Clinton Speech: How's That Again? It Looks as if Public Liked It Better than Pundits Did


Could the American public have a longer attention span than the political partisans and media sharpshooters who skulk about inside the Beltway?

With few exceptions, critics found last month's State of the Union address intolerably long, as if the clock gave the most important measure of its value.

Mr. Clinton had more to sell, we are told, than a salesman at IKEA. But so what? It's a big country. Somebody has to challenge it.

We are told the president was undisciplined, his language "soggy" and "weightless." In the run-up to delivery, we were instructed to watch for another effort at presidential self-definition. Afterward, we were told to forget the idea that Mr. Clinton stands for nothing: He stands for everything!

With George Bush it was vision -- or "the vision thing," as he called it. With Mr. Clinton, it's core beliefs and definition. It's always something. And Mr. Clinton may realize that he's not ever going to pass someone else's test of focus. The modern president can't beat the second-guessing apparatus, so he has to join it.

Mr. Clinton has no hope of passing the tests pumped out by columnists or partisan opponents, just as Mr. Bush could never get his "vision" just right.

Lamentably, the words are the least important aspect, since no critic will take them on their own merit. Each White House team of spin managers tries to shape the context within which the speech will be heard. After delivery, it must scramble to reinforce whatever shred of positive reaction it receives.

Mr. Clinton found his speech a winner in the real world. The public gave him a big hand: 83 percent of a survey taken by USA Today/CNN/Gallup said he was leading the nation in the right direction. One poll said Republicans were providing considerable leadership, but the American people were willing to give Mr. Clinton credit for changing course. And 86 percent of respondents said his proposals would improve things. A week later, his individual rating was 9 percentage points higher.

Even Republicans heard much to applaud. But they got a grip on themselves and sneered as mercilessly as pundits with whom they are usually in total disagreement.

Maybe the speech did bring the country together, one columnist conceded later, but that unity would last "only for an evanescent moment and at the price of reinforcing [Mr. Clinton's] image as a bystander to the raging political battle at hand."

So, let's see if we have this straight: A bystander president unified the country momentarily with a soggy, undisciplined speech about a lot of ideas, Republican and Democratic, that might improve things.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.

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