By Dan Balz
Everyone in the House chamber -- and everyone watching on television around the country -- knew that President Clinton was in jeopardy as a result of the allegations that exploded last week -- that he and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky had had a sexual relationship and that he had urged her to lie about it.
But if the scandal was the topic everyone wanted to know about, no one believed Clinton would talk about it, and he didn't. And so the State of the Union went on as it always does: a lengthy address by a loquacious president interrupted more than 100 times by applause.
What promised to be a memorable evening of political theater turned out to be a temporary hiatus in the storm of crisis.
For Clinton, the opportunity to talk -- and talk -- policy was perhaps the perfect tonic after a week of squalid allegations. Rather than talk about his problems, he tried to focus the American people on theirs -- and his solutions for solving them. But if it was a tonic, it was also a strategy: to remind Americans of the things they like about Clinton. As one White House official said before the speech, "It's important to bust through the fog."
For Republicans, it was an opportunity to try to show, as they have from the day the scandal erupted, that they are not obsessed with the president's problems and that they have ideas of their own. Republicans may have been restrained in their applause of many of the proposals in Clinton's speech, but led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), they signaled bipartisan support for issues from the balanced budget to confronting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to helping out the District of Columbia.
Clinton appeared less relaxed than in some past State of the Union addresses when he entered the chamber, and his trip down the center aisle, a tradition of glad-handing and goodwill, appeared swifter than usual. But the ovation that greeted him lasted more than two minutes, and after attempting to quiet the audience and start his speech, he turned to Gingrich and joked, "Can you control this crowd?"
From there it was what State of the Union speeches have become in this presidency: acres of detail about policy and a president determined to prove his mastery of them all.
When it was over, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said it was unlikely that most Americans were concentrating on the substance of Clinton's remarks. "I think people were thinking about what was not mentioned," Specter said.
House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) was even more critical. He said, "The speech seemed very artificial. In my honest opinion, it sounded like a series of applause lines strung together to paper over the atmosphere in Washington."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said, "Dick Armey and I saw different speeches. This is the best State of the Union speech the president has given. . . . I think tonight he showed strong presidential leadership."
"People just loved the speech and loved the content of the speech," said House Minority Whip David E. Bonior (D-Mich.). "The enthusiasm was genuine. It wasn't just enthusiasm because of his situation. They were pleased with what he had to say."
Clinton was not long into his speech before the two parties fell back into their old habit of applauding different parts of a presidential sentence. Democrats loved it when Clinton praised the "courageous vote" for the 1993 deficit reduction bill -- a measure passed solely by Democrats. Republicans joined lustily in the cheering when Clinton hailed the "historic bipartisan balanced budget agreement passed by this Congress" last year.
On some of the most contentious issues, such as campaign finance reform, Republicans offered no sign of disapproval. Clinton even enjoyed modest applause from GOP moderates as he recounted his educational and environmental agenda.
When Clinton said he planned to request "free or reduced cost" television time for political candidates, a voice from deep among the Democrats in the House cried out "Yeesssss!"
With the capital consumed by the scandal, there hadn't been a State of the Union day like this since, perhaps, Jan. 30, 1974, when President Richard M. Nixon, sinking in the quagmire of Watergate, addressed a joint session of Congress and declared, "I have no intention whatever of walking away from the job that the people elected me to do for the people of the United States."
But if everyone tried to appear normal in the House chamber last night, they had more difficultly adopting that posture in the hours before the speech.
Yesterday at the White House, where in past years the staff was making last-minute changes in the State of the Union speech as Clinton prepared to ride to Capitol Hill, the president finished his rehearsals by mid-afternoon, and his staff wrapped up final changes in the text in record time.
The Capitol, in contrast, which is often quiet in the hours before the State of the Union, was a frenzy of activity early in the day as journalists and returning politicians tried to anticipate the evening drama. "Bizarre," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said of the atmosphere on Capitol Hill during a lunch with reporters. Members of Congress began reserving aisle seats -- affording maximum television exposure -- in the House chamber hours earlier than normal.
If the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue seemed slightly abnormal, the scene midway between the two symbols of government showed why. Outside the federal courthouse there were throngs of reporters and camera crews -- along with a phalanx of television satellite trucks. Inside, independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's lawyers were taking testimony in the matter of Monica Lewinsky and the president.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) summed up the atmosphere before the speech. "It's very strange," he said. "I guess [House Judiciary Committee Chairman] Henry Hyde [R-Ill.] was right when he said it was surreal."
One thing that hadn't changed this year was the scramble for good seats in the House. On Monday, there was speculation around Capitol Hill that no one would want to be seen cozying up to Clinton while he was under such a cloud about his personal life.
"Usually the markers start showing up about 4:30 p.m., but today they were there at 9:30 in the morning," said Rep. Jose E. Serrano (D-N.Y.).
By 4:30 p.m., at least nine members had staked out privileged spots, including Republican Reps. Sonny Callahan (Ala.), Michael P. Forbes (N.Y.), Scott McInnis (Colo.) and Cliff Stearns (Fla.).
Solidarity may have explained the Democrats, but there were other reasons. "During a year, I do dozens of cable shows, radio talk shows and public appearances," Forbes said. "The one thing people always remember is 'I saw you on television during the president's State of the Union speech,' " and the scandals ensure that "this will probably be the most closely watched State of the Union in years."
Fears that Clinton might receive a tepid reaction from members of his own party evaporated by the time the Democrats caucused in the Rayburn House Office Building late in the afternoon. "I'm feeling a helluva lot better today than I did the day before yesterday," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.).
House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) told reporters the president deserved "the benefit of the doubt" and admonished the rush to judgment that seemed to sweep through Washington last week. "Democracy can't run on rumor mills," he said.
The conscious effort by everyone to focus on the State of the Union address and, for a few hours, look away from the allegations that have filled the airwaves recently prompted one former Republican National Committee official to quip, "In the ebb and flow [of the scandal], it's an ebb day."
But veteran lobbyist Tom Korologos said he had a strange sense of deja vu. "I was in the House chamber [during Nixon's 1974 speech]," he said. "It was the same weird, confused mess. The difference was that we had been wallowing in Watergate for a year. We've been wallowing in this for a week. We're still shellshocked."
And then as a reminder of how little is really known about what happened between Clinton and Lewinsky, he recalled the feeling of Republicans at that time nearly a quarter-century ago that the Watergate allegations could not have been true.
"What was going through our heads," he said, "was that [former attorney general John] Mitchell and Nixon were just too smart."
Staff writers Ceci Connolly, Helen Dewar, Thomas B. Edsall, Guy Gugliotta and Terry M. Neal, and staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company