Goal Tending


When I was a kid, "the year 2000" had a fantastic sound to it. It was right between the year that Martin Landau would settle on the moon and the year that Keir Dullea would encounter aliens somewhere near Jupiter.

Politicians, too, have tended to see the year as a time when anything would be possible. Former President Bush, for example, said this would be the year when the United States would perfect the "brilliant pebbles" defense system, which would use small, precisely aimed projectiles to deflect incoming missiles.

On a more prosaic front, this is supposed to be the year when the United States becomes the world leader in primary and secondary education. According to the "Goals 2000" agenda endorsed by Bush and 50 governors in 1989, every child will arrive in school ready to learn, American kids will be tops in math and science, and schools will be free of drugs and violence.

Over the years, naysayers have cited test and survey results as grounds for doubting that the targets could be reached. But the discouraging numbers have not caused Bill Clinton to back away from his predecessor's commitment.

Indeed, the president has added some education goals of his own, such as wiring every classroom to "a national information superhighway" and "open[ing] the doors of college education to every single American." Naturally, both were supposed to happen "by the year 2000."

Clinton may have forgotten that he would still be in office then. For previous presidents, one of the most attractive things about the 2000 deadline was that it would arrive during someone else's term.

In 1989, for instance, Bush vowed to cut illegal drug use in half by 2000. Since drug use (as measured by the government's surveys) had fallen by about that much in the previous decade and was continuing to drop, this may have seemed like an easy enough target.

Judging from the drug use figures for 1998, it looks like Bush was about twice as optimistic as he should have been. But he was gone well before his failure became apparent. Bush's drug czar, William Bennett, left even sooner, less than two years after taking the job.

The Bush/Bennett flop was a minor miscalculation compared to the audaciously unprophetic vision of C. Everett Koop, the self-declared "icon" who served as surgeon general under Ronald Reagan. "The ultimate goal," he said in 1984, "should be a smoke-free society by the year 2000."

Perhaps realizing that some might consider that goal a bit impractical, Koop later claimed he had been misunderstood. A society could be smoke-free, he explained, even if people continued to smoke. With one in four Americans still puffing away, that's a convenient way of looking at it.

Smoking is just one of the risky habits humans would have had to give up to achieve the World Health Organization's goal of "health for all by the year 2000." In case that target did not seem ambitious enough, WHO defined "health" as "a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

While "public health" busybodies are still very much with us, it's hard to recall the political environment in which Jimmy Carter proposed a plan to supply 20 percent of the nation's energy needs with solar power "by the year 2000." That's about 300 times the current figure.

Around the same time, Carter's secretary of transportation was talking about the need to "reinvent" the automobile so that fuel economy for new cars would average 50 miles per gallon in 2000. Needless to say, this was before the SUV boom.

The "energy crisis" may have proved chimerical, but crime is here to stay, even if it has been declining in recent years. President Clinton's main attempt to address this perennial concern was his promise to put 100,000 additional police officers on the street by 2000.

The specificity and the short time horizon gave the program credibility. But as the Chicago Tribune reported last May, "the pledge of 100,000 new officers was hyperbole at best." At that point, only 40,680 new cops had been hired, and the administration planned to fill 38,000 of the program's 100,000 positions with "civilian employees and computers."

Perhaps the simultaneous failure of so many grand plans will encourage politicians to be more honest and realistic in the future. Let's make that a goal for the year 3000.