Inauguration and First Thoughts

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HOW can Bill Clinton preserve the freshness, the dignity of first hearing "President Clinton"?

The little suffix "-elect" will have fallen away. The second-guessers - the harpies of the press and the opposition - will get right on him for why he didn't do what he said he would do, or why he didn't do it faster, and what did he really mean when he said it.

But for the moment the vista from Capitol Hill is clear: The men of marble, the monumental presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, are presences today. The psychological distance between the man from Arkansas, with his hand on the Bible, and these giants of history must feel daunting.

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The new president can look forward to all of his four years ahead of him. He can be grateful for the campaign that put him in touch with common folk, pressure groups, rivals, in a direct way that will not be open to him again. Immediately the chain links of protection will settle around him. He will not be able to visit Congress, supposedly the institution of direct contact with the people, without the Capitol being cordoned off.

Those who criticize the length of the American presidential campaign should consider what it does for those who survive it to the end. It is their experience bank. From this point on the United States will continue to change, but it will be more difficult for President Clinton's perceptions of it to keep pace. A president has to be saturated with the longings, disappointments, aspirations of a people to lead it.

Presumably Mr. Clinton will have learned how little is to be gained from trying to explain his way out of matters that should be left to the past. Historians, eventually, will figure it all out.

America is oriented to the now and the future. His first responsibility is not to keep promises but to present a clear and evolving view of our country's social, economic, and political reality. Americans are pragmatists. Clinton should ignore the first-100-days test, which is a convention of political scientists and the press, and take the time he needs. His shuffling jogging style, anyway, shows he's no natural dasher.

One theory is that a president comes into office with just so much good will that will evaporate if he does not quickly take advantage of it. This reflects a finite view of presidential resources. The leader is advised to pump his personal ratings up high so as to intimidate Congress into going along early. A manipulative motive, however, should be beneath a president; it can only catch up with him.

Americans easily talk of a government of, by, and for the people, and a government of laws rather than men. Symbols of these are combined in the inauguration ceremony, with the setting on Capitol Hill and the swearing in by the chief justice.

And yet America can also be said to be a government of an idea. It is a constitutional democracy, yes.

But it is committed to an ongoing experiment in governance that would eventually embrace everyone with the right, opportunity, and dignity of full citizenship.

Experiment implies immediate imperfection.

The United States is a country of crime, poverty, and loneliness.

It is also a country of great universities, technological imagination, and wealth. How does Clinton keep expanding what is good and redeeming what is not?

He has begun by assembling a diverse administration by race, ethnicity, and gender: This could make it more difficult to function with a coordinated agenda.

Americans do not readily put too much store in the capabilities of individuals, including those they elect to the highest offices. Their constitutional system assumes that a competition of self-interests will occur and so must be managed by a process of checks and balances.

Clinton now must represent not only the minority who voted for him but all Americans. He must have a sense of the whole.

Conversely, the whole should support him, even though not all voted for him.

The American idea is an energy, a resource welling up in the consciousness of the people.

Often what is observed as negative is the reaction to this idea, the trouble caused by corrective laws and progress, the heat, say, generated by insisting that it is more natural for humans to improve the environment than to degrade it.

For the next four years Clinton's security, his safe passage - and ours - lies in immersion in this progressive idea.

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