There Is A Balm In Chiliad
Will the crescendo toward 2000 help Clinton beat the second-term jinx?
By Lance Morrow
(TIME, January 27) -- A long time ago, in the days when the young might get stoned and watch 2001 and listen as Also Sprach Zarathustra blared in crescendo, the millennium was heavy. It was far out. It was also far off. But now, here it is--just on the other side of Bill Clinton's new term, at the end of his famous bridge. Did Dick Morris arrange this?
Perhaps it is simply more of Clinton's luck. He is the most resilient Southerner since Scarlett O'Hara. Clinton has built a career around the truth that tomorrow is another day. And in a television age, everyone forgets everything within a few minutes anyway--each discontinuous moment being rinsed clean a moment later, sins washed away in the sacrament of absolution by oblivion. But arranging to have his second term end in the year 2001 is a stroke of public relations genius. Tomorrow is another...millennium.
The brilliance consists in this: second terms are famous for being times of dreary brownout. In music it is called rallentando, a gradual slackening of tempo, a winding down. Dwight Eisenhower's presidency, for example, slipped into senescence in the late '50s. The jinx falls especially on those Presidents who return to the White House on landslides--Richard Nixon, for example, who annihilated George McGovern in 1972, and then, less than two years later, was forced to resign, a step ahead of the Senate's tar and feathers. Lyndon Johnson's great victory in 1964 over Barry Goldwater did not make L.B.J., strictly speaking, a second-termer (his "first term" was the unexpired part of John Kennedy's), but the evil eye fell on him nonetheless.
Presumably Clinton, with 49% of the vote this time, is less subject to the Law of Rallentando. Still, experience argues against the idea of a President's even attempting a second term.
What's needed to ward off incipient rallentando is a big, distracting counternoise, a Zarathustra crescendo. No one would wish Bill Clinton to achieve exactly the second-term salvation--if that is the word--that history arranged for Franklin Roosevelt. F.D.R.'s second term represented a fairly dramatic falling off from the brisk exuberance of the first. Roosevelt tried to pack the Supreme Court, with humiliating results. The Great Depression ground on. Abroad, the international order began to disintegrate. America split bitterly over what, if anything, to do about it. All of this set the stage for F.D.R. to transcend his second term's malaise by breaking through precedent to a third term and, as history would have it, moving the drama of his presidency to a larger theater: world war.
In a sense, the millennium is Bill Clinton's larger theater; for him there is a balm in chiliad. World War II, of course, was no illusion. The millennium is a sort of hallucination--the calendar's neverland. That's all right; Bill Clinton is a magnificent illusionist.
For three years after this week's Inauguration, Clinton will play variations on the great-expectations theme inherent (however artificially) in time's odometer, the rolling toward three zeroes. Clinton's metaphor during the 1996 campaign was the "Bridge to the 21st Century." Actually, his image-and-message crew tested a number of catchphrases: "Building a Bridge to the Future," "A 21st Century Agenda" and, candidly if bathetically, "Bridge to a Second Term." All lightning bugs, no lightning.
The imagers considered invoking not just the new century but the entire new millennium. They rejected the idea as being "too grandiose, too out-of-scale." Presidents, they reasoned, can try to shape decades. To aspire to shape a millennium sounds like overreaching.
What lies on the other side of the bridge? For pessimists the new millennium is time's equivalent of those stretches of pre-Columbian ocean on which European mapmakers wrote, "Here be monsters." Either/or: The imagination projects either apocalypse or high-tech wonders, either hell or heaven. Clinton, whose theology is politics, projects a nation going through the biggest changes since industrialization depopulated the farms 100 years ago. Once a balanced budget is in place, he thinks, the basic source of American political conflict in the past decade will have vanished. The country will be ready to search for a new cooperative, pragmatic approach to national problems.
This, of course, is virtually every President's Inaugural music. William McKinley, the stolidly worthy Ohioan who presided over the last turn of the century, made such complacent sounds. Richard Nixon's line was "Bring Us Together." He did the reverse.
The millennial either/or: Clinton's second term may achieve great things or, at the other extreme, come to the sort of squalid apocalypse that his enemies wish to call down upon him for past sins. The little foxes are in the vines.
In any case, it is certain that by the year 2001, the majority of Americans are going to be heartily sick of Bill Clinton--and of the millennium as well. Both will have been with us for an eternity.
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