Time: the Gate Of Expectations

THERE is in public affairs less end and beginning than may appear. Here we are at the brink of 1993, many of us a little worse for the wear of trying to cram more into calendar '92 than could comfortably fit. The shopping, tax decisions, charities, even the obligations of winter travel and fun - skiing, the New Year's toot: All must be fitted in.

We anticipate a year-end as if it were a gate.

We impose on ourselves a kind of compression to fit through that gate. This effort can distort our judgment. It would not matter so much if it were confined to our private human actions. But we tend to impose this gate of expectations on the sweep of societal and institutional affairs, and to the arc of individual careers.

To jump ahead: The big gate almost in sight is the end of the century. Fashion experts say that the turn of a century usually invites dandyism. The confidence, self-display, exhibitionism of the fop may not be today's jeans and grunge, raw energy and rebellion, seen as a reaction to the '80s. And again it might not matter in itself except as a sign of forces bearing down society's psychology.

The new century is eight years off, two United States presidential terms. Even a reelected Bill Clinton will be handing the reins to a new leader with a lot of psychological wind at his back.

Lesser gates include '93 itself, George Bush's handoff to Clinton this January 20 and the start of a new democratic alignment with Congress. By August we will have a pretty good sense of how much change Clinton will bring.

At the least, his administration's diversity by race, gender, and generation should broaden the sense of representation in Washington. Presidents often make their biggest contribution in getting elected: Jimmy Carter, for example, ended the Imperial White House, proved a Southerner could be elected president, and showed how an establishment-outsider could exploit the presidential primary system - all achievements that owed nothing to how he later governed.

Those who criticize the American political process for the length of its campaigns should not undervalue the amount of course-setting work done during those campaigns. The inauguration may be less the start of a new political era than an aftershock of the casting of one.

The new president should accept few timetables for decision. He has set out a few promises to be kept (some turnaround on the deficit, for example), to test his character by. One promise has been kept in his Cabinet design.

President Bush has attempted to cap off his White House career with a half-dozen of Iran-contra pardons. The reactions to this range from wanting Bush and his colleagues to be pursued into the Clinton era to recognizing that a public judgment has already been made on the matter. Relentlessly modern life pulls government and institutional decisions into open discussion and review. Officials have to proceed in the expectation that everything they do will be pored over for flaws and that their characters wi ll be impugned.

President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon in an attempt to keep the Watergate scandal from dominating his own brief term. We do not yet know how long the special prosecutor will pursue Mr. Bush into the Clinton era to make the Republican's lot miserable. All this must be instructive to the incoming president.

How easily we fall into thinking in four-year units. I was thinking about this the other evening while waiting for a concert to begin in New York. Here was Hermann Prey, the German baritone, about to celebrate the 35th anniversary of his first Carnegie Hall recital.

I'd heard him back then, in the Eisenhower era, eight presidents ago. This evening was a performance of two-century-old songs by Schubert. Two thirds of the way through the program, when Prey reached "Im Fruhling," it was as if no time had passed. The singing was as lush and youthful as back in the '50s. Ten encores: How many of us end a day, let alone 35 years of public performance, to cheers and shouts for more?

Where are time's gates once we've passed through them?

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