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State of the Union

Thursday, January 29 1998; Page A18

A LOT of amazement was expressed Tuesday night, some of it admiring, about the president's ability to -- new buzz word -- "compartmentalize" the problems facing him, or as he has said, put them in boxes. The professed astonishment had to do with the fact that he could carry out his presidential duties so smoothly -- in this case, deliver the State of the Union address -- even while besieged by the scandal over his alleged personal misconduct. The implication was that the two -- the public performance of the duties and the need to defend himself -- were somehow separate.

But they aren't. The line between them is blurred -- and that in a way is the real problem. The continuing, public performance of his duties has become, for now, the central element in the president's defense. He sends the message -- he sent it in the speech Tuesday night -- that he has done pretty well as president, times are good, he proposes to continue to deliver, and that is what should matter. As he said in summarily denying the charges against him at the White House Monday, "These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people."

That's the proffer, as we've learned to say in recent days. The notion is that, after an interval, the scandal will recede -- that people will simply tire of it -- and perhaps that is so. Meanwhile, Mrs. Clinton says (Tuesday) that she and the president are victims of a "vast right-wing conspiracy," and (yesterday) that "because there's an investigation going on, nobody can expect the president to say anything more publicly."

They buy some time with this, perhaps, and time counts, but it is not true that no one can expect the president to say anything more publicly. He owes a full accounting that he alone can give, and that he has thus far conspicuously failed to give -- not even begun to. We've said before, we have no idea of the truth of the charges against him. But it does not dispose of them simply to assert that they are false, or even that some of the people who are peddling and magnifying them are politically motivated.

Nor are they separate from the president's ability to "go back to work for the American people" -- which returns us to the State of the Union address. These things are always partly boilerplate. The president nonetheless laid out what seems to us to be a reasonable agenda within the confines of the government's ability to pay. We support a fair amount of what he wants to do. But his ability to get his way will be reduced insofar as his standing is diminished by the charges against him, which he has thus far ducked more than confronted. The agenda is hostage to his character. Long-term, the two cannot be kept in separate boxes, no matter how many times a State of the Union address is interrupted by how much applause.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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