State Of The Union Memorable For What Clinton Didn't Say
By Kathleen Hayden/AllPolitics
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, Jan. 27) -- President Bill Clinton's sixth State of the Union address will go down as one of the most memorable and closely watched speeches of his presidency -- but not for his proposed initiatives or evidence of a "strong" United States.
No, instead it will be what the president did not say that will be remembered.
The president was conspicuously silent on the one major issue that has dominated national attention for the past week: allegations that he had sexual relations with former intern Monica Lewinsky and that he encouraged her to lie about it under oath -- charges he has vehemently denied but upon which he's offered no further details.
The State of the Union is political theater at its best, and despite the scandal gripping Washington everyone played their role tonight. Congress was on its best behavior, enthusiastically welcoming the president to their Hill. First lady Hillary Clinton beamed supportively from the balcony facing her husband. No one strayed appreciably from the fine art of frequent, message-inspired applause and standing ovations.
But it was the off-stage drama that prompted more than double the average State of the Union audience to tune in. Though adminstration officials insisted that this forum would not be used to talk about Lewinsky, an uncertain nation did not want to miss a possible unscripted comment from a famously spontaneous president.
It was in this daunting atmosphere that Clinton faced the unenviable task of standing before his cabinet, nine Supreme Court justices, members of the diplomatic corps, 533 members of Congress and as many as 120 million television viewers to find something -- anything -- else to talk about that would resonate with the public.
If ever there was a president up to the mission, it would be Bill Clinton. He is a gifted public speaker whose forte is effectively communicating an agenda. And he has a proven history of staring crisis in the face.
Speaking easily and looking less tired than previous days, Clinton succeeded in projecting the desired image: a 'business-as-usual' chief executive focused on the people's work. Per usual, Clinton seemed to revel in his policy wonk persona, once again compartmentalizing his life into distinct personal and professional boxes.
The president wanted to change the national subject away from his troubles by making those watching sit up and take notice of such announcements as a projected $200 billion surplus and his intention to use "every penny" to save Social Security.
But no matter how good the words, was anybody listening? Could sometimes dry policy talk on Medicare, education reform and the global economy trump the latest titillating rumors surrounding an alleged adulterous tryst?
Not likely. Tomorrow's headlines, that would have concentrated on a budget pledged to be balanced three years ahead of schedule or the proposed expansion of Medicare, will instead devote equal space to the only subject the president didn't speak to: Monica Lewinsky.
Even so, the fact that the State of the Union will be the first 'normal' political story to come out of Washington since last Wednesday has to be a plus for the White House. And recent polls indicate that most Americans thought it would have been inappropriate for Clinton to talk about the Lewinsky furor during this speech.
And while Clinton's favorability rating has been hurt by growing concerns over his moral character, surveys show that the American people still approve of the job Clinton is doing as president and a most want the him to continue in it.
But tonight should have been a high-point in the Clinton presidency. Only a week ago he was riding high on strong favorability ratings and the healthiest economy in 30 years. And he was armed with a host of popular initiatives that had pundits proclaiming that the president has wrested the political agenda away from the vacationing Republicans.
Instead the performance will be remembered as one of an embattled president trying to reassure an anxious nation -- without speaking to the source of their concern.
Last year on this night Clinton competed for the nation's attention with the incoming verdict in the O.J. Simpson civil case. While those bizarre circumstances were marveled over, surely no one imagined an even more extraordinary story would dominate this year's event.
Considering the trend, no political pundit could feel safe making predictions about next year's address.