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After the last few years, the past looks better than the future.

It's Deja Vu

In 1996, President Clinton won reelection by promising voters that he would build "a bridge to the 21st Century." The candidates to succeed him seem to agree that we have traveled a bridge too far. Perhaps not since Warren Harding was elected on a platform of "normalcy" has American political dialogue been so dominated by ideas and figures from the past.

When he was elected vice-president in 1992, Al Gore was a worthy if not inspired futurist — a man who talked freely of ecology, the information revolution, and the "paradigm shift" theory of science historian Thomas Kuhn. In the years since, he has been transformed into Fremount, the "boy bug" in Walt Kelly's "Pogo" who ran for the White House on a platform of "jes' fine." The cumulative effect of Clinton's compromised leadership has, through one of history's great unfairnesses, turned Gore's once reassuring poker face into a political portrait of Dorian Gray, whose features reflect every scandal from the travel office firing to the Puerto Rican clemency. Gore's every televised appearance has the jerky sepia tone of a newsreel clip of some silent-movie era dignitary opening a long-forgotten world's fair.

The probable Republican nominee, George W. Bush, is so amiably vacuous that the public can project its yearnings onto him without the slightest substantial distortion. Perhaps the only fire in his belly is a child's understandable desire to vindicate the historical memory of his father, whose mutable principles and personal inconsequence are almost certain otherwise to consign him to the historical netherworld occupied by Gerald Ford and Martin Van Buren.

So fully has George W. shaped himself in his father's indistinct image that a large percentage of those who voiced their support for him in one recent poll were driven to reconsider when the puckish pollster informed them that George W. was a different person than the 41st president.

(The elder Bush, for that matter, seemed to be himself motivated by the desire for posthumous approval from his eminent father, Sen. Prescott Bush. Such is the recursive nostalgia of dynasties when the blue blood, as it always must, grows thin.)

Bush's intraparty rivals are no less relentless in their drive for obsolescence. Mrs. Dole implicitly offers as qualification for office her marital link to the party's most enduring feats of political taxidermy. Dan Quayle is more embarrassing than yesterday's man — he is yesterday's joke, no longer even funny. Billionaire Steve Forbes, not unlike George W. himself, seems like a scion of wealth trying to move out of the shadow of a more-accomplished father. Even the party's most genuine and appealing hopeful, Arizona Sen. John McCain, confesses in his recent autobiography to be driven by a desire to live up to his war-hero father and grandfather.

The Reform Party was created to offer political renewal. Just months ago it was the apparent harbinger of a kind of "Mad Max" post-apocalyptic anti-politics. Now it seems most likely to turn to former also-ran Pat Buchanan in a desperate attempt by the new party's old guard to recapture that heady moment when protectionism was a hot issue and Ross Perot was a fresh new face. Surveying these tired politicians striving faithfully to echo vanished greatness, one misses the muted but nonetheless genuine excitement of 1992. Bill Clinton, whose origins were humble, seemed to stand for something new — a post-segregation, post-feminist sensitive New Age Southerner who combined '80s-style sex appeal with '90s public prudery.

We did not know where he wanted to take the country (it appears now it was the nearest cheap motel) but we knew it was somewhere we had not spent time before.

Perhaps it is the whimpering end of the unhappy Clinton voyage that has soured our leaders on the very idea of the future. The country itself has learned, as Clinton used to say, to "make change our friend." But while society as a whole races headlong toward unimagined vistas of technology and wealth, the new crop of leaders points resolutely toward the rear.

It is a measure of what might be called the future gap that the freshest and most forward-looking figure in the race is former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey. Bradley is a bright, appealing and cerebral man. But consider: He comes from a moment in time when a white man from an Ivy League school could hope for stardom in the NBA. How's that for a blast from the past?

copyright ©1999 by Garrett Epps
Garrett Epps teaches constitutional law at the University of Oregon Law School and is a visiting professor at Boston College Law School. A former reporter for The Washington Post, he is the author of two political novels.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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