IN a couple of months the world will throw itself into the game of nicknaming the '80s - finding the precise word to summarize the character of the vanishing decade just before it disappears. ``So soon?'' all you procrastinators complain. But decade-naming is no longer the simple sport it was when a consensus declared the '90s the Gay '90s a little less than a century ago, or the '20s the Roaring '20s a little more than half a century ago.
Things have become so ambivalent (no, sorry, the Ambivalent '80s will not do) that it requires the entire last year of a decade - and maybe a couple of months more - to sort out suitable epithets.
Subtle souls will waste at least a couple of months, trying to squeeze too much meaning into a label, like, say, the Decade of the Rich and the Homeless - recognizing the coexistence of the yuppies and the street people.
Alas, irony is out. The simple purpose of naming a decade is to pronounce it finished so the next decade can make a fresh start.
Nicknaming a decade becomes a kind of vote. Do we call the '80s the Decade of the New Patriotism, featuring heroes like Oliver North? Or do we call it the Decade of Sleaze, featuring antiheroes like, well, Oliver North?
Admiring namers of the decade, like parents showing pictures of their children, are inclined to favor the innocent baby years - before all those gauche episodes of late adolescence, like Iran-contra and Noriega. They will choose to memorialize the gala moments when the Statue of Liberty was brought to you by Lee Iacocca, when Grenada was invaded like a marching-band maneuver at a football game, when America ``stood tall'' again like a papier-m^ach'e figure of Uncle Sam in a Rose Bowl float. This is the flag-wrapped '80s George Bush is running for president on, and frantically pledging allegiance to, in classrooms where Johnny still can't read.
Poor Michael Dukakis! In trying to suggest a less than complimentary name for the decade - for the Reagan years - he is left to stutter, ``But ... but ... '' But what about the deficit? But what about the environment? But are we really saying no to drugs or just moving our lips? He looks and sounds like a critical biographer at a testimonial dinner just when the toasts are being proposed.
To nickname a decade is to simplify, to go to extremes - to play the bumper-sticker game. Well, has this been a proud decade of renewed American idealism and prosperity or a rather small-minded, mean-spirited time of selectively satisfied greed?
At the moment, the chief characteristic of the decade is a reluctance to confront so rude a question. It is as if something deep in us fears that America is slipping, in decline - and something even deeper is afraid to ask.
So many victories of the '80s have been rhetorical or staged! - a matter of sound-bites and photo opportunities.
It has been fashionable to say that Ronald Reagan is a movie actor fantasizing a Hollywood plot out of real history. But if the accusation is true, then the audience - other politicians, the press, the voters - can be charged with complicity. The movie actor has got us into his script. If he lives in a fantasy, he has become our fantasy to protect - he incorporates a faith we cannot quite believe on our own: that America is still Great, with a capital G.
It is a faith we seem to lack the courage to test. The joke of the Reagan years is that we have a Teflon president. The Teflon - and the joke - may be on us. As of now, the aptest name for the '80s could be the Decade of Spin Control. The only question is: Who is spinning whom?
A Wednesday and Friday column