REPORTING on the state of the union without being distracted by the ongoing impeachment trial is a task that tests even President Bill Clinton's ability to compartmentalize.
Yet that is the challenge Mr. Clinton took on last night when he addressed the nation from the House chamber just hours after his lawyers defended him against impeachment charges across Capitol Hill.
In a spirited end to a historic day, a relaxed president stood before accusers and defenders to declare that the nation is in fine shape. Considering the circumstances, he made a strong case.
To hear Mr. Clinton tell it, things have seldom been better. The $70 billion surplus is the largest in history. Unemployment is at a 30-year low. Violent crime is down as is the welfare rate.
To hear the president tell it, the good times are going to get better. In classic Clinton style, the president ticked off an ambitious to-do list for 1999 and beyond.
His top priority involves using nearly 90 percent of the federal budget surplus through 2014 to salvage Social Security and Medicare while starting a new 401(k)-style pension plan.
And that's just a start. Mr. Clinton also challenged Congress to improve schools, raise the minimum wage by $1 an hour, hire 50,000 police officers, expand drug treatment and even increase defense spending.
Such plans sound ridiculously ambitious when considered in the day's full context. After all, they come from a president who is fighting off Senate conviction to stay in office.
Yet the president seems to be betting that most Americans would prefer the evening's outline of lofty ambitions to the afternoon's defense against sordid accusations. And there is something refreshingly escapist about taking an evening off from impeachment proceedings to hear proposals about real programs.
As expected, Mr. Clinton did not talk about the impeachment trial. There was no apology. The president studiously avoided the one subject on everyone's mind.
What is the state of the union? The country is doing great -- except for impeachment. Yet outside the tight compartments of Mr. Clinton's world, that caveat is not easy to ignore.
Pub Date: 1/20/99