Ritualistic cheers, surrealistic aura; President speaks past assembled foes, fans to a receptive nation; STATE OF THE UNION


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton did last night what Republicans have been demanding for weeks: He came to the Capitol and gave his side of the story -- without making any references to impeachment.

"Now is the moment for this generation to meet our historic responsibility to the 21st century," Clinton said. Then he went on (and on) to focus like a laser beam on the nation's business, spelling out a slew of all-but-irresistible policy proposals.

Though he avoided commenting about his own crisis, there was no escaping the surrealistic aura of the evening.

The final State of the Union speech of the 1900s was delivered by an impeached president to the House members who charged him with perjury and obstruction of justice and the senators who will soon decide whether to end his presidency.

At the same time, there seemed little doubt that Clinton, despite his scars, still holds the upper hand in Washington.

Entering the same room where, a month ago, the Republican-controlled House had recommended that he be removed from office, Clinton was loudly welcomed with ritualistic cheers, though few Republicans,other than Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County, appeared eager to shake his hand.

For more than an hour, Clinton gazed into the faces of House and Senate members, impeachment past and impeachment present, arrayed before him in neat rows.

As presidents typically do on such occasions, he spoke past them to the television audience. But as no president had ever done before, he used the occasion to make his case to the real impeachment jury -- the American people, whose verdict has been that he should remain in office.

By all appearances, Clinton had the in-person audience well in hand. After a somewhat cautious start, he relaxed enough to step back from what he was doing and offer unscripted commentary about what was going on around him.

"We had one member of Congress stand up and applaud," the president said, after referring to the Y2K computer bug.

"And we may have about that ratio out there applauding at home in front of their television sets."

Strangely weightless

For all its momentousness -- and yesterday was clearly one for the history books -- the unprecedented events seemed strangely weightless.

There was little of the electricity that surrounded his previous State of the Union ceremony, which occurred in the first days after the Lewinsky matter erupted.

Last January, details of his relationship with the former White House intern were just starting to become known, and there was considerable tension over whether Clinton would address the subject in his speech.

(After intense debate inside the White House, he decided not to.)

Last night, after a full year of scandal, there wasn't much expectation that Clinton would speak about impeachment. (Polls showed that three out of four Americans didn't want him to discuss it).

Nor is there much suspense about how Washington's trial of the century will turn out.

Everyone, from the politicians in the capital to the average person in the street, seems to have adopted the singular lesson of the Clinton presidency: compartmentalization.

Public opinion surveys show public approval of Clinton's job performance near an all-time high, even as public assessment of his character has hit record lows. Only 24 percent, in the latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, rated Clinton as honest and trustworthy.

Rehnquist is absent

Perhaps the most notable absentee from last night's audience was Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, who did not join his Supreme Court colleagues in their front-row seats in the chamber.

A court spokesman was told to provide no comment, but the Associated Press reported that his aides had questioned whether it was appropriate for Rehnquist, who is presiding over Clinton's impeachment trial, to attend.

Members of Congress are typically reduced to serving as bit players -- props, really -- in political set pieces such as these. Clinton seized on a recent comment by the new House speaker, Dennis Hastert of Illinois, to make a plea for bipartisanship, then turned around and shook hands with the Republican leader.

Most Republicans, while griping about the extreme awkwardness of having to applaud Clinton while the trial is under way, said they showed up out of respect for the office of the presidency and to convey to the public that the impeachment trial is not preventing them from doing their jobs.

"We do our own compartmentalizing," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a Republican from Maine.

Pressure to attend

With all the attention that was focused on the question of their attendance, some Republicans said they felt more pressure than usual to show up. Ordinarily, some members of both parties stay away, for various reasons.

This year, "it can't be avoided," Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia said resignedly.

Privately, however, others agreed with those House and Senate Republicans who boycotted the address anyway.

"It's a feeling of disgust. It's like, 'How could he give this speech at a time like this?" said one Republican senator, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Democrats, meantime, seemed unconcerned that Clinton insisted on delivering his speech while the trial was in progress.

"I think [Republicans] would have preferred that he stay away, but he's not going to," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut. "So get over it. Move on."

Earlier in the day, senators recessed the impeachment proceedings, after hearing White House counsel Charles F. C. Ruff open the president's defense.

Seated in his wheelchair and speaking in a low, matter-of-fact voice, Ruff asked rhetorically whether the nation was at such a "horrific moment in our history" that a president should be removed from office for the first time.

Unlike Clinton, Ruff directly linked the two events that, with a perfect symmetry, played out at opposite ends of the Capitol ("freedom's house," the president called it) on the same day.

"When the American people hear the president talk to Congress tonight," Clinton's lawyer said, "they will know the answer to the question, 'Neighbor, how stands the Union?' It stands strong, vibrant, free."

As it has been throughout, the atmosphere in the Senate during the trial was one of studied intensity, as opposed to the raucous affair held last night in the House.

During Ruff's lawyerly presentation, no senator leaped to his feet ("bungee-jumping," as Republican Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah scornfully described that annual bit of State of the Union theatrics). There was little sound at all, in keeping with impeachment rules that require silence throughout the trial.

A deeper hush enveloped the Senate chamber, however, as Ruff recalled, in a husky voice, his father's role as an American soldier in the Normandy invasion 55 years ago.

At least until Rosa Parks was introduced at last night's address, it may well have been the dramatic highlight of an extraordinary day that wound down much later with Clinton's 77-minute speech.

Relaxed and grinning

In contrast to the somber proceedings in the Senate, a grinning Clinton felt loose enough, partway through his speech, to interrupt himself with remarks about his audience's behavior.

Commenting on the often silly game in which members of one party or the other try to outdo each other with applause, Clinton nodded approvingly after both Republicans and Democrats stood to clap for the notion of equal pay for women.

"There was more balance in the seesaw," he quipped. "Let's give them a hand."

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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