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What a gutless age we live in.


While fending off coma during the presidential ``debate' Sunday night, I reached for the restorative memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt but couldn't grasp it.

Getting a grip on F.D.R. takes a powerful appetite for living, and mine was fading fast. Within the past few days, television's tirelessly smiling news readers had struck again. Milk could kill you, they announced. Then a few days later: So can margarine.The week's third bulletin brought me close to tears.

It was about carpeting. Scientific people of some sort were looking into the possibility that carpeting could kill you. They were talking about something that goes into the carpet's manufacture.

It looks easy enough to avoid this particular demise. You just take all the carpets out of the house. Long ago when these death alerts were new to America, that's what I would have done. Now I know it wouldn't do any good. As soon as the rugs got to the dump, somebody would discover that exposure to bare wood flooring could kill you.

What's so depressing about the possibility of dying of carpeting is that it makes you realize you can't save yourself. If food and drink don't get you, things will.

What we are dealing with is a national state of mind that amounts to terminal timidity. This is why the memory of F.D.R. seems so remote. To capture the mood of present-day Americans, Roosevelt's first Inaugural would have to be revised to read, ``The only thing we have to fear is absolutely everything.'

Roosevelt's America was brash and sassy, partly because everybody was so busy figuring how to survive till sundown that nobody had time to worry about preserving himself for a robust geezerhood 80 years thence. F.D.R.'s America won World War II on whiskey and cigarettes, but it might have surrendered had it known it was fighting for posterity's right to ridicule gin and abuse tobacco addicts for committing sidestream smoke.

Its racism and sexism were overt, its ethnic prejudices outspoken, and its insensitivity to almost all the immense range of human grievances so cherished today was breathtaking. It was, in short, absolutely impossible to forgive by modern standards, so let's not try.

Yet, when succumbing to the numbness produced by shows like the Bush-Clinton-Perot snorer of Sunday night, the mind finds itself shamefully yearning for a benighted time when vigor, sassiness, confidence, even arrogance expressed the national spirit. Is there no one to haul us out of this age of terminal timidity?


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