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Worried well

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- This is the word that keeps coming to my mind, like a single emotional flag raised over the week of the 53rd presidential inauguration: Sober.

I do not say that to rain on the Inaugural Parade. I remain a goose-bump patriot. I came here for the pageantry, the sound of Jessye Norman's voice, the citizen collage of hats and scarves, the democratic ritual. And I got what I came for. But the weekend celebration carried a sober aura around its glittering, glitzy center. The subdued image of the times kept reappearing, like the pentimento under a painting.

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Saturday night, I watched the fireworks light the capital city's skies, a show that brought thousands of celebrants out into the bitter cold to register their excitement. Yet these fireworks also brought 911 calls from worried folks of the inner city who thought they were hearing a shootout.

At noon Monday the president was sworn in by the chief justice. Yet a week earlier, this justice had heard arguments in the Paula Jones case. At lunch Bill Clinton talked of working with Newt Gingrich. Yet this speaker was about to be reprimanded and required to pay a $300,000 penalty.

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March to the millennium

This was also an inauguration built relentlessly around, over, and under the metaphor of a bridge. It was a three-day event that insistently, redundantly pointed us on a forced march to the millennium. But what kept me sober was our difficulty looking forward. We do not seem to be embracing the territory that Americans once claimed as our own.

Four years ago the first baby-boomer president took the keys to the car from our fathers' generation. In 1992, there was the sense of a fresh start, an expectation of boldness.

Now it seems to have dissipated. The president delivered a speech riddled with internal conflicts -- his and ours -- about the future. A sober speech about "bright new prospects" was without a concrete promise to fulfill the great promise.

In one sound-bite moment, Mr. Clinton said that "America demands big things from us and nothing big ever came from being small." But these are small-minded times.

The president spun Utopian visions of a land with schools that "have the highest standards in the world," with parents and children who "have time not only to work but to read and play together." He described streets without drugs or guns and spoke of an era when today's permanent underclass is middle class.

But how many of us actually believe we are headed there? Or that Mr. Clinton is leading us there?

Americans are the worried well, living in the present tensely. Standing on the edge of a century that often looks a precipice, we are jittery. We are at peace, but feel vulnerable. We are at work, but feel less secure. We are raising children, but have less confidence in ourselves as parents. Some worry that the best is behind us. And others worry that these may turn out to be our good old days.

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This is how the second term begins. The marching bands go home, and the government goes to work with a sober thought: It will not be easy to make any of us look ahead.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 1/24/97


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