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Preside and Conquer

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, February 21, 1993; Page C01


President Clinton's State of the Union message was a speech, of course, but much more than that. Given the state of mind in the House chamber on the Democratic side, it was like watching fireworks on a river – each burst was reflected, magnified, extended beyond its moment.

The air of triumph had less to do with what he said than from his being there. He was a Democratic president after 12 years of Republicans. He was an American president who after 40 years of cold war had come home, who was talking to his fellow citizens about themselves and their own country. Throughout the hour that he talked, there was a kind of under-rumble of glee and excitement. It surfaced on an average of every four minutes. He was interrupted more than 75 times by applause; the standing ovations were so frequent the Democrats hardly sat down.

Often the State of the Union is an exercise in self-congratulation. Ronald Reagan was wont to boast about us as "a good and loving people," and made it his trademark to read the roll call of everyday "heroes" who were sitting in the gallery. At the peak of George Bush's presidency, March 7, 1991, he went before a joint session as Julius Caesar – to take bows for "Desert Storm." The Republicans were in transports; George Bush hailed us as citizens of the world.

He also gave excellent advice: "We must bring that same sense of self-discipline, that same sense of urgency to the way we meet challenges here at home."

If he had taken that advice – and given the speech that Bill Clinton gave last Wednesday night, he might still be in the White House.

Clinton addressed Americans as rational and responsible human beings who know there is something terribly wrong, that we have to do some unpleasant things to fix it. The reward will be that we start paying our debts, putting people to work, and pushing back poverty. The alternative? "A lesser life for our children and grandchildren."

All this was set forth with an almost willful lack of rhetoric. It was madly applauded because the people on the right side of the chamber, the members of his own party, had almost despaired of seeing a Democrat, with the city at his feet, on the high podium again. Delight, particularly among the women, was rampant. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut was practically dancing in the aisle. When Clinton promised to immunize every child in America, California's new senator, Barbara Boxer, let out a shout so loud that Sen. David Boren, sitting in front of her and unaccustomed to exuberance in a senator, wheeled around to check the source – and commended her.

The Republicans were somewhat at a loss, much as Democrats had been the night of the "Desert Storm" gala. It was not a time to be silent or sit on one's hands. For the watching zillions, it would not do to sulk. But it was unthinkable to join in the routine Democratic dins; the yelps, the yahoos and each standing ovation had to be thought through. Sen. Phil Gramm, standing amid colleagues wearing tacky orange buttons that read, "Tax and spend again," led the cheers that Clinton's mention of the crime bill set off – the commandeering of one's dearest issue requires prompt, noisy reaction.

The call for cuts in congressional costs occasioned a slight division at the top. Newt Gingrich immediately got to his feet and looked down questioningly at his leader, Robert Michel, who, in due course, rose. The difficulty was, of course, that Michel could not wordlessly convey what may have been his sentiments: "Republicans have been calling for this for years, but you'll never do it."

The high point of the evening was when a dialogue did occur. President Clinton was rattling off figures about future budgets, "using the independent numbers of the Congressional Budget Office."

The Republicans began to snicker and jeer. The CBO, source of numbers they love to hate, is a favorite villain. Clinton paused and then, unexpectedly, miraculously, replied: "Well, you can laugh, my fellow Republicans, but I'll point out that the Congressional Budget Office was normally more conservative in what was going to happen and closer to right than previous presidents have been."

There was a second's silence, then a crack of applause from the Democrats. They leapt up as one, cheering their hearts out. Their man had scored a direct hit. Their new president could buy and sell his two predecessors, who couldn't have rejoined at such a moment if their lives depended on it. He knew policy. He took no sauce. He had the chamber by the throat. He was in charge. At last, a leader, the cheers said. Come what may, he showed he can take care of himself – and, maybe, they dream, of them too.

Mary McGrory is a Washington Post columnist.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

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