It began showing up in photographs early in the presidential campaign, an unsightly blemish that just wouldn't heal. Lately, it has become improbably conspicuous, as though the president were flaunting it, a bride-to-be flashing her fat new rock. It is a plastic digital watch, thick as a brick and handsome as a hernia.
No one disputes that the most powerful man on Earth should be free to wear whatever he wishes, but we should not confuse freedom with license. If Bill Clinton began arriving at state dinners in bare feet and bib overalls, stock prices would edge uneasily down. The president need not be impeccably tailored, but a certain dignity is expected.
So what's with that, that ... toaster on his wrist?
The White House reports that it is a "Timex Ironman Triathlon" with lighted dial, and we have one here in front of us. We paid $39 for it at Peoples Drug. The time is displayed in boxy segmented numerals, like on your microwave. It can be calibrated to the hundredth of a second, the digits flying by with such ferocity that they are just a blur of phosphorescence. The band is corrugated rubber, resembling the tread of a tractor tire. The face is bowling-ball black and pumpkin orange, like a bag of Cheez-balls.
The president's watch!
This would never happen in France. The populace would not permit it.
Let us note that Bill Clinton's watch is by all accounts a technological marvel. It can work efficiently 100 meters under water. It can perform as three stopwatches at once, keeping track of both time and laps. If you fling it contemptuously to the floor and stomp on it with the heel of your shoe, it will continue to function. We tried.
One need not be schooled in design to comprehend the abominable ambiance of this watch, as compared with a timepiece as thin as a Necco wafer with fixed Arabic numerals on the circumference of a dial swept by thin, graceful hands. That is a timeless design, unchanged since Columbus, a triumphant marriage of symmetry and function and civility. When the Saxons were manufacturing crossbows and the Mongols were crafting catapults that could hurl an elephant the length of a battlefield, the peaceable Swiss were manipulating gears the size of a snowflake.
Technology is fine, but it cannot replace craftsmanship. Have you ever heard about the time NASA scientists, bloated with the wonderfulness of their engineering skill, mailed to Swiss watchmakers three gossamer golden threads they had manufactured, so delicate that it would take a million of them, side by side, to measure an inch in width? A few weeks later, as the story goes, the threads arrived back in the mail with holes neatly drilled through them. (We do not know if this incident is true, but we very much wish it to be, and now that it has been published in a major newspaper, we contend it is established fact.)
The digital watch first made its appearance during the Nixon administration, and it is one of those so-called innovations that we hoped would run their unholy course and be gone, like platform shoes, push-button transmissions, elephant-hair jewelry. But, somehow, it persists. And now, it has attained an unfortunate sort of legitimacy, upon the wrist of the president of the United States.
Yes, the president is a jogger, and he should wear whatever beeping monstrosity he deems necessary to calibrate his times -- though one is tempted to point out that he is not exactly dogging Carl Lewis for a spot on the '96 Olympic team. The problem is that, after his shower, Bill Clinton does not leave this watch next to the toothbrush rack. It most recently turned up in a photo on Page 1 of The Washington Post, when the president, in suit and tie and wrist gargoyle, was in conference with the secretary general of the United Nations.
If this were merely a matter of fashion, an insult to good taste, we would kick the president smartly in the tush a few more times and be done with it. But there is more at stake here than aesthetics. The fact is that like all digitals, his watch embraces a lie. It is not politically incorrect -- it is far worse than that. It is philosophically incorrect. It is jeopardizing this president's soul.
When you want to know the time, an analog watch -- the type with hands -- tells you the truth: It's, like, oh, about 6:21, unless I'm running a little fast today. Remember when you were a child and the big hand was on the 4 and the little hand was on the 6? That's about as knowable as time ever gets.
But Bill Clinton's watch speaks presumptuously, with false authority. At this very moment, it is reading something like 6:21:03. Whoops, now it is 6:21:05. It beeps precisely on the hour. This is, of course, nonsensical. Does anybody really know what time it is?
Even the weenies in Greenwich, England, who disseminate an authorized time every nanosecond of every day, who pretend to be atop it all, find themselves fudging up a "leap second" every few years to smooth over the glitches. Are these guys any more accurate than a rooster? Isn't the only important definition of "9 o'clock" the moment Roseanne's harmonica starts to wail?
The digital watch on the president's wrist, accurate to the beat of a hummingbird's heart every millennium, with stopwatch functions and a multi-programmable whooping alarm, hasn't managed to keep him on time for a single appointment, while filling him with a counterfeit sense of certitude about one of the few things in life that is, and must remain, mystical.
The sin of the digital is a sin of hubris, and hubris is the curse of all persons of power. The watch is squatting there right now, a heartbeat from the presidency, pulsing malignantly.
You want to know what time it is, Mr. President?
You want to know exactly what time it is?
Time to get another watch.