Usually, it is only in looking back that scholars can pinpoint the critical juncture at which monumental historic forces and the will of a people coalesce to produce change that moves a nation forward, or plunges it back. This presidential election is such a rare pivotal point. Americans' choices are starkly defined: Continued drift in economic and domestic policy vs. a quest for the paths that will make America prosperous and strong in the global economy of the 21st Century.

It's as if we've awakened from a deep slumber to find a world transformed. The Cold War has ended, and with that has come the demise of all the familiar ways of thinking about America's role in the world. A new global marketplace has emerged, at the very moment when America's competitiveness is in doubt. The immensity of the challenge facing the next president is as great as it has been since the Great Depression forced the nation into thinking about itself in a wholly new way.

That's why Newsday endorses Bill Clinton for president.

The Democratic nominee and his running mate, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee, have demonstrated a depth of knowledge and passion on the issues, a commitment to pushing beyond the strictures of old thinking and a zeal for governing - as well as a zest for life - that make them the best of a new generation of leaders.

Shaped by Cold War and Vietnam War

And now is the time for their generation. It was shaped by the Cold War but is not intellectually hostage to it; it fought, or protested, the Vietnam War but refused to accept misguided government policy; it helped usher in new civil rights for minorities, but saw the movement's spirit sour in the face of stubborn racism. This generation must now lead and build America for the next generation.

This is an endorsement given with full knowledge that many Americans, including those who plan to vote for him, have some justifiable reservations about Clinton. It is given with concern that Clinton has shown a disturbing propensity to promise too much and try to please all comers, and with the understanding that his economic plan does not go far enough toward digging the nation out from under its mountain of debt. It is given with the recognition that Clinton is young and untested on the national and, indeed, the international, scene.

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But whatever Clinton's flaws, they are eclipsed by his determination to test new ways to meet America's domestic and international challenges. President Bush has proven he's incapable even of recognizing them.

It's as if Bush were captive to his own generation's view of the world, formed when America could triumph in the global marketplace as it did on the battlefields of World War II. Pride in accomplishment is understandable, but his cry in the first debate - "We're the United States of America!" - is testimony to how stultified his thinking is: Simply being the United States is no longer enough to ensure prosperity at home and success abroad.

Bush Has Remained Aloof

The old rules are obsolete. New ones are waiting to be written. Yet, Bush just doesn't seem to get it.

He has failed to understand that the nation's problems are linked to a fundamental transformation of both the domestic and world economies. He has remained aloof, giving no indication he understands citizens' gut-churning fears about their families' futures. He has failed to seek well-thought-out solutions to a host of the nation's troubles - the anemic economy and the challenge of global capitalism; the malfunctioning health-care system; the despondency of the inner cities.

Bush did show strength and great skill in handling the Persian Gulf conflict and in managing the end of the Cold War. Yet his abiding interest in foreign affairs seems almost irrelevant to Americans panicked over pink slips. Instead of shaping history, Bush is being bypassed by it.

Grasping for political survival, Bush has sunk to shameless pandering for votes. His pledge to never "ever" again raise taxes smacks of cynicism and demagoguery, just as his broken "Read My Lips" pledge of 1988 was a stupid and cruel sham.

When a promise of tax cuts didn't turn his campaign around, Bush resorted to gutter tactics. The Republican National Convention was a weeklong display of moralistic arrogance that angered millions of working women and left American families wondering about just where they fit in the GOP's idealized and grossly distorted picture of American life. Then he tried a campaign of dark innuendo about Clinton's youthful opposition to the Vietnam War, and even his innocuous student trip to Moscow.

And what of Vice President Dan Quayle? Nothing he's done in the last four years disproves the conclusion that Quayle has neither the intellectual depth nor the leadership strength to serve as president if necessary.

Bush and Quayle have given no rationale for why they deserve a second term or what they'd do if they won it.

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Perot's Pluses and Minuses

Ross Perot has offered a courageous, if mistimed, plan for reducing the federal deficit. Were Perot an experienced public servant, had he proven he could maneuver successfully within the political system, he would be a formidable candidate. Unfortunately, Perot's personality quirks, his inconstancy, his lack of grounding in the ways and wiles of government are just some of the reasons he lacks the foundation to be president.

In contrast to Bush and Perot, Clinton and Gore offer experience, energy and innovation.

To talk to either man is to sense that each comprehends - intuitively and intellectually - that the world and America's position in it have changed. Both have a depth of understanding about complex issues that goes far beyond briefing-book platitudes. And they are prepared to roll up their sleeves and tackle the nation's daunting dilemmas - the scourge of AIDS, the need to help capitalism succeed in Russia, the dislocations caused by conversion from a defense-based to a civilian-based economy, the deterioration of our cities.

Clinton does not drag the whole bag of liberal shibboleths. He has long argued that the Democratic Party's blind allegiance to certain interest groups has caused voters to lose faith. His call for a "New Covenant" is a commitment to finding ways to make government work better and smarter.

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Thus, Clinton proposes moving welfare mothers onto payrolls; his state is one that has tested this plan. He promotes the idea of dismantling the current student loan system, which leaves many poor and middle-income students in the cold, and replacing it with a broader plan based in part on repaying loans with community-service work. He recognizes a yawning gap in the U.S. education system, which once prepared students either for college or the assembly line. The decline in manufacturing jobs has shrunk the second option. So Clinton proposes apprenticeship programs to prepare noncollege students for jobs in the new economy.

Is this smart, calculating politics? Yes. But it's also smart policy. It affirms that government can and should be used to improve people's lives, but on two conditions: That those who benefit act responsibly, and that sorely limited resources are invested wisely for the future.

The Clinton economic program, the centerpiece of the Democrat's campaign, is at once exciting and unnerving. It's exciting because it is centered on investing federal dollars in public improvements - roads and bridges, new high-speed rail systems and even new communications technology. But Clinton also is somewhat disingenuous in claiming that it can be paid for largely by raising taxes on the wealthiest and on foreign companies. It gives scant thought to bringing down the deficit, though Clinton is far more honest on this point than Bush and is not trapped by foolish, cynical no-tax promises.

Clinton's Trial by Fire

Clinton may be an inch too glib, but he is articulate; he may be two inches too mechanical, but he is knowledgeable; he may very well have been tied in a knot over the prospect of military service in Vietnam, but he was grappling with one of the most emotional conundrums of personal morality and public policy this nation ever faced. In short, he is a man of imperfections who is still learning how to deal with their amplification under the public glare. We believe, and hope, that his trial by fire will lead him to a chastened, more candid maturity.

Clinton's is the presidency likely to see us to the close of the 20th Century. Pass the torch.