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Clinton on the High Wire, Defying Gravity

President Clinton President Clinton arrives on the House floor for his State of the Union address. (Tracy A. Woodward/The Post)

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  • By David Von Drehle
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, January 20, 1999; Page A8

    By now, Americans have heard enough speeches from President Clinton to know when he is enjoying himself.

    He shucks off the fetters of his prepared text. He begins improvising little flourishes. He makes jokes -- after a nice, bipartisan, round of applause he smiles and says, "That was encouraging, you know. There was more balance on the seesaw."

    All the signs suggested that the president was having a splendid time delivering the State of the Union message last night. All the commentators remarked on the strangeness of it -- a president addressing the Congress the very day his defense began in a Senate impeachment trial.

    But the dramatic has become routine in Washington. When, in 1993, Clinton improvised the bulk of his State of the Union message, it seemed the height of surprise. What a simple time that was. The 1997 State of the Union address was delivered on a split-screen with the O.J. Simpson civil trial verdict. Last year's speech came just days after the president was revealed to be the intended target of a hidden-body wire sting.

    Strange? Actually, it was just another day in Bill Clinton's Washington.

    In the Senate trial and in the president's speech, that's exactly what the White House hoped to project. Doing the people's business. All systems go. From first to last, Clinton and his representatives conducted themselves with the insouciance of Mohawk ironworkers settling down to lunch on a girder 75 stories up. Why worry? They haven't fallen yet.

    At 1 p.m., White House counsel Charles F.C. Ruff opened the president's impeachment defense as cool as an April breeze. With few exceptions, last week's speeches by the managers of the House prosecution covered a range of emotion from fervent to thrombotic. Ruff's approach was soft, methodical, let's-just-be-reasonable. His voice was pillowy and measured. In fact, for the first hour of his presentation, his microphone did not work very well, and his words began to drone together. There were some droopy eyes.

    He seemed not to care. The president's in-house lawyer is a seasoned Washington pro, a former Watergate special prosecutor, U.S. attorney, defender of Anita Hill and Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.). He understands that a skilled speaker leaves himself room to build.

    Ruff began more in the tone of a hypnosis than a battle cry. "William Jefferson Clinton is not guilty of the charges that have been brought against him. He didn't commit perjury. He didn't obstruct justice. He must not be removed from office."

    He notched up slowly. An hour into his presentation, Ruff was slicing away at the House case with sly, backhanded sarcasm. Next, he added humor, drawing a laugh from the stock-still senators by referring to "the ubiquitous Ms. Tripp."

    By the time he drew near his closing, he had everyone's attention. Do you really want to do this, he asked.

    "You are free to criticize him," Ruff said of the president, "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."

    Five hours later, a couple of hundred grim-faced Republicans trudged into the House chamber to endure an event they had been dreading for weeks. After all, it was Clinton's State of the Union performance last year, just days after the Lewinsky scandal broke, that lofted his job approval ratings into the gravity-resistant flight path they've traveled ever since.

    As Clinton worked slowly and happily through a speech full of good news and apple-pie programs -- never hinting at the current unpleasantness transpiring across the Capitol -- Republicans looked gloomier and gloomier.

    The president reported that the economy is healthier than ever, employment is up, welfare is down, crime is dropping, and the budget should be in surplus for the next generation.

    House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.) sat rigid as a man having his teeth drilled.

    When Clinton abandoned 20-plus years of Democratic orthodoxy and called for increases in the Pentagon budget -- "it is time to reverse the decline in defense spending," he said Reaganesquely -- Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) wore a faint, rueful grin. It seemed to say, "He's doing it to us again."

    The president spoke in favor of: families, education, honest labor, economic growth, free -- but fair! -- trade, clean air, less traffic congestion, the Star Spangled Banner and Sammy Sosa. He opposed: crime, drugs, unfair pay for women, poverty among seniors, illiteracy and discrimination against people with children.

    There is always a plot twist ahead in Bill Clinton's Washington. Each new victory tends to arrive as a harbinger of coming crisis. Even Ruff could not entirely avoid mentioning certain Clintonian flaws.

    For example, he insisted that Clinton could not possibly have been obstructing justice when he lied about his affair to various top aides. Why not? Because he was lying to everyone else too. If you had a television, the president lied to you.

    But here's the thing: He said it so calmly, so confidently, that it passed sweetly by.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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