A decade or so ago, Christopher Lasch wrote in "The Culture of Narcissism" that this is the first generation of Americans who sought instant gratification, with no interest in the past or future, and little thought of generations to follow.
Lasch's gloomy words came to mind as I reflected on the nomination of David H. Souter to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan Jr. For in President Bush's selection of the New Hampshire conservative, I see this new narcissism coming home to roost.
It is coming home to roost because in our self-absorption, we did not pay attention and exercise proper responsibility for the next generation. Many voted for Ronald Reagan because they liked him, for personalities and self-interest rather than larger social issues. Now we find ourselves in the incredible bind of having the things most Americans hold dear threatened, perhaps even facing dismantlement.
For while opinion polls show repeatedly that a majority of people support such issues as a woman's right to make her own reproductive decisions, civil rights and fair treatment of women and minorities, nevertheless we will probably have someone on the court who will not support those positions.
Some people will say to this, "But we do not yet know Souter's views." True enough. I agree with such voices as D.C. delegate candidate Eleanor Holmes Norton that we must demand that the Senate fulfill its responsibility to thoroughly investigate and place on the public record his background and views.
Moreover, there is always the hope that the sanctum of the Supreme Court will affect him as it has some of his predecessors. Justice Hugo Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but he became anything but a Klan type after he was appointed by President Roosevelt. President Eisenhower appointed Brennan expecting him to be conservative, but he became the most consistent ally of Justice Thurgood Marshall and other liberals on the court.
But failing some similarly unpredictable behavior that will drive Souter to disappoint Bush and please the American people, those of us who worry about the direction of the country have reason for concern. For in the natural course of things, as Brennan's leaving was sudden and surprising, it raises the likelihood that other sitting justices might step aside for one reason or another.
Thus the society's narcissism may also come home to roost because Bush may be able to make two or three appointments before he is through -- perhaps even in this term -- and these in turn will dramatically affect our lives and the lives of our children for at least several decades.
George Bush well understands this power. And because the question of whether this will be a "kinder and gentler" nation has a lot to do with what he does with his appointments on the Supreme Court, we have good reason to reassess him at this juncture in his l8-month-old presidency.
Will this man of wealth, this war hero continue to be the kind of president who opens doors to the Soviets, Germans and East Europeans while encouraging those who close the doors to some Americans?
Will Bush, whose own son is one of those accused of profiting from the savings and loan debacle, wind up winking at such perversities of capitalism?
While we can hope that Bush, like some Supreme Court justices, may become bigger in office and therefore change, it may be naive to harbor such a hope. For unlike Supreme Court justices who are insulated from political pressure, George Bush is subject to electoral politics.
Despite a once high rating, his approval has "melted" from 64 percent to 50 percent, according to a recent USA Today poll. While ranking high on foreign policy, he suffered low approval at home on such issues as the deficit, S&Ls, the war on drugs, and education programs.
Bush, who is inordinately responsive to opinion polls, might take note of this when considering his Supreme Court appointments, because the very values a conservative judge would uphold and which Bush seconds are the very values that voters are walking away from.
Since it is on the domestic front that Bush is most vulnerable, it would behoove him to look at these polls and understand the necessity of bringing his appointments in line with what the majority of people in this country want. Not only because it is the moral thing to do, but because his political survival may depend on it.
But that cannot be relied upon any more than can living without regard for the consequences of our actions upon future generations. Often in this country people don't mobilize until they are losing something that is precious to them.
I don't know at which point the awareness of what is being lost will impose itself on our narcissistic society. If people wake up, understand the terrible overhanging threat to society as we know it and start caring, there may still be time for change. Without this awakening, there will be a terrible price for our children and their children to pay.