shortly before the bombs started falling, he warned an audience about what might happen if the bombs didn't start falling quick. "And let me say this," he said on March 23, "if we don't do something, they got 40,000 troops there, and a bigger offensive could start any moment." And what do you know -- to stop the bigger offensive, NATO started bombing, and the bigger offensive started sure enough.

With his rationale of "deterring aggression" having been, as the phrase goes, overtaken by events, it was back to the drawing board, and the president has clung to his theory of "primitive urges" ever since. But even here a kind of Dolean confusion survives. At the end of last week, the president again addressed the Kosovo war. He spoke again of "purging [people's] hearts of primitive hatreds." But halt! Two sentences later, he had discovered a new wrinkle to those primitive hatreds. "Clearly," he went on, "our first challenge is to build a more peaceful world, one that will apparently be dominated by ethnic and religious conflicts we once [i.e., thirty seconds ago] thought of as primitive, but which Senator Moynihan, for example, has referred to now as postmodern." Holy smokes. The mind stalls and sputters. Which is it? Primitive or postmodern? Maybe postmodernism is a kind of recrudescence of primitivism. Or something. As another senator used to say: Whatever.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.