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East Coast Oscar Night

Thursday, January 25, 1996; Page A24


THE STATE of the State of the Union is not good. We're not talking about the state of the country itself; these annual speeches have increasingly little to do with that, which is part of the problem. We're not talking about the particular speech that President Clinton delivered Tuesday night, either; for the kind of thing it was, it was good enough.

Our problem is with the ghastly rite as it has come to be ever more elaborately practiced in recent years. We can't decide whether it's the political equivalent of Oscar night or the godchild of those old Soviet party conferences in which unanimity ("all rise . . . stormy applause") was so utterly mechanical and grim. The event is entirely staged, contrived with a view to its media coverage and the imagery it projects.

They applaud endlessly when the president appears, even though you know at least half of them don't mean it. He basks modestly in the cheers. Thereafter they applaud at the applause lines, which is to say, the lines that were deftly put in the speech precisely in order to be applauded. Our own sense is that the applause has become a meter of the improbability of the evening. The more improbable the proposition – we can be profligate and economical at the same time, comes the message year after year and administration after administration – and more the hurrahs rise. And then of course there's the withholding of applause, which the cameras are also primed to pick up for voluminous discussion later.

Your view of the president's speech Tuesday night will depend on the standard you set for it. Mr. Clinton said that the country is doing all right, but of course could and should do better. It's pretty hard to disagree with that. He set seven broad goals: He's in favor of strong families, good education, economic security – which includes both a decent job and health insurance – less crime, a cleaner environment, strength abroad and good government at home, that being defined in part as a government that Congress refrains from shutting down.

You, of course, are in favor of all those things too. Everyone is. It was said that the president stole Republican issues in the course of the evening, and maybe he did. But much of the speech was at a level of generality where there are no Republican or Democratic issues, nor much of any issue at all so far as the federal government is concerned. What is the role of the federal government in strengthening the family? We could require a V chip in television sets, the president said. Yes, and then what, please?

The budget has been the principal issue between the parties. Mr. Clinton stayed general in dealing with it as well. He said a couple of times that "the era of big government is over," but it isn't clear what that means. The biggest part of big government is a few big programs -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the defense budget – all of which in more or less their present form the president indicated he supports. To protect those while balancing the budget and giving a modest tax cut, he has agreed to deep cuts in other spending, particularly the part that occurs through the appropriations process. Total domestic appropriations would be reduced about a third in real terms seven years from now under his budget. How then does he propose to fund the increases he advocates for education, job training, environmental protection and the rest, all of which come from domestic appropriations? He doesn't say, nor perhaps should he have to in a State of the Union address.

His goal was to position himself politically so that he would been seen to occupy the muddy middle. Bob Dole's speech of response was that of a man still up to his ears in a party primary, which pretty much determined his pitch: It seemed less aimed at the general electorate than at the more influential voting sectors of the GOP, and thus did not compete well with Mr. Clinton's. The snarky opposition response has become as much a part of the unfortunate State of the Union ritual as all the forced jollity and transparent play acting. These have truly become embarrassing, discomfiting occasions. The minions of the American government in assembly are made (by their own actions) to look like fools. Can't they just go back to, say, a serious speech and an audience that behaves as if its members were grown-up, responsible, normal people concerned with the way the country is governed?

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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