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Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2000 /30 Shevat, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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The state of the president -- DELIVERING HIS LAST State of the Union message by the yard, it was as if this president were already talking from the past. It was like watching an old film clip even now, something they'd show you in Recent U.S. History, 1950-2010. It was a natural enough illusion in a country that is always looking ahead to the next frontier, the next century, the next technological revolution and the next president. It won't be easy for this ever-young, or at least ever-adolescent, president to let go. Which may explain the length of his verbal marathons.

And so William Jefferson Clinton was campaigning again Thursday night, though for what isn't clear. Maybe he was campaigning for his legacy in this, his last State of the Union -- as if Clio, muse of history, could be sweet-talked. Why not? Bill Clinton's sweet-talked everybody else by now. And so he rolled out platitude after platitude, program after program, with a welcome break for comic relief here, a calculated change of pace there ... as if he were not just speaking for posterity, but until it arrived.

The programs/platitudes/promises poured forth in plenitude as the president said he was for saving Social Security, upgrading American defenses, extending health insurance, eliminating the national debt, continuing economic growth, cutting taxes, preserving the environment, protecting our values, making sure Medicare patients have access to prescription drugs. ... Or was that the Republican opposition talking afterward?

It was both, of course. It is how such ostensibly common aims are achieved that will be the story of the next Congress, the next president and the next, post-Clinton era. How different that era will be, or how similar, will depend only in small part on how the differences between the parties are split. The future will depend in large part on something quite beyond the sway of political parties and political programs. It will depend, as it always has, on the spirit and enterprise and common-sense virtues of the American people.

In the end, which finally came, his speech said much less about the State of the Union than about the state of this president. He sounded in good voice and spirit, as Bill Clinton almost always does, but, oh, so reluctant to go. Bill Clinton is proving to be the Harold Stassen who was elected. As the years pass, he may become just as permanent a fixture as that perennial campaigner and inescapable salesman. Though with time, it becomes harder to recall just what it is he's selling, and what he's campaigning for besides himself.

Like Mr. Stassen's politics, Bill Clinton's will probably be vaguely recalled as moderate Republican, or maybe just moderate moderate. But unlike Harold Stassen, he will be remembered -- just not for his politics. His place in the history books is assured.

There was something unutterably sad about that thought, which had the feel of a premonition.

For here outwardly was a happy warrior. And yet one could not shake off the familiar sense of nixonian opportunism somewhere inside all the talk, and the oily feel of a politician who would never cease to justify himself, and need to. It's been more than a year now, but Bill Clinton's impeachment still hangs somewhere in the air, along with the reasons for it.

He was still brushing it all off, even on the day he gave his last State of the Union. ("I made one mistake. ...'') One mistake? Unbelievable. Literally not believable. Arkansas' state Supreme Court isn't swallowing it. Earlier Thursday, the court told its Committee on Professional Conduct to explore whether one William Jefferson Clinton, Esq., should continue to be a member of this state's bar. The mills of the law are still grinding, slowly but exceeding fine. It's never going to be over, is it?

No, because nothing is ever settled till it's settled right. Instead of closure, we're supposed to settle for forgetfulness. That would be fine if it were possible. But the past has a presence of its own, and it keeps hanging around, like Bill Clinton himself. You'd think a Southerner would know that, in his bones.

The listener who stuck out the whole speech couldn't help but be impressed by this president's rhetorical skills, especially his pacing and winning informality -- even while remaining wary of every word this president had to say, including and and the. All the promise of a young governor, then a young president, has grown a bit over-ripe by now.

To quote a sage presidential scholar, Douglas Brinkley at the University of New Orleans, who was interviewed just before the speech: "Clinton uses the State of the Union better than many of his predecessors. I have no doubt this speech will be a great success, like most of the others. He's such a great orator. Every time you see one of these speeches, you shake your head and say, `He could have been a great president.'''

The droning phrases will doubtless go on, unheeding, indefinitely, in one ever lesser forum after another as the years pass. "Never before,'' Bill Clinton was saying, "has our nation enjoyed, at once, so much prosperity and social progress with so little internal crisis or so few external threats ... the first back-to-back budget surpluses in 42 years ... the longest period of economic growth in our entire history. ... We restored the vital center, replacing outdated ideologies with a new vision anchored in basic, enduring values: opportunity for all, responsibility for all. ...''

But how disassociate the speech from the speaker, especially when he speaks of values, of responsibility? At least he didn't use words like truth, honor, integrity, fidelity. ... The guy does have some grace. But as he spoke of all his and even some of the country's accomplishments, other words came unbidden, like a Greek chorus. The words were not Bill Clinton's but Carl Sandburg's -- words about other nations and cities that had proclaimed themselves the greatest, the mightiest, the harbingers of an unprecedented New Era ... and how now not even the rats' footprints are left in the shifting sands that swirl through the ruins.

For all of our material prosperity, it is hard to believe that only material prosperity matters. It is hard to deny a certain sickness of the spirit in an age that devalues life, and sets each of us against the other in a low race for power and pelf -- as if we had no common past to answer to, no common faith to redeem. That faith calls on us to justify not ourselves but the sacrifices of earlier generations, and their faith in us.

In the words of another American poet, an Arkansas poet by the name of Miller Williams, who spoke the lines at this president's Second Inaugural: "But where are we going to be ... and why? and who? The disenfranchised dead want to know.`

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