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Follow the Leader--Take a Breather

April 08, 2001|JOHN BALZAR

We don't know, and probably shouldn't even guess, how many Americans took up philandering or playing the saxophone by the example of Bill Clinton.

But we do know that certain presidents influence our national trends. Jack Kennedy, to name one, set the fedora back so far that it may never recover.

We can hope George W. Bush does him better.

If so, we'll thank him all the rest of our hard-pressed lives.

Bush has endured more mockery than he deserves about his easy-going work hours and his exercise getaways.

Who are these glib critics? As Bush might say, "Get a life."

We ought to recognize that the man is onto something: Too much work and too little play is a woeful way to live.

Who on Earth better to set an example for regaining balance in our days than the man in the Oval Office?

True, the fellow down the hall, Dick Cheney, clings to the old school. Even heart attacks can't keep that salary man from the crusader's grindstone.

But Bush demonstrates a more progressive approach. Take your vacation. Grab a nap. Save energy, turn off the computer and go home. Knock the ball 'round the old ball field.

Goodbye Ben Franklin and your bitter curse on all of us: "Time is money." Give us Oscar Wilde: "Time is a waste of money!"

Time away from the crack of the whip is a genuine family value, not the flimsy kind that we hear postulated and see feebly legislated. And it's high time that someone stepped forward and reminded us to demand more of it.

I don't know whether to clap my hands or cross my fingers, but for heaven's sake, let's do something besides give Bush a cold shoulder on this one.

The whole promise of the Industrial Age and, more recently, the Technology Age was to make life better. And what could be better than getting a bigger share of life back? What's the point of labor saving devices, anyway? The computer, the 140-mile-an-hour luxury sedan, the jet airplane, the six-line telephone--exactly how much work are we saving?

The 40-hour employment week came into effect in 1940 with the Fair Labor Standards Act signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Americans presumed it was part of a general trend to harvest the bounty of progress. Wrong. Progress has become Calvinist fanaticism. We can achieve it only by working harder, longer, with greater efficiency and for more years of our lives.

Didn't Delta Airlines almost come unraveled when pilots wouldn't fly "mandatory" overtime during the holidays? Half the people I know won't take the vacation they've earned for fear of looking like slackers.

Didn't the chief executive of the health care software company, Cerner Corp., just make headlines for a bloodthirsty e-mail threatening his company with layoffs because the employee parking lot was too empty at night and on Saturdays? "NEVER in my career have I allowed a team which worked for me to think they had a 40-hour job," he said.

Americans are the most overworked people in the developed world. Workers in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the U.K. all get more time off than we do. Since 1980, the annual number of hours worked by Americans has increased almost 5%.

This is no civilized way to begin a millennium. No bright future for our kids.

Who wants to emulate Bill Clinton's chaotic White House, where The Firm expected--and took--everything?

"Looks like another all-nighter, dear. Enjoy the movies without me. Kiss, ah, little what's-her-name good-night."

I'm with Bush. I want more from life. I want more life with family and friends.

Our MBA president has done plenty for business. How can business object when the rest of us take our cue from him? If Bush can, we can. Maybe even the vassals at Cerner Corp. can.

But what about the economic slowdown and jobs? Simple. Spread the work around. That's why the 40-hour week was devised in the first place. None of us should have to shoulder it all.

And, by the way, don't bother calling me on this one. I'm taking tomorrow off. As the novelist Tom Robbins would say, I'm calling in well. I've been sick but now I'm better. To show support for the president, I'm heading for the park to read a good book, take a nap and dream about easier days ahead.

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