Climbing Mt. Rushmore

NO MATTER WHERE BILL CLINTON turns his gaze in the Oval Office, one of his predecessors is staring back at him. Busts of Lincoln and FDR peer down from the bookshelves. Another Lincoln stands watch from a credenza behind Clinton's desk. A bronzed Truman winks from a side table. George Washington gazes solemnly from a giant gilt frame. Across the room, there is a virtual spectators' gallery of presidents past - miniature busts of JFK, Eisenhower, Washington and Lincoln peep out of a Lucite box. Pre sidential medallions litter one tabletop; campaign buttons adorn another. The highest office in the land looks a bit like a presidential souvenir shop.

If a president could secure his place in history by osmosis, Clinton's legacy would be ensured by now. He has devoured presidential biographies and imagined himself in the role since he was a small boy. Clinton has confessed to reading so much abou t his hero FDR that ""I feel like I'm talking to him instead of Hillary talking to Eleanor.'' He's made pilgrimages to Warm Springs and Hyde Park. But historians are a discriminating lot, as Clinton discovered after last year's election. An eminent jury convened by Arthur Schlesinger Jr. ranked Clinton ""low average,'' along with the likes of Chester Arthur, William Taft and George Bush.

For Clinton, who had actively courted some of the very scholars who panned him, the survey was a slap in the face. Dejected but determined, Clinton resolved to raise his standing. More and more often, aides have noticed, their famously poll-happy b oss will ask: ""What difference will what we do today make 20 or 50 years from now?'' He studied the pitfalls that have plagued other second-term presidents. At Al Gore's suggestion, he conferred with political scientist Richard Neustadt, author of the c lassic ""Presidential Power.'' He pondered his plight with former guru Dick Morris and with civil-rights historian Taylor Branch, a longtime friend who he hopes will be his official bi- ographer. He even poked fun at his obsession, proposing a ""posterit y war room'' where a me- dia team could create negative ads on James Buchanan and Warren Harding ""to take 'em down a peg.''

Can Clinton make the grade? In the past, presidents were propelled to greatness by war or cataclysm. But peacetime leaders have a much harder time scaling Mount Rushmore. Balancing the budget, a feat Clinton routinely describes as ""historic,'' is more likely to impress bankers than future scholars. Improving educational standards - his main goal for the second term - is one way to build a legacy. But Clinton's best chance is to take on the most intractable American problem of all: race. In the co ming months, he plans to devote much of his time to the issue he has called America's ""constant curse.'' Last week he made an emotional apology on behalf of the nation to survivors of the Tuskegee experiment in which African-American men with syphilis w ere left untreated in a 40-year government study. Next month he'll unveil a major initiative on race, aimed at ""taking stock'' of the country's increasingly diverse racial makeup. He'll also convene a White House conference on hate crimes and will hold ""town halls'' on racial diversity. ""It is potentially a great thing for America,'' Clinton has said, ""but it's also potentially a powder keg of problems and heartbreak and division and loss.''

It all sounds laudable. But in an era when, as Clinton himself has proclaimed, ""big government is over,'' turning well-meaning words into action could prove impossible. Without programs to back up the rhetoric, says one adviser, ""all we get is an other round of "Kumbaya'.'' Clinton knows the race initiative is unlikely to improve relations - or his approval ratings - any time soon. But he also knows, says historian Michael Beschloss, ""that the unpopular risk is what historians ultimately reward. '' And he has learned from his prodigious reading that near greats like Truman and Andrew Jackson were plagued - but in the end not overshadowed - by scandal. If his efforts pay off, Clinton could end up in the Oval Office well beyond 2000 - perhaps in b ronze, staring over Al Gore's shoulder.