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Bill Clinton, in His Element

Clinton President Clinton delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday. (AP)

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  • By Tom Shales
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page C1

    Appearing jubilantly oblivious to the fact that he has been impeached by the House of Representatives and is on trial in the Senate, President Clinton gave one of his most upbeat State of the Union speeches ever last night and scored what looked to be another television triumph.

    Whether he'll experience another upward blip in his public-opinion approval rating or not – and it seems likely he will – Clinton put forth an image of a vigorous, still youthful, resilient and defiantly optimistic president. He came out there swinging and without ever mentioning his current tribulations seemed to deflate them. They amount to nothing, his speech implied, compared with the accomplishments of his six years in office.

    Republicans, especially House Republicans, who vowed to sit in stony disapproval as the president spoke looked bad on television, like sticks-in-the-mud and sourpusses, especially when the cameras cut from the feisty and frisky president to such studied grumps as Rep. Dick Armey (R-Tex.), who sat there like Jabba the Hutt, frowning and supercilious.

    "If he applauded at all, or stood up, I never saw it," CBS's Bob Schieffer told anchor Dan Rather after the speech. Apparently Schieffer was looking away when Armey did rise to applaud civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, who stood up in the gallery as one of Clinton's several guest stars. But otherwise, Armey did appear immovable and dour, and many other Republicans followed suit. It only made them appear petty and churlish on television. Party poopers, as it were.

    After all, the president came armed with so much good news – economic and otherwise – that it was hard not to be caught up in the fervor. He was just bursting with happiness, or so it appeared. Clinton seemed to speak at a faster clip than he usually does, and he tried at times to cut off the applause from Democrats that threatened to slow him down and stretch the speech out. He does not give short speeches, as we all know from experience, so there's no point in expecting him to start now.

    Clinton spoke most of the time with a natural flow that made it look as though he weren't even reading the words from a prompting device. His ad-libs were infectious and good-natured. When he came out in favor of equal pay for men and women, even Republicans stood up to applaud. This brought a charmed and charming grin to Clinton's face: "That was encouraging, you know," he told those in the chamber. "There was more balance on the seesaw."

    Later he departed from his text again when he took on that evil bug of the future, the Y2K computer problem. Noting the sound of two hands clapping, Clinton smiled again and looked out into the crowd. "We had one member of Congress stand up and applaud," he said delightedly, "and we may have that ratio applauding at home in front of their television sets‚. . ."

    Few viewers were likely to be standing and applauding – that's not how television is watched in the American home – but in a manner recalling the winning personality of Ronald Reagan, Clinton seemed bound to captivate a huge number of those tuning in. Six years in office and he looked as though he were still running for president – boyishly enthusiastic, fearlessly confident, a man who was determined to overcome perhaps the greatest adversity of all: his own weaknesses as a human being.

    "My fellow Americans, I stand before you tonight to report that the state of the union is strong," Clinton said early on. Around that time he used a hand gesture – the wagging finger – that unfortunately evoked the memory of his infamous public denial that he had "sexual relations" with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

    But if someone was tuning in the speech from Mars or beyond, and didn't know about the ongoing scandal and the pursuit of the president by Republicans in Congress, the viewer would probably have gotten no inkling from what the president said or how he said it that he is a man in trouble. If anything, he looked even more ebullient and gung-ho than in previous States of the Union.

    There were telltale signs here and there, among them a truly huge ovation for Hillary Rodham Clinton when the president thanked her ("I honor her") late in the speech. Some were applauding Mrs. Clinton for her public deeds, no doubt, but there had to be quite a bit of admiration in there for being the most understanding wife in the world – at least that we know of. Even those House Republicans, who as we have been told are morally superior to us all, may have felt keen admiration.

    America repeatedly has shown in opinion polls and TV ratings that it doesn't care about the mistakes or transgressions Clinton has made in his personal life. And when the TV newsies fan out for reaction snippets from men and women on the street, they'll probably hear that Clinton's speech was a big smash and that people wish the Republicans would leave the man alone. Okay, he's an adulterer – but how about that economy!

    Earlier in the day, Clinton was brilliantly represented in the Senate's impeachment trial by White House counsel Charles Ruff, who spoke for about 2½ hours in Clinton's defense. Early in his presentation, Ruff, who is in a wheelchair, lost his Senate-issued microphone. It's supposed to hook onto a pocket, but Ruff's slid off his coat and onto the floor. An aide rushed to retrieve it for him.

    The image was trenchant and poignant. It spoke to the humanity and mortality of Ruff and of the man he represented, and it seemed somehow a gesture of rebuke to those who are arguably persecuting Clinton beyond all sense of justice. But Clinton is still his own best defense if also his own worst enemy, and therein lies an enigma likely to be studied for decades to come.

    For now, these are still the Clinton years, and last night the star of the show was in full tele-glittery glory.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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