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NONFICTION

Coin of the Realm : BETWEEN HOPE AND HISTORY: Meeting America's Challenges for the 21st Century. By Bill Clinton (Times Books: $16.95, 178 pp.)

September 01, 1996|John Balzar | John Balzar is a Times national correspondent and contributing writer for Book Review

Does the president of the United States carry money?

Just asking. We could speculate that a president needs pocket change the same as he does business cards. This is not to be critical. Most presidents do not have occasion to use the Coke machine or buy newspapers on the corner rack.

But Bill Clinton knows the rest of us do.

And always brimming with empathy, he exhorts us to reach for a penny.

"On one side, next to Lincoln's portrait, is a single word: 'Liberty.' On the other side is our national motto. It says E Pluribus Unum--'Out of Many, One.' It does not say 'Every Man for Himself.' "

This is the president of the United States translating.

"That humble penny is an explicit declaration--one you can carry around in your pocket--that America is about both individual liberty and community obligation."

Trouble is, that humble penny lost its value some time ago, as have campaign books by politicians 2 1/2 months before an election.

To his credit, Clinton turns his cheek to the cynical idea that we're not listening to our leaders or, if we're listening, we're not convinced. He writes with the kind of joyful aplomb of the street corner preacher, as if the bully pulpit is one of the few things that has not shrunk in our ever-shrinking world.

But, unfortunately, this man with such a formidable intellect chooses, once again, not to squander it.

This book is unadulterated campaigning as we have come to know it in the 1990s. "On message," as they say.

Yes, we can survive downsizing--just sign up for the future at the nearest community college. And the world, jeepers--we won the Cold War but must stay vigilant against that "increasingly tangled and dangerous web of international terrorism, crime and drug trafficking. . . ." And at home, we have to save the environment, praise the business executives who look up from the bottom line and refuse to yield to the "human degradation, immorality, violence and debasement of the human soul" as conveyed by TV.

To whomever out there sent the White House a letter offering the candidate a penny for his thoughts, here's your answer.

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