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All Mush and No Message

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, January 26, 1995; Page A25

Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message. If so, Bill Clinton's medium was his State of the Union address, and its message was that he still lacks discipline. In an incredible one hour and 20 minutes, he managed to obscure his themes, trample on his rhetorical high spots and weary his audience. Pardon me if I thought of an awful metaphor: Clinton at a buffet table, eating everything in sight.

The question about Clinton was never whether he could give a good speech. He can. Instead, the question involves discipline and character, steadfastness of purpose and core values. In these areas, Clinton has severe troubles. "Bill Clinton needs a miracle, not a comeback, to win in 1996," recently wrote Andrew Kohut, director of the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press. "No political figure with Clinton's personal ratings has ever come close to winning a presidential election." The operative word is "personal," and the operative figure was a December rating of only 51 percent favorable.

Given that stark figure, Clinton needed above all to show that he can be a crisp, decisive president in the mold of Harry Truman – a natty dresser whose speeches, like his suits, had a sharp quality to them. A shorter, more concise speech might have made that point. As it was, though, the president was all over the lot, embracing some Republican programs, rejecting others, meandering into foreign policy and emerging from that topic by suggesting – falsely, as it turned out -- that he was concluding. But from the moment he said, "Well, my fellow Americans, that's my agenda for America's future" until his last line, another 25 paragraphs of text followed. By then, his fellow Americans were in a stupor.

Clinton's admirers might say that I am not being fair to the president. But Clinton is not fair to himself. One of his most cherished and passionately held beliefs is the need for citizen involvement in the community. The AmeriCorps program is an outgrowth of that conviction -- which is why four AmeriCorps volunteers were seated in the House balcony Tuesday night and one of them, Cindy Perry, was introduced by the president. The night before, I had had dinner with the four of them.

After years of watching one Great Society program after another fail, I was deeply cynical about a program that paid people to get involved in community work, giving them the minimum wage and some money for college. In fact, that's why I was asked to meet the volunteers. It was a setup – and it worked.

I was unprepared for their idealism, their lack of cynicism, their desire to contribute something tangible to people less fortunate than themselves. One builds homes for the poor in Miami. Another is involved in an ecological program in Oregon. A third works mostly in a Kansas City housing project and the fourth, Perry, tutors second-graders in rural Kentucky. Their reward, they all said, is a thanks, a smile -- a deep and wonderful sense of satisfaction.

But what I learned at dinner – a lesson Clinton himself taught over and over in the presidential campaign – was subsumed Tuesday night into a bouillabaisse of domestic and foreign concerns from which nothing emerged with clarity. The average viewer could not know that AmeriCorps was special to Clinton, central to his desire to rehabilitate our civil society. It got a mere two paragraphs.

Perry, the AmeriCorps volunteer was introduced, but then so was the Kansas City police chief, a Haitian American serviceman, two ministers from Maryland and a Medal of Honor winner from World War II. They were all worthy of mention, but what was the theme? The embrace was both too wide and too thin. Who, precisely, was closest to Clinton's heart and evocative of his administration – the woman volunteering in a program of his own invention or a soldier from a war that ended before he was born?

In a memo sent to GOP leaders the morning after the president's speech, Republican strategist Bill Kristol called Clinton's address the "most conservative . . . ever delivered by a 20th century Democratic president." Probably so. Kristol went on to say that only the Republicans could defeat the Republicans and that Clinton, really, was irrelevant. Maybe so.

But if Kristol is going to be proved wrong, Clinton is going to have to sharpen his own outlines by declaring which two or three things he really cares about. As it was, his best line – "All of us have made our mistakes, and none of us can change our yesterdays, but every one of us can change our tomorrows" – proved ironically true for the speech itself. In its undisciplined length, it showed that the Clinton of today is much like the one of yesterday.

If he keeps it up, tomorrow may never come.

© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company

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