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
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. …