Clinton's Second Inaugural Address : Partisan Battles over `Responsibility'

Article excerpt

At Henry IV's coronation, the archbishop anointed the king with oil said to have been given to Thomas a Becket by the Virgin Mary (and the archbishop found the king's hair aswarm with lice). Republics, favoring simplicity, have less exotic civic liturgies - no stately ranks of bishops or oceans of ermine and silk. Republics rely on rhetoric to quicken the public pulse.

America's pulse probably stayed steady during President Bill Clinton's bland, formulaic inaugural address, but he could not expect to excite while declaring the end of political excitements.

The day before the inauguration, a Washington Post report of an interview with Clinton carried this headline: "Clinton Sees End of Fight Over Government's Role." Golly. An argument as old as Plato's "Republic," over? A great constant of American life, the argument about how much and what kind of government we want, and what we are willing to pay for it in circumscribed freedom and conscripted treasure, over? Clinton's wish was the father of that thought as it appeared, somewhat hedged, in his inaugural address: "We have resolved for our time a great debate about the role of government." "Our time" ends this week. He used the word "responsibility," or a permutation of it, six times. Americans are in an unusually intense period of debate about the proper spheres of individual and government responsibilities, with a subsidiary debate raging about which levels of government are responsible for what. Granted, as long ago as the 1944 presidential campaign the Republican candidate, Thomas Dewey, said, "We Republicans are agreed that full employment shall be a first objective of national policy," achieved, if necessary, by government job creation. Dewey's premise was that peacetime politics would be mostly about economics and mostly a matter of consensus. In 1962, President John Kennedy declared that arguments about the nation's domestic arrangements now "relate not to basic clashes of philosophy or ideology but to ways and means of reaching common goals," principally through "the practical management of a modern economy." This is a hardy perennial, this recurring yearning for politics to be supplanted by administration, so we can all take a holiday from history. Clinton's yearning is understandable, given the central symbolism of inaugural ceremonies: Presidents-elect must travel to Capitol Hill, seat of the first branch of government - the subject of Article One of the Constitution. …