We interrupt this impeachment ...

Two years in a row, Clinton's State of the Union address proves he won't follow the presidential tragedy script.

Published December 30, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

Republican grumbling aside, nothing could be more fitting than for President Clinton to be giving his State of the Union address while he stands trial in the Senate. The Lewinsky affair, after all, kicked off just before last year's State of the Union address. And even with all that has happened in the last year -- the Starr Report, the grand jury testimony, the blue dress, even the November election -- that night last January remains a turning point in the entire year-long drama.

It's worth remembering that when it comes to awkwardness, this year's proceedings don't hold a candle to last year's. In the feverish first days of the Lewinsky crisis, CNN's Wolf Blitzer was out on the White House lawn gravely telling viewers that White House aides were beginning to talk about a possible presidential resignation. Other White House press corps worthies were describing Clinton as shocked, dejected, paralyzed. Sam Donaldson famously told viewers on ABC's "This Week" that the remainder of Clinton's presidency was numbered "not in weeks, but days."

So sure, having the president on trial in the Senate during the day and feted in the well of the House at night may feel a bit odd. But last year you had to wonder whether Clinton would mount the podium and announce his resignation, or just break into tears, or maybe even have his head explode on camera in front of 100 million Americans. Somehow, though, he did none of those things. He appeared confident and forceful, even while the world seemed to be collapsing around him. Put simply, Clinton refused to play by the script -- and that's been the key to his success, as well as the increasingly frenzied Republican opposition, all year long.

The script, of course, is the Presidential Tragedy script, a dramatic formula originated by Lyndon Johnson in the late 1960s and then shaped to Shakespearean perfection by Richard Nixon in the early '70s. The script goes something like this: The president is a man of outsized ambition and huge potential brought down by the mischance of fate and his own human flaws. As he tries to work on great things, he is pulled down further and further by his own dark character. He rages against fortune. He slips into introversion. Then come the "Final Days," when he is frequently spotted around the White House at odd hours with a dejected visage and his head cocked toward the ground. The whole spectacle provides grist for a few good books of facile psychobabble and dynamite career springboards for the reporters who dug the whole thing up. In other words, it's Woodward and Bernstein time.

By all the laws of political existence as we then understood them, in the wake of the Lewinsky scandal Clinton had absolutely no choice but to be utterly humiliated, crack under the pressure and begin planning his resignation speech. But Clinton didn't play along. Even for many who have no use for the man or his policies, Clinton's resilience and grace under pressure that night couldn't help but elicit a certain measure of awe. Seeing the president looking more or less the way he had looked before the scandal was revealed stabilized his public standing (his bogus denial of having sexual relations with "that woman" didn't hurt either). If the president wasn't playing by the script, people reasoned, maybe it wasn't Watergate redux after all.

That's the tone that Clinton set last January and it's the one he's been following pretty much ever since. And for all his many personal shortcomings, the president's refusal to knuckle under demonstrated a dimension of little-mentioned personal character that has contrasted well with the insincere, faux-moral culture that now prevails in official Washington.

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Even those who don't think the president should resign have been angry at his refusal to follow the Presidential Tragedy script. Most of establishment Washington doesn't really want the president kicked out of office -- not because they love the man, but because it seems out of proportion, it offends their sense of judgment and restraint. What drives them to distraction is Clinton's unwillingness to sit still and be ashamed. In the days after Clinton's impeachment, commentators gritted their teeth in frustration that even the shattering House vote against him hadn't reduced Clinton to moping dejection. In discussions of an appropriate penalty that were bantered about on TV chat shows, one of the principle qualifications was that it be something so humiliating and crushing that Clinton wouldn't be able to be up again a few days later, running the country. When he told the Los Angeles Times' Elizabeth Shogren that it didn't feel that bad being impeached and that history would, at least in part, vindicate him, the pundits howled.

Washington Post columnist Jim Glassman excoriated Clinton for hosting the House Democrats on the White House lawn just after the impeachment vote. "The appropriate response to impeachment," Glassman whined, "is not brassy defiance but silence, contemplation, shame and departure." Glassman's kindred spirit, Christopher Matthews, took the same line. He railed against Clinton for his "macabre pep rally" and for refusing to "mope around the White House living quarters" as would have been proper after having been impeached. In other words, for refusing the play by the Presidential Tragedy script. Didn't Clinton know he was supposed to slip into a deep depression and hole up in the White House until a handful of sexagenarian Senate Democrats walked over to tell him it was time to pack it in, or conversely, agreed to forgive him and let him go back to running the country -- dejectedly -- again?

But Clinton realized early on what others came to belatedly: It's very difficult to pry a president from office if he just refuses to go. And that's driven the pundits crazy. Of course, Clinton's critics would counter that this is precisely the point. Clinton should have the decency and honor, the respect for himself and his office, to walk off the public stage and take responsibility for his misdeeds.

Glassman, Matthews and their indignant colleagues rightly understand that Clinton refuses to concede the legitimacy of the drive to impeach him. In fact, that's what's really behind all the calls for Clinton to come clean, to admit this or that misdeed, to show that he "gets it," that he takes responsibility and so forth. For most Americans, Clinton has apologized enough -- perhaps too much. (If there's one thing Clinton has done this year that really has transgressed the bounds of good taste it's his repeated, maudlin apologies. If he keeps it up, it may rise to the level of an impeachable offense.)

But apologizing for his personal misdeeds will never satisfy his critics. And, truth be told, neither will any apologies for misleading the public, or lying, or anything else. What Clinton's critics want aren't apologies, but vindication. They want the president to apologize in a particular way, and carry himself in a particular manner, so that he retroactively validates the idiot jihad that Kenneth Starr, the right wing and many in the press corps have been waging against him and his administration for at least four years. What drives the critics to distraction is that Clinton has steadfastly refused to do that; and the public has, in general, supported him in his refusal.

So giving the State of the Union address isn't anything out of the ordinary for Clinton. He's just following the script he set out for himself when this whole mess started. He'll drive his critics up the wall and probably get a bump in the polls while he's at it.

By Joshua Micah Marshall

Joshua Micah Marshall, a Salon contributing writer, writes Talking Points Memo.

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