The Magazine


Sep 8, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 50 • By JAMES W. CEASER
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"STUPOR MUNDI" (Wonder of the World) -- thus was young Otto III greeted in 996 when the pope selected him emperor in Rome. As fate chose Otto as its instrument to lead Western Christendom past the first millennium, so Bill Clinton has assumed the burden of carrying humankind over the threshold to the second millennium. Possessed of a keen sense of history -- Clinton is, after all, author of the recent Between Hope and History -- the president plans to tackle the millennium aggressively and proactively. At a huge ceremony last month at the National Archives, Clinton declared: "The millennium has arrived. . . . We are present at the future, a moment we must now define for ourselves and our children." The fact that the era of Big Government may be over is no excuse for an administration to shun its obligation to determine the meaning of History.

Just as Otto solicited the help of his trusted mentor, Pope Sylvester II, to prepare for the first millennium, President Clinton is turning to the first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mrs. Clinton will head up a "Program for the Millennium" to be run from the White House. The program, according to the Washington Post, will "oversee preparations along the lines of those leading up to the nation's bicentennial in 1976," with conferences, historical restorations, artistic displays, scientific exhibitions, and plans to double the size of AmeriCorps. Especially creative local projects will earn their town the White House's designation of "Millennium Community."

The new millennium, as recast by Mrs. Clinton, will be celebrated in a spirit that allows us "to appreciate our common heritage and rejoice in our creativity." As the second millennium has become a secular event, so it is also preeminently American. The center of the universal world power, as Hegel noted more than a century ago, has been moving steadily over the ages from East to West -- from China, to India, to Rome, and now to the United States. Who can doubt that the real events of the millennium -- the ones receiving full coverage by CNN and CBS -- will be taking place in America, right here in Washington and New York?

With the federal government setting the tone, and with the millennium grant program often footing the bill, the buildup to 2000 by other cultural institutions is certain to involve activities no less thoughtful than those sponsored by the White House. At the Grammys in 1999, expect a Best Song of the Millennium by Male Artists or Castrati. (Nominees: Gregorian chants, vocalists unknown; Mozart's Requiem, original version; "Beat It," Michael Jackson.) At the Oscars, there will be a Best Original Screenplay of the Millennium (William Shakespeare, Hamlet; Jean Baptiste Racine, Britannicus; Steven Spielberg, ET). Best Musical Score Accompanying a Full-length Feature Presentation (Giacomo Puccini, Turandot; Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde; Barbra Streisand, The Way We Were). Time, of course, will have its Person of the Millennium (JFK), and the Capital Gang's crew of pundits will chip in with the Outrage of the Millennium (the Children's Crusade, the Thirty-Years War, Iran-Contra).

This reflection is to be the prelude to the grand celebrations planned for New Year's Eve 1999. As the fateful moment approaches, look for President Clinton, as the "nation's chief bridge builder," to play impresario to this transition. A slightly older, grayer, and more statesmanlike figure -- on the eve, so to speak, of his retirement from office and his return to Hope -- will be passing the keys to his successor, assuring the continuity of Civilization and Time. The whole event, from the raucous party in Times Square to a quiet commemoration of a representative hamlet in Delaware, will be summed up by Dan Rather, in that no-nonsense, down-to-earth style all have come to know: "It's been quite a millennium, folks, some bad moments, sure, but some good ones too."