What might have been

It's hard to watch this president perform so well, knowing that he has already undermined his -- and our -- hopes for any real legislative success

By Joan Walsh
January 21, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)
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It was the stuff of presidential fantasy.

The first two-term Democratic president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt takes the stage for the last State of the Union address of the century, celebrating an annual American ritual more popular and participatory than Election Day. As the Supreme Court, Congress and his Cabinet sit in the audience before him, and American citizens gather around their TV sets to watch him, the economy is surging, crime is way down, as are welfare rolls, teen pregnancies and the federal deficit. Not surprisingly, the president's approval rating is higher than ever.


Oh, and by the way, just a few hours before the speech, the president's lawyers wrapped up the first day of defense in his tawdry impeachment trial, the first and only presidential impeachment of the American century.

Thud. That wasn't part of the fantasy -- or was it? Watching President Clinton take the podium in a storm of scandal for the second year in a row, it was hard not to see both sides of this drama -- exaltation and humiliation, political mastery and political destruction -- as all of a piece, part of some larger plan, and not a vast right-wing conspiracy, either. Clinton always shines in his hour of darkness, so much so that it seems obvious he needs risk, drama, maybe even shame to work his public magic.

It was not his very best performance. This year, the gray bags under his eyes were bigger than last year, and he seemed less inclined to hug people -- burned by all those Monica-hug replays, perhaps-- as he came down the aisle toward the podium. He faced a tough crowd. Republicans were grudging with both applause and smiles. The camera regularly captured Clinton's Texas tormentors Dick Armey and Tom DeLay glowering like sullen bullies in the principal's office. Henry Hyde's chair, among others, sat empty.


Even Clinton's wife, Hillary, seemed a tad frosty up there in the peanut gallery. She was slow to get to her feet in response to a standing ovation triggered by her husband's praise, ostensibly for her historic preservation efforts with the "Millennium Project," but the political and personal subtext -- "Thanks for saving my political ass, honeybunch!" -- was clear. She sat primly in the gallery with Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa (supposedly invited because of his Hurricane Mitch relief effort, not his 66 home runs), civil rights heroine Rosa Parks, Americorps volunteers, war veterans and family members of murder victims -- all of whom helped get the president most of the few heartfelt ovations he earned from the bitterly partisan crowd.

The speech itself was overlong, lapsing at the halfway mark into a political wish-list of proposals -- gun bans and greenhouse gas reduction, democracy in Cuba, more private investment in the inner city, an African Trade and Development Act, rapid response teams for communities hurt by business shutdowns -- that Al Gore no doubt will now have to put on his future agenda.

But Clinton's key proposals -- on Social Security, education and child care -- showed his political genius. They made the best use of Dick Morris' dark art of "triangulation": annexing a Republican issue and making it Democratic. By including a tax credit for stay-at-home mothers in his child-care package, he robbed the Republicans of the excuse they've used to block more child-care spending for working parents. He snatches child care from the ideological battleground -- Should mothers work? Should taxpayers subsidize it? -- and delivers a live-and-let-live, funding-for-everybody approach.


Likewise, his education proposals. He pledges more federal spending for schools -- a Democratic issue -- along with more accountability for educators, which has been a Republican cause. Even former Reagan administration official Linda Chavez, never a Clinton admirer, had to praise his education plan in the New York Times. And his Social Security plan -- pledging to shore up Social Security's cash reserves and create new 401(k)-style private retirement accounts -- is a textbook example of "third way" thinking that should have Republicans clamoring to have their names on implementing legislation.

But it was hard to watch Clinton's political performance Tuesday night and not wonder what he might have achieved if he hadn't been distracted by perpetual scandal since at least 1994. One could argue that he, and we, needed that ongoing drama. Maybe the dry details of governance would bore us without the enlivening controversy over adultery, what constitutes sexual relations, whether it's all really about sex or really about perjury -- and whether we should invest Social Security funds in the stock market. The Monica mess showed us that Clinton's a multitasker -- enjoying fellatio and phone calls at the same time -- and maybe the nation works best that way, too: juggling impeachment while reforming Social Security; deciding on trial witnesses and the best way to test teacher competency; figuring out whether we believe Bob Barr or Charles Ruff, Kathleen Willey or Julie Hiatt Steele, and Arianna Huffington or Marion Wright Edelman about the best way to help poor children.


Of course the nation he addressed Tuesday night suffers from impeachment gridlock. The Social Security proposal Clinton announced Tuesday night is at least a year overdue, since he promised to make reforming Social Security his highest priority in his last State of the Union address, too. The whole legislative year was "a failure," according to Congressional Quarterly, which reported that only half of the bills Clinton supported got through Congress, and "virtually all of his major proposals died." He had the sixth worst legislative year for a president since the Quarterly began keeping score half a century ago. And in the coming year, Clinton will be hard pressed to deliver on even the most politically popular proposals in this address. That's largely because of the right-wing jihad against him and its impeachment obsession, but let's face it -- he made himself such an easy target, with his compulsive womanizing, prevaricating, hair-splitting-- that his compulsive back-from-the-dead political resurrections are growing tiresome.

Sitting Tuesday night and looking at the glimmers of what could have been his legacy made me sad. Clinton's admirers say the man is pure life force, all charisma. They say his troubles, and his triumphs, are a referendum on the '60s -- a backlash, and a last gasp, from a right wing that can't stand to see anybody live the values of sexual liberation, equal rights and just plain fun that Clinton's generation brought to the fore.

I don't see it. There's nothing liberated, or liberating, cute or fun, about Clinton's sexual compulsion -- the furtive groping and stand-up blow jobs, the hallway frottage, the risky, desperate bad behavior that brought the last year upon him. Clinton seems to suffer from a compulsion to undermine himself, leaving the rest of us to suffer with him. The State of the Union is weaker than it should be given a president of such prodigious talents.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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