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Speech in the Dark

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, January 21, 1999; Page A25


In 1992 Bill Clinton interrupted his presidential campaign for the execution of Rickey Ray Rector in Arkansas. Rector had murdered two men and then turned the gun on himself. He was left lobotomized, apparently with no memory of his crime and no comprehension of his fate. At his last meal, he put aside a piece of his pecan pie -- for later.

I thought of Rector while watching Clinton deliver his State of the Union address. For later, he had a program for Social Security. For later, he had more money for defense. For later, he would do this and that for education, for the environment, for race relations, for the poor, for the working man, for the nonworking woman, for minorities of all kinds, for peace anywhere and everywhere and for the United Nations. All this for a later that may never come.

The speech was classic Clinton -- long, too long, much too long and rhetorically banal. If possible, it will shoot his ratings even higher since, among other things, it promised something for just about every group under the sun -- the exception being Republicans after his scalp. For them, he showed once again that he is Indomitable Man -- a model for kids, no matter what his enemies say. He proves the virtue of just getting up in the morning and going to work.

In a sense, this speech was about legacy -- a word we heard often after Clinton won reelection and that we are starting to hear all over again. What will Clinton's be? It just might be that he saved Social Security and gave his country eight years of spectacular prosperity.

It might be that he unified the Democratic Party, pushed it back toward the center and, in the process, so fragmented the Republican Party that its new speaker in the House of Representatives could go on the old "What's My Line?" television show and stump any panel you might choose.

But Clinton's State of the Union address was really about the only legacy left to him: the future of the American presidency. If Clinton can convert public opinion into political threat, if he can get the polls to dent the thick heads of his Republican enemies, if the speech reminds people that this man really has presided over good times and that happy days are indeed here again, then maybe he will be able to slip the noose GOP conservatives have tied for him.

This, of course, is Clinton's great irony. He came to the presidency too late for greatness. Earlier Tuesday night, I attended the inauguration of the Peter G. Peterson Center for International Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. A clutch of secretaries of state spoke -- from Madeleine Albright back to Henry Kissinger -- and most compared today's challenges to the ones they all once faced. The world is now a more chaotic place, but it is safer. A nuclear war between superpowers is no longer possible. We are at peace -- except, of course, with ourselves.

A great president must have a great crisis -- a civil war, a depression, wars abroad. Clinton has had none of these -- not even a recession. He has been uncommonly lucky abroad, adroit at home. He had to convene thinkers to wonder what his legacy should be. He lacked the necessary crisis and so, in a way, he manufactured one.

The end of the Cold War has enabled Congress to turn against the executive, conservatives against everyone else, traditionalists against modernity itself. The president has played catalyst. He is a shameless roue, a man always in a moment. At his State of the Union address, he lauded his wife, beaming adoration at her, and yet -- as we now know -- there could quickly be another moment, another woman, another target of beaming adoration.

This is who he is. He is indefensible, although talented, competent and successful. But Clinton no longer matters. It's the office he occupies that concerns us now, not to mention the programs he advanced.

"We are not here to defend William Clinton, the man," his lawyer Charles Ruff told the Senate earlier in the day. "You are free to criticize him, to find his personal conduct distasteful, but ask whether this is the moment when, for the first time in our history, the actions of a president have so put at risk the government the Framers created that there is only one solution."

The answer is, no. No, say I. More important, no say the American people. This is the crisis Clinton never thought he would have. Its outcome -- nothing else -- will determine his legacy. His (can it be?) greatness. Everything else is like Rickey Ray Rector's pie -- for later.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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