Freezing on functions that run as root

Hi, I'm new at this from Windows ["Free, at last; Free, at last! Thank ..."]

Running Gnome on Debian 'sarge', kernel 2.4.26 (backport).
Fairly often, if I log in as a normal user and then try RootTerminal or Synaptic, that require a root password, the dialog box for the password gets about half painted -- just the background white and gray -- then everything freezes solid. The system does not respond to mouse or keyboard and all I can do is hit the Reset button. On the reboot, there are a bunch of bad iNodes in my /tmp filesystem. I've had similar things happen on just user-login, but not nearly as frequent. There the solution was to boot Single and rename the user's ".gnome*" files so they would be created fresh. The same sort of thing helps in this case -- I wipe out any ".gnome*" files in /root and try again. Usually it helps. And sometimes the problem just seems to go away.
Possibly a configuration glitch, but I don't have any idea where to look.
David A. Cobb, semi-retired [t. rex] Software Engineer

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