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Clinton Faces The Curse Of Peace And Prosperity -- Jan. 14, 1997

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Welcome Aboard, Mr. President

By Hugh Sidey/TIME

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WASHINGTON (Feb. 5) -- There was the feeling listening to Bill Clinton as he took us on that long State of the Union journey Tuesday night that he was the one discovering the United States, not the other way around.

"The enemy of our time is inaction ... balance the budget ... make sure people who now must work can work ... ensure that all Americans have the best education in the world ... harness the powerful forces of science and technology ... protect our environment in every community... maintain a strong and ready military... remain the indispensable nation... a nation of immigrants ... we must never, ever believe our diversity is a weakness; it is our greatest strength ... America is far more than a place; it is an idea -- the most powerful idea in the history of nations."

About this time the thought crept in that the man-on-the-street in Pocatello had probably been weighted with those truisms since he first wore long pants and could stand still on stage a few seconds in his pre-school Thanksgiving pageant. Indeed, his immigrant grandfather in all likelihood climbed on the boat to head for America hearing these marvelous refrains in his head. Education the key to our future (and Clinton's place in the history books)? Of course. And I recall old farmers in my native Iowa telling stories how their fathers sometimes put up one- room school houses before they finished their own homes, so determined were they to give their children an education. It has never changed. Certainly it needs repeating but it is hardly original thought.

As our society has shaped and reshaped itself, determined Americans have recast their schools and continued the struggle in prosperity and adversity to honor knowledge next to goodness. Welcome aboard, Mr. President.

Maybe there is something tantalizingly new here in Bill Clinton's understanding of what his job is all about. It seems as if he has at last been freed from the wiles of that wretched political Svengali, Richard Morris, and the campaign industry which made every American concern little more than a chessman on a board to be moved around in the game of power and self-preservation. Not much took root in that culture where President Clinton was nothing so much as candidate Clinton and ran perpetually, rushing from photo-op to fund-raiser mouthing all the right poll-tested slogans, never really feeling the pain or the pleasure he talked about.

There was something modest and real about this State of the Union Address. If it truly reflects a turn from his political self-absorption and an open ear for the sounds of America singing (and growling), both this country and Bill Clinton may have some good years ahead.

Hugh Sidey, Washington Contributing Editor for TIME, has written about the American presidency for 40 years. Bill Clinton is the ninth president Sidey has known.


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