States of the Union Special Report
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Great Speech -- Too Bad

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, January 29 1998; Page A19

It was, with apologies to Charles Dickens, the best of speeches and the worst of speeches. It was a measured speech, a prudent speech -- too long, maybe, as Bill Clinton's State of the Unions often are -- but one which contained some wonderful things. Yet, in the end, it was a sad speech for the question it left unanswered: Who, exactly, is this man giving the speech?

I grant you that's a hard enough question to answer about anyone. But Clinton is a tougher read than most people. He is a man, if the current charges are true, who risked his presidency, his historical legacy and, not incidentally, his marriage on a dalliance with a young woman with smoking eyes. Yet there is nothing in his presidency to suggest that Clinton relishes risk.

Ponder the State of the Union speech. It was about as controversial and risky as the Boy Scout pledge. The president would use the projected budget surplus for the Social Security program. He would increase the minimum wage, use federal funds to hire 100,000 additional teachers and put $21.7 billion into child care. All of these proposals have their naysayers, but there is nothing here of a risky, go-for-broke nature. Kids, old people and the working poor -- what could be safer?

With the exception of the now-dead proposal to reform health insurance, this is the way it has gone with Clinton. He did, I grant you, suggest that the military abandon its ugly homophobia, but once Sam Nunn, Colin Powell and others screamed in horror -- what about those showers! -- he abandoned his proposal and, it could be said, military gays as well. The president has said nothing as the Pentagon has, with impunity, violated the spirit of the "don't ask, don't tell" compromise.

Indeed, over and over the word used to both describe and criticize Clinton is "timid." Liberals watched with mouths agape as Clinton moved right. Conservatives watched with awe as he picked their pockets, recommending initiatives -- welfare reform, school uniforms -- that once were theirs. The public watched as Clinton teased out its sense of what government should do -- and he has adhered to those limits.

In foreign policy, Clinton treaded water while Bosnia burned, went into Haiti only reluctantly and has been accused of not facing up to Saddam Hussein early enough, forcefully enough and consistently enough to dissuade the Iraqi leader from his insane schemes.

When Seymour Hersh published his recent book, "The Dark Side of Camelot," he claimed that John Kennedy's private life "affected the affairs of the nation . . . far more than has been known." The historian Alan Brinkley, writing in Time, scoffed at that. Where's the evidence? he asked -- and, indeed, there is none.

It is the same with Clinton. The risks he allegedly took in private have no counterparts in his public life. It could be argued that a pattern unites public and private -- a yearning for approval, a need to seduce whatever is before him, an adolescent urge to say whatever it takes to get out of a spot -- but none of that amounts to recklessness in the presidency. Clinton has his own checks and balances. The urge to be bold is checked by the need to be loved.

Television makes historic that which it can show. The green revolution was not historic because it made for boring pictures. But the visit of an old pope to an old dictator was deemed historic because it promised swell pictures. The visit, though, changed little. Fidel Castro is making a slow exit anyway, the church will be restored in Cuba, and Donald Trump or somebody will develop the Havana waterfront.

Something similar happened with the State of the Union. In the context of the moment, it was a nonevent -- ceremonial and therefore cinematic, but lacking real meaning. The true history of the moment is proceeding in lawyers' offices, grand jury rooms and the offices of the independent counsel. This is the web into which Bill Clinton flew.

Still, the State of the Union was hardly meaningless. It showed Clinton as the trooper he has always been, a badger of a politician -- determined, indomitable -- a man at the top of his game and, it seemed, not at all the same person being sought by the independent counsel. The polls tell us the people make the same distinction. They wonder about the man, not the job he's doing.

Yet if the private Clinton is brought down, the public one must follow. No matter what the reason -- and covering up an embarrassment is not the same as covering up a crime -- a president cannot lie under oath. On that point of law, the private Clinton and the public Clinton are one -- and they are, despite a great speech, both in great peril.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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