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Jewish World Review Jan. 22, 1999/5 Shevat, 5759

Paul Greenberg

Paul Greenberg Bounce, glitz and tedium:
The State of the Disunion

(JWR) --- (http://www.jewishworldreview.com) TOLSTOY MIGHT HAVE SAID IT if he'd been writing about American politics: All happy State of the Union speeches are alike; every unhappy one is unhappy in its own way.

But of the 200 or so State of the Union messages since they became mandatory, like a dentist's appointment, this one defied such easy, Tolstoyan categorization. Not because of anything in it -- this year's was the usual laundry list extended to the size of the Manhattan telephone directory -- but because of the circumstances, the atmospherics, the surreal surroundings.

The floor of the old House chamber looked like the Red Sea after it had been split -- right down the aisle. One side was roiling waves, full of (CQ) jacks-in-the-box jumping up and down every time the president said something like Good Evening or Nice Weather We've Been Having.

The other side was full of empty seats and silences, like an underbooked flight to nowhere. No captive audience, the Honorables kept sneaking out to do their own televised spins in Statuary Hall, surrounded by giant figures on pedestals who seemed as bored stiff as the rest of the American public.

One can scarcely blame the spinning congressmen; this State of the Union should have come in two acts with an intermission, or at least a halftime show. A marching band would have helped considerably, and the Kilgore Rangerettes might have raised the intellectual level a notch or two. Tolstoy got the last laugh: These longest 77 minutes on record would have made "War and Peace" read like a short story.

The real story wasn't the speech, but the surroundings. If this were a bad restaurant review, we'd have to concentrate on, Lord forgive us, the ambience and the, excuse us again, Presentation. The former was weird, and the latter would have been fine if it had stopped after only 10 courses or so. But the president looked even fresher after he'd finished than when he began, as if he'd served only the appetizer and was heading back to the kitchen -- Oh, No! -- to bring out still more. He'd only gone on for an hour and a quarter, and hadn't even rolled out the dessert table yet. Bill Clinton's speeches never exhaust him, only his audience.

Yet the evening was unusual, not to say unique. Not because of what was said, but because of what wasn't. It's not often (thank goodness) that an impeached president proposes to lead the Union into a New Dawn for America that feels more like the sunset of the American presidency. The state of the presidency has seldom been more diminished by its occupant, but the State of the Union, or at least its outward, material state, is fine and dandy -- just impeachy.

It is a fortunate country that can afford this kind of theater. A people with things to do can ignore the show, free to get on with its business and the country's, while aficionados of politics drop in for an act or two to deconstruct the text. It's a toss-up whether the interpretations or the play inspired more ennui. At least the play did end at some point.

This is not to say that there weren't some minerals and vitamins somewhere in this endless procession of empty calories. This president has come around not just to welfare reform and balanced budgets, but now to some sort of privatization for Social Security, the biggest and most sacred cow of all on the New Deal ranch. Good for him.

And if his progress has been slow, Bill Clinton never fails to recognize the inevitable with a fresh air of discovery. He has a way of making the obvious sound like such an Exciting New Challenge. He catches up to the crowd with the happy, feverish panache of the born leader, which is not entirely unlike that of a happy puppy. No wonder Republicans are so demoralized. Sometimes one suspects the guy disgraces himself just so he can milk the comeback for every joyous moment.

Let it be noted that Bill Clinton also showed a healthy prudence in approaching this biggest tax, strangest hybrid, least logical and effective of all American social programs. Social Security (ital)does(unital) need to be handled with caution. But, yes, folks should have more control over what is, after all, their own money. How else will Social Security support the next, huge wave of retirees unless some portion of it is invested in the private economy?

At the same time Social Security needs to remain an insurance policy against poverty, not just another 401(k) among all the proliferating options out there. There needs to be one plan in place should all the others fail (as indeed they have failed at times), and that one is Social Security.

Despite the president's welcome caution under all his glitz, his approach to Social Security remains basically fraudulent. He still talks about "saving" Social Security as if government could take all these dollars and put 'em in a cookie jar somewhere for a rainy decade. But all the federal government can do with Social Security's current surplus is spend it, replacing it with non-negotiable IOUs, or give it back to the people. And that is the one alternative -- besides asking Americans to sacrifice anything by paying higher premiums or retiring later -- that this president finds intolerable. Whatever happens, the people must not be allowed to waste their money when the government can do it so much better.

Bill Clinton may be supremely confident about the way his trial will turn out in the Senate, but one can sense his gathering panic at the sight of that ominous, increasing, looming, lurking federal surplus. The bigger it grows, the more the American people may want a share of it, as if it were the fruit of their own labor and enterprise. Quick, spend it before it inspires more such subversive thoughts.

If a tax cut can't be avoided, then by all means make it some nickel-and-dime proposition, like a thousand-dollar tax credit for catastrophic medical expenses or child care. Whatever happens, don't let Americans get their hands on much more of their own money.

The rest of this president's domestic program, and there was an awful lot of it, amounted to trivia stacked Washington-Monument high. Behind all the suspect shibboleths one could see -- well, smell -- the same old programs and lots of new ones to grow the bureaucracy. The era of big government is back, not that it was ever really gone. Of course, it will be called something else, something shinier. By now, for example, this administration has about succeeded in making a good word like Education as suspect as Welfare became.

This speech offered everything to everybody except simplicity, clarity and brevity. Bill Clinton's idea of vision is to keep on saying "21st century" like a drumbeat. (I stopped counting after half a dozen mentions.) It's wonderful to live in a time and country that can afford this kind of vacuity.

But can we? Underneath all the cliches, there is a between-the-wars normalcy about these Nineties, and the inescapable realization that we have wasted these years, marking time when we might even now shape a future of liberty and order. The clintonesque comedy stops at the water's edge, for as usual, the president gave foreign affairs only a lick and no promise.

In the quickest tour of the horizons since the last space shot, he looked out over an increasingly dangerous and disorganized world and seemed to find it cheery, or at least of no great interest to good ol' isolationist us -- even as the massacres, provocations and repression mount.

That's when the laughter stops.


1/20/99: Destructive engagement: How to encourage tyranny
1/18/99: Martin Luther King: The radical as conservative?
1/11/99: Why America is apathetic about Bill's date with destiny
1/06/99:The year of Moronica
1/04/99:Clinton’s janitorial crew of two
12/29/98:The Senate will be on trial, too
12/29/98:A look down the avenue
12/22/98: The surreal impeachment
12/17/98: Another moment of truth approaches
12/15/98: The President's defenders: witnesses for the prosecution
12/10/98:The latest miracle cure: CensurePlus
12/03/98: Sentences at an airport Sentences at an airport
12/03/98: Games lawyers play
12/01/98: Ms. Magoo strikes again, or: Janet Reno and the law
11/26/98: The most American holiday
11/23/98: Same game, another round
11/18/98: Guide to the perplexed
11/09/98: A vote for apathy
11/03/98: Global village goes Clintonesque
11/02/98: Farewell to all that
10/30/98: New budget, same swollen government
10/26/98: Of life on the old plantation -- and death in the Middle East
10/22/98: Starr Wars (CONT'D)
10/19/98:Another retreat: weakness invites aggression
10/16/98: Profile in courage
10/14/98: A new voice out of Arkansas
10/09/98: Gerald Ford, Mr. Fix-It?
10/07/98: Impeachment Journal: Dept. of Doublespeak
10/01/98: The new tradition
9/25/98: Mr. President, PLEASE don't resign
9/23/98: The demolition of meaning
9/18/98: So help us G-d; The nature of the crisis
9/17/98: First impressions: on reading the Starr Report
9/15/98: George Wallace: All the South in one man
9/10/98: Here comes the judge
9/07/98: Toward impeachment
9/03/98: The politics of impeachment
9/01/98: The eagle can still soar
8/28/98: Boris Yeltsin's mind: a riddle pickled in an enigma
8/26/98: Clinton agonistes, or: Twisting in the wind
8/25/98: The rise of the English murder
8/24/98: Confess and attack: Slick comes semi-clean
8/19/98: Little Rock perspectives
8/14/98: Department of deja vu
8/12/98: The French would understand
8/10/98: A fable: The Rat in the Corner
8/07/98: Welcome to the roaring 90s
8/06/98: No surprises dept. -- promotion denied
8/03/98: Quotes of and for the week: take your pick
7/29/98: A subpoena for the president:
so what else is new?
7/27/98: Forget about Bubba, it's time to investigate Reno
7/23/98: Ghosts on the roof, 1998
7/21/98: The new elegance
7/16/98: In defense of manners
7/13/98: Another day, another delay: what's missing from the scandal news
7/9/98:The language-wars continue
7/7/98:The new Detente
7/2/98: Bubba in Beijing: history does occur twice
6/30/98: Hurry back, Mr. President -- to freedom
6/24/98: When Clinton follows Quayle's lead
6/22/98: Independence Day, 2002
6/18/98: Adventures in poli-speke

©1998, Los Angeles Times Syndicate