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Viewpoint: The Trouble With The Present Tense

The President is selling well now, but there is a more permanent dimension

By Lance Morrow

TIME magazine

(TIME, March 30) -- A few weeks ago, after the White House dinner for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the New Yorker's editor, Tina Brown, composed a "Fax from Washington" that she ran in her magazine's Talk of the Town section. It was a memorable bread-and-butter note, a valentine to her host, the President, written in the prose of a Harlequin romance: she sees "a man in a dinner jacket with more heat than any star in the room...his height, his sleekness, his newly cropped, iron-filing hair." Forget, wrote Brown, "all the Beltway halitosis breathed upon his image...the neo-puritanism of the op-ed tumbrel drivers." Instead, say yes to the electrical, existential Now of Bill Clinton: "He is vividly in the present tense and dares you to join him there."

Another conquest for the American President.

Brown's "Fax" was truly distinguished, if gooey, nonsense: the present, exciting and vivid, is more real than anything else, if only we, like Clinton, have the nerve to embrace it. This is the sort of thinking that got Emma Bovary into trouble. But the thought is also a kind of bull's-eye. Brown hit exactly upon Clinton's secret: he is the world-historical genius of the present tense.

He proves this, time after time: slipping the noose, dodging the bullet, getting the girl. (Actually, the order should be the other way around: first, he gets the girl, and then he escapes the consequence of having got her.)

The live-vividly-in-the-moment approach is a handy tool that has 1,001 uses around the house. Thus: a husband comes home at five in the morning with the scent of another woman lingering about his person. "Where were you?" the wife demands. "Darling," the husband replies, "I am vividly in the present tense. I dare you to join me there!" (Good luck in trying that.)

This dashing metaphysics has its origins in a cheesy Byronism that acquired an improbable American pedigree with Emerson, who invented the expression "Do your thing," and after its many adventures with the Beats and the flower children of the '60s, came to succinct and opulent global fruition in the Nike commercial's "Just do it."

But it doesn't work very well in a serious life. The thing about the present is precisely its confused instability, its blurriness, its sleight-of-hand. Now you see it, now you don't. It is a fog of particles in motion, a montage of denial and fantasy and sidelong perception. And therefore a most congenial medium for the current President.

Animals--lions and zebras and beautiful snakes--live vividly in the present tense, in a bright unconsciousness of time. That is their innocence and their limitation. Humans carry with them their experiences, their pasts; men and women work with a knowledge of consequences and, doing so, impose order on the chaotic present and project consequences into the future.

Of course, all great political illusionists--a category that includes both historical monsters and democratic leaders like Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan--are masters of the present tense. Brown is right about this: Clinton has always made his living by working the vivid instability of the moment. He is, as someone once described Washington's Mayor Marion Barry, a "situationist"--adapting sleekly, almost shape shiftingly, to the situation at hand. The rest of us, grim salarymen of the ordinary, trail along, trying to figure out what happened last night, yesterday and the day before yesterday. And sometimes we are even able to figure it out. That may be what worries Clinton.

Clinton is America's first poststructuralist President. He has built a whole career by enacting, instinctively, the principles of the French theorist Jacques Derrida, who has argued that all reality is merely "text," subject to infinite interpretation and linguistic manipulation--but never to definitive judgment. America has become a poststructuralist text, in which all meaning is provisional, "deferred." Kathleen Willey goes on 60 Minutes and within a few days is deconstructed. As Nietzsche said, there are no facts, only interpretations: the hermeneutics of gossip in a frivolous yet dangerous game. All is spin.

Therefore, as Americans study the Monica Lewinsky text and the Willey text and, above all, the mysterious supertext that is Bill Clinton's character, they hear conflicting slogans going off in their heads. "It's nobody's business!" a thousand voices shout from around the brain. A voice from elsewhere in the mind comes back, borrowing words from a half-forgotten time and an entirely different American opera: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" The present is unstable enough. Surely we do not need (except for entertainment, of course) the smoke-and-mirrors of poststructuralism. Anyone setting off on a search for the meaning in the present mess ought to brace himself with a thought from the British philosopher Karl Popper: "I hold it to be morally wrong not to believe in reality."

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 30, 1998

Why Clinton Is Still Buoyant
Outrageous Fortune
The Lives Of Kathleen Willey
Viewpoint: The Trouble With The Present Tense
Africa Rising
Dividing Line: My Dungeon Shook
Courting Controversy
The KGB Of Mississippi
Romancing The Widow?
The Notebook: Primary Colors, Part II

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