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Clinton's Reaganesque Ritual

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, January 27, 1994; Page A02

The State of the Union speech has by now been institutionalized as an extravaganza. President Clinton, who is extremely competitive, honored all the rituals: unbounded promises, unedited rhetoric and unlimited applause lines calculated to send the opposition around the bend.

Clinton was in competition with himself in the House chamber. Last February, when he and Congress didn't know each other all that well, Democrats were delirious that he was there. Much water has flowed over the dam since, including, of course, Whitewater: On the eve of his first anniversary in office, Clinton, from Europe, had to agree to a special prosecutor. He has been an earthquake in office, and the aftershocks have not stopped. But he's still standing, and ready to take on health care and welfare reform at the same time.

It was a Democratic speech with Republican special effects. "Reaganesque," Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) irritably pronounced it. He was referring to the living theater of the president's box: Hillary Clinton flanked by labor (Lane Kirkland, AFL-CIO) and management (Jack Smith, General Motors); former speaker Tip O'Neill's son, Tommy, in the front row; New York police detective Kevin Jett; and James Brady, exemplar of Clinton's crusade on gun control, behind.

He could have talked all night. This was the Clinton of the primaries, not to be outdone by anyone on any side of any issue. He had a black pen handy to flourish when he threatened to veto any health care bill that did not cover everyone. He had plainly prepared thoroughly. He had rehearsed so much in the White House family theater that his voice was hoarse. He gave up nothing: He talked about his mother, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, a comprehensive test ban and Polly Klaas, and, in questionable taste, bragged about the "longest humanitarian airlift in history" over bleeding Bosnia.

It was not just the heist of their stagecraft that frosted Republicans; he has lifted their pet ideas.

There were moments of high hypocrisy all around. While applause contests are the staple of the evening and are carefully measured and recorded, they have their limits. Clinton enjoyed extorting ovations from the Republicans for his initiatives on their favorite topics -- defense spending, welfare reform.

He seemed especially shameless when he sternly forbade his congressional audience even to think about cutting defense spending. Of course, the Republicans had to applaud. It was impossible for them to communicate nonverbally the distinction that they wished to make, which was that that is what they have always said: Democrats are "wet" about the military. Besides, how can he pay for his health plan if he can't dip into the arms till?

"So many of our ideas, so much of our help," mourned Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.). "And not so much as a nod or a tip of the hat for any of it."

Republican frustration rose throughout the 64 minutes of the speech. It may have peaked when Clinton forcefully enunciated a Republican dogma, that "governments don't raise children, parents do." They looked questioningly at each other. They could not shout "Stop, thief," which is what they really wanted to do. So they rose slowly to their feet, doing a kind of slow-motion palm-joining that, if noiseless, deflects charges of negativism from viewers.

The height of joint shamelessness came when the president promised "meaningful campaign finance reform." The incumbents from both parties who killed it last year were briefly stumped. Then, seized by the same thought, they all leapt up, winking and grinning, cynically cheering for political purity.

The president wanted to appear "tough and smart," the words he used to describe the crime bill. Republicans and some Democrats accuse him of hypochondria on health care. He'll compromise, everyone knows, but not over universality. He was at his best when he talked about children growing up poor and hopeless; the Republicans do not contest him for the custody of this issue. Clinton spoke movingly of the "better angels of our nature." People believe him when he talks like that.

Since he first stood in the House chamber, the country has learned a lot about him – that he's unpredictable, but dogged, that it is not his wonkery, but his hard work that has begun to send him up in the polls. He was written off as terminally hapless in his first six months. But he's been lucky on the economy and people think of him as a president who wants to do good and couldn't care less if he's an old Democrat or a new one. They think he cares, something they never thought about George Bush and still don't about Congress.

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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