SOMEBODY'S GOING TO HAVE TO RESOLVE THE ""historical legacy'' question currently so obsessing our leaders before the people rise up and do something reckless. Do those guys in uncomfortable-looking suits and complacent smiles, posing every third day on the White House lawn to announce yet another rim shot at history, have any idea how their preoccupation is being received? Can they even imagine the frighteningly unaffectionate, if not downright liverish, stare with which people have come to greet each such well-publicized and self-regarding near miss? I don't think so. If they could it wouldn't be happening.
But it is. A cursory Lexis-Nexis search shows that just about every paper in America by now, not to mention learned journals from abroad, routinely describes our president as being unbecomingly obsessed with ""his place in history.'' Merciless cartoons proliferate. Sometimes an eager Republican congressional leadership takes its place in the tableau and joins in the exaggeration of its own bipartisan accomplishment, evidently hoping for the rub-off of a little legacy moondust. But by and large the cringe-making message is coming, unembarrassed, out of the White House, courtesy of those aides who have always done Clinton more harm than good in the confidences they felt compelled to share and also, unaccountably, in reports of interviews with the president himself.
As a result everybody in America knows by now that there has been earnest talk in the White House of what darn bad luck it is that the president didn't have some kind of potential national catastrophe, like a war or a depression, on which to demonstrate his skills. We also have read of the sifting and rejecting of this grand issue and that as a prospective historical hit. And we have read as well, which is probably of interest mainly to us Beltway types, the shameless speculations of various presidential aides that some relatively minor issue or other (which we happen to know is the one they are associated with) is pretty certain to provide the president's ticket to immortality or at least to get him into the top 10.
The least cooperative party in working any of this out is bound to be history itself, which has a near-perfect record of being out to lunch or otherwise occupied when our national leaders place the call. For Clinton, except for his inexplicable publicness and apparent drivenness, too, is far from being the first of our leaders to fall into this trap. Some, like Richard Nixon and others, when they were experiencing a particularly bad patch, have tended to view ""history'' as a kind of reputational 911, a rescue wagon that will come for them and do a nice job of rehabilitation, whatever the maggots of journalism and a lying political opposition may be saying now. But more have been under the illusion that what they consider their best shot for the ages will win them the place they so crave in the annals of the West.
History, bless its heart, is almost always off conducting its business somewhere else while this is going on. It likes to think about such things as, say, the immense, unplanned, transforming effect on the European economy produced by the huge death toll of the Plague. It is always unhelpfully insisting that this sort of development is far more important than anything some ermine-robed, 14th-century goon thought he did to alter the course of civilization. In our time, too, history seems to be regularly off inspecting some demographic trend or technological change or agricultural upheaval we didn't notice and pronouncing it to be the only thing worth remembering about us. Or, to our recurrent stupefaction, it will be ratcheting way up the reputation of someone who occupied the White House and who our consensus held to be an utter dimwit.
So there is no help to be found there, leaving it to the rest of us to come up with an interim solution--a name, an age--that will satisfy the politicians' perceived need, have a suitable historical sweep and ring, and stay at least within some minimal range of accuracy as to what is being memorialized and celebrated. The advantage of this is that it could conceivably get the topic closed down and off the front page, so our leaders could kick the habit and get back to life in the here and now. The disadvantage is that, of course, it can only irresistibly bring out a kind of cheap-shot competition among the rest of us to get the job done. Here is mine. I propose that for the interim, meaning until history actually gets around to doing the job, we dub our political times the Augustinian age.
I believe that, first, it is appropriate to measures both the president and his Republican opponents regard as representing some of their most significant and historically transcendent positions and initiatives: the tax bill, the budget bill and their undertakings to reform campaign financing. Each did and does in fact embody some important breakthroughs and right-on rhetoric. But whether it's sound long-term tax policy or entitlement control or self-discipline on the campaign-slush-fund front, each somehow manages to put off the really hard part till, well, the day after tomorrow. That's why the young Saint Augustine so perfectly fits the bill, even providing an impressive Latin text for the times: ""Da mihi castitatem et continentiam. Sed noli modo.'' Translated into the vernacular, this means: ""Just one more Twinkie or maybe two and then I'll stop.'' A little more literally it would be the young man's prayer to God to grant him virtue and self-restraint--""but not yet.''
Let's call it the Augustinian age, then. It satisfies the main requirements. It sounds good. Nobody will know what it means. It could conceivably bring an end to the oppressive, demeaning flood of news stories about our leaders' preoccupation with their place in history. It will additionally, as a bonanza, allow us all a few extra, guilt-free Twinkies on our way to virtue, which doesn't take over and ruin our lives until a nice future time known as ""not yet.'' And above all it will faithfully represent, I fear, not just those trimmings and stoppings short to which our leadership is given, but our own political insistence that somehow they do just that. Fits the time, fits the heartbeat and might even let the historians get back to doing what they used to do.