ON Jan. 21, the day after President Clinton was inaugurated, the Washington Post declared that the "clock" was ticking on Mr. Clinton's 100-day plan.
After stating that the first 100 days was a "self-conscious, sometimes silly standard for measuring presidents," the Post proceeded to apply that standard. Even though as a candidate Clinton had invited a judgment on his first 100 days, that invitation should never have been taken seriously by the press when it was offered, or when the 100-day deadline was reached. Nor should it be accepted as a standard for historical judgment, as it was in a recent article by historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Presidential candidates should not first be encouraged to make irresponsible, unreliable promises or projections in campaigns and then subsequently judged for having made them. Applying the first-100-days standard as a measure of the success or failure of the Clinton administration is not only unobjective but also unfair.
It is unobjective in that the measurement is against the first 100 days of the Roosevelt administration. Franklin Roosevelt's 100 days did not begin until March 4. Clinton's began on Jan. 20. Roosevelt's measurement did not begin until 116 days after his election. Clinton's began 72 days after his. Roosevelt's 100th day did not arrive until mid-June. Clinton's time ran out about the first of May, giving Roosevelt approximately 44 more days following his election than are being given to Clinton.
Roosevelt undoubtedly made some tentative decisions before he was sworn in as president, but he made no official or binding ones until after March 4. Clinton, by virtue of the "lame duck" amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1933, was called upon to make official decisions in February.
Why the amendment was passed is unclear. There was no record of constitutional or government crisis in any way related to the March inauguration date. There was no prospect of such crisis in 1933.
February is not a good month for decisionmaking. It is not a month distinguished by any significant natural phenomenon. It has no equinox, as do March and September, and no solstice, as do December and June. It is not named after a god, an emperor, or even a number. For the ancients it was a month of purification. The Romans dedicated February to the nether world: During February they worshipped Pluto and their dead ancestors.
In medieval times, February was looked upon as a dangerous month. Even a good February was suspect. "All the months in the year curse a fair February" runs a Welsh proverb. "February bears the bier," wrote the poet Shelley.
Even the animals shun decisionmaking in February. It is a month of deep hibernation. Bodily and mental functions are at the lowest level of the year. Only the groundhog, by reputation, breaks the pattern, and then only for a quick look for his shadow. His response is not reflective, but automatic. If he sees his shadow he hibernates for another six weeks, according to most groundhog experts. A few years ago a groundhog, found in Wisconsin in February, had a body temperature of 38 degrees and a pulse coun t of 10 per minute. Higher mammals, especially in cold climates, are comparably sluggish.
There is a further reason for questioning the Jan. 20 inauguration date: March 4 is a much better date for holding an outdoor inauguration.
Since we cannot repeal February, we should repeal the 22nd Amendment. Until that is done, no newly elected president should be encouraged to make decisions in February, held responsible for decisions made in that month, or compared with Roosevelt's pre-22nd Amendment record.
Clinton attempted twice without success in February to nominate and have an attorney general confirmed. He succeeded only after March had come.