It was an event filled with the sort of landmarks the TV wags love to point out: President Clinton's eighth and final State of the Union address. He is the first to give the speech after having been impeached, and "only the third president to serve two terms in the last 50 years," as Sam Donaldson unhelpfully noted. It was his longest yet. It was oddly the first time the entire Supreme Court was absent from the annual gathering. And it was probably the first time anybody had seen Donna Shalala's tousled new haircut.
More importantly, it was the first time Clinton had to deal with the fact that the country, collectively, wasn't just looking at him, but past him -- literally, over his right shoulder to his vice president and would-be successor, Al Gore. So the narcissist in chief responded like a toddler realizing that his younger brother is suddenly drawing all the attention. He talked more. He got louder. And he made the tricks bigger.
In the process, he did the little brother a big favor. The president's speech -- highlighted by a proposed $350 billion tax cut -- had the feel of a victory celebration, where there's enough of everything to go around -- enough money, enough food, enough love -- that even the No. 2 guy will go home happy. (And as the significance-starved TV wags would note later, Clinton mentioned Gore six -- Count 'em! Six! -- different times.)
The president was especially generous to his and Gore's choice constituency: baby boomers. Two-income families could celebrate (he promised to reduce the marriage penalty), especially if they have kids going to college (major college tuition tax breaks). And if they also fall into a lower-income bracket (increased insurance eligibility), have younger children who need extra help while in school (a $1 billion after school program), or preschoolers (a $1 billion expansion of the Head Start program), they got more goodies. To complete the PTA-friendly package, Clinton promised more competitive charter schools, ambitious teacher training programs and upgrading the number of schools with Internet access.
Also central to his proposal is a $110 billion plan over 10 years to expand health-care coverage, along with a series of other related health proposals that include $3,000 tax credits for long-term care, $1 billion in tax credits to encourage the development of vaccines against malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS or HIV, and the ever-popular patients bill of rights.
The big laugh of the night might also have been the most illuminating. Twice, within about 40 seconds, Clinton told of the need "to make our communities more liberal" -- instead of livable. It was less ironic than honest, however inadvertently: His embrace of big, imaginative, taxpayer-funded programs, along with an unapologetic promotion of social programs -- tougher gun control laws, a higher minimum wage, the Paycheck Fairness Act for women, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty -- seemed to intentionally and aggressively embrace the "L" word, arguably for the first time since his health-care proposal was laughed down in 1993.
Along the way, he delivered token political credits to Gore and wife Hillary Clinton. He gave the vice president specific credit twice, saying it was Gore who came up with the idea to make low-income parents eligible for insurance that also covers their kids, and Gore who cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate to pass gun control legislation (that then died in the House).
But with his rousing tax and health-care proposals, Clinton was able to simultaneously promote ideas Gore has campaigned on, while drawing attention away from vaunted tax and health plans of all of Gore's potential opponents. Reached in New Hampshire immediately after Clinton's comments on Gore's health care record, Bill Bradley's campaign spokeswoman Anita Dunn speculated that "it would be no surprise that perhaps the Gore campaign has misled the president on what the Gore proposals are." Either way, she noted, "Gore's been a loyal member of this administration and obviously Clinton's made no secret that he'll do everything he can to get him elected."
He also gave wife, Hillary, credit for proposing what he described as "a single, voluntary rating system for all children's entertainment, one that is easier for parents to understand and enforce." He urged entertainment executives to support the plan. (Campaign officials for her likely New York Senate opponent, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, refused comment.) Significantly, he didn't mention his wife when touting his health-care proposals, lest he contaminate them with the scorn and suspicion that doomed hers.
Before he got to his plans, though, Clinton spent time focusing on the country's economic success, and listing a string of positive social and economic indicators before concluding, simply, "the state of the union is the strongest it has ever been."
Clinton's aggressively confident and well-received speech was a marked contrast to his two previous addresses, which were mired in the Lewinsky scandal. The dramatic change could be seen in audience shots of chief GOP rivals nodding, if not cheering along -- surreally, the cameras even captured impeachment nemesis Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., cheerfully clapping along as Clinton announced plans to crack down on illegal guns. Still, Clinton's own attempts at magnanimity seemed strained, as when he reached across to the aisle to thank Republicans for the "extraordinary" -- if hardly surprising -- "support you have given to our men in uniform."
The Republicans' response was led by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who, in a halting, kindergarten teacher's delivery, argued for Republican education plans that allow decisions to be made in local school boards with "more federal help but less federal interference." Education, Collins said, was the best way to fight what she described as a growing fear brought by economic prosperity. "Between Silicon Valley and Wall Street, many Americans still live in the shadows of the new prosperity."
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., stressed the need for health-care reform that, he said, offered choice. He characterized the Clinton plan as a "bloated" big government plan, saying that "socialized medicine doesn't work."
"In fact, if David Letterman had lived in Canada, he'd still be waiting for his heart surgery," Frist said.
Sounding a similar note, Texas Gov. George W. Bush issued a reaction, stating: "The litany of spending programs the president announced tonight proves my point that if you leave a large surplus in Washington, the money will be spent on bigger government."
But compared to Clinton's overwhelmingly optimistic speech, the Republican response seemed cautious and abbreviated.
Of course, before he even gave the speech, others, including the Washington Post, were quick to point out the difference between State of the Union rhetoric and reality. And after Clinton released his more ambitious proposals to Congress earlier in the day, The Associated Press quickly reported that, "Republican leaders in Congress are saying that big proposals with big spending to match do not stand much chance of passage in this election year."
Still, that wasn't quite the point of this exercise. According to presidential historian Allan Lichtman, "All he needs to do lay out an ambitious agenda -- the more ambitious the better -- and it will put Republicans on the defensive.
"His approval ratings are still high. What does he have to lose? Right now, he's interested in what kind of vision he can claim, what it will do for his legacy."
It will be a while -- if ever -- before he'll be able to take credit for implementing these programs, and not just proposing them. But Thursday night that didn't matter. He packed the house, got the applause, and felt all eyes upon him -- even if they were really focusing on the guy over his shoulder.
Salon's Washington correspondent Jake Tapper contributed to this report.