"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."

Even by Washington's standards, where a "profoundly historic event" is said to occur about once every month, the millennium promises to stand out as a rarity. After all, we have had only one millennium before this one, and a prudent person might entertain doubts if there will ever be a third. So history can only judge between 1000 and 2000. From the limited accounts available of the first millennium, Otto III's national millennium program was designed to counteract a widespread sense of foreboding and doom. According to the great chronicler of the millennium, Rodulfus Glaber (980-1046), signs were viewed everywhere as ominous portents of the end of the world, as foretold in the book of Revelation. Others report that on the dreaded New Years's Eve of 999, a huge crowd assembled in Rome expecting the Last Judgment. But even those like Glaber, who all along doubted this populist eschatology, saw the millennium as a moment in which man stood under God's judgment and was to take stock of things. In verses he composed for the occasion, Glaber wrote:

A thousand years since the Lord was born on earth of a Virgin,

Men act with the gravest of errors. . . .

Our people now mock past generations,

Mixing pleasure and debauchery.

They fear not scandal and scorn serious matters. . . .

The Republic groans under soft rule.

If God's great pity did not delay His wrath,

Hell would engulf us in its frightful mouth.

Happily, our millennium is not in the grips of Glaberite gloom and doom. We are in control of things, and, as President Clinton assured us, we can " imagine the future." It is our millennium to fashion just as we want -- for our children. This hopeful view is by no means the intellectual property of the Clintons alone, but is characteristic of the thinking of much of their opposition on the right. A Jack Kemp in the White House would be using the occasion to push for Millennium Enterprise Zones to guarantee hope, growth, and opportunity until 3000. The Clintons, in fact, have adopted a historical narrative with the appearance of greater depth, using race and racism as elements of pathos to be overcome in a struggle for human dignity. The great story of the millennium, as the Clintons tell it, is the battle to recognize and celebrate our diversity. By contrast, much of the modern Right seeks to overcome nothing, unless it is higher marginal tax rates. Whichever of these easy versions, left or right, prevails in Washington, it is unlikely to lead the way to an American millennium. Without a genuine sense of the tragic -- of the fragility and yet the possibility of things -- there can be no preparation for greatness.

It is not, of course, that Americans face no challenges at the end of the millennium. As the president said, we have a particularly great problem, which he is prepared to confront head on. Can we prevail? "I want to assure the American people that the federal government is taking steps to prevent any interruption in government services that rely on the functioning of federal computer systems." Stupor Mundi!

James W. Ceaser is professor of government and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia and the author of Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (Yale University Press).

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