Thinking about tomorrow

October 20, 1997|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- My apologies to the man in the third row in the hall in Akron, Ohio. He asked a good question this month and got ffTC glib answer.

He said: "What place do you think Clinton will occupy in American history?"

I said: "Oh, from 1992 to the year 2000."

An understanding laugh rippled across the audience, of presidential friends and foes sitting in front of me, but I wasn't exactly avoiding the question. In one way or another, even those who voted for the president have come to see him as a seat warmer, a fill-in-the-blank-years sort of president.

The man who came in singing, "Let's start thinking about tomorrow," has been living in the now. He is working within the narrow constraints of today, doing a bit of renovation here, reconstruction there, patching and filling, but not a whole lot of building.

When some future class of students is running down the presidential ranks, what will they remember?

That he was the first president to have been sued for sexual harassment? That he dismantled welfare? That he presided over a booming economy in which working people became less secure? Or that he was the post-Cold War superpower leader who let America drag its heels behind the great international movements?

It is this last question that I have been thinking about since the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines.

A week ago, Jody Williams, the indomitable leader of this grass-roots humanitarian movement stood appropriately barefoot in her Vermont yard and invited the president to "join the tide of history."

In less than six years, the campaign has gone from an idea to a reality. The idea belonged to a Vietnam vet, Bobby Muller, who lost the use of his legs in the war. When he returned to Vietnam in 1991 to help their vets get prosthetics he found that the new victims were civilians and the enemy was old land mines that still littered the countryside. He determined that, "Just putting legs on don't cut it."

Since then, with Ms. Williams at the helm, and with help from people worldwide including Nelson Mandela and Princess Diana, an international coalition of 1,000 groups in 60 countries has focused attention on the dangers of simply walking the earth.

Lethal leftovers

Land mines have become known and targeted as the lethal leftover crop of war. A hundred million of them are planted like poisonous roots all over the world, where they kill or maim some 26,000 civilians a year.

From 1991 to 1997, the campaign created a draft treaty signed by nearly 100 governments. A treaty that will be formalized next month in Ottawa. But not by us.

After the pre-dawn call from Norway, Ms. Williams said the Nobel committee recognized that "in the post-Cold War world you can do diplomacy differently. You don't have to rely on the superpowers to make a decision and address a humanitarian crisis with rapidity." And I suppose that's the good news.

Our country has gone from being a leader on this issue -- banning the sale of land mines, beginning to destroy our own stockpile and devoting $153 million to removing others across the world -- to being an outlaw.

We are the ones raising the issue of "smart" mines (those that self-destruct) and "dumb" mines. We are the ones who insist on a single exception for Korea's DMZ. We demur that "our" land mines save our soldiers' lives.

But none of these issues holds water against the humanitarian arguments. Many American casualties in Vietnam were caused by our own land mines.

Our government's reluctance to sign the ban is part of an unhappy pattern of a president who ran as a national dad. He talks of the environment as the foreign policy issue of our time. But we have yet to agree to an international treaty on global warming. He talks about the importance of banning land mines. But we trim and refuse to sign on.

In the New Yorker last week, an author speculates about what this energetic and young president will do next. Talk radio? Teaching? The Senate? Meanwhile, the round tables and experts -- like our man in Akron -- already wonder about what Bill Clinton, 1992-2000, will leave behind.

A dangerous future is now spewed into the air and sown underground. It is time, at last, to start thinking about tomorrow.

Ellen Goodman writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 10/20/97

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