Survey From a Mountaintop

President Clinton’s State of the Union address on Jan. 27 left Republicans and Democrats in agreement on at least two points: The speech was very long, and its delivery was a great performance. It was bound to be a long speech, because in pursuit of his two main purposes Mr. Clinton had a lot of ground to cover. In the first place, looking over the heads of those in the House chamber and looking beyond the 54 million who were at least sporadically watching him on television, the president addressed himself to future historians.

The night before, in a remarkable interview on PBS’s "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," Mr. Clinton confidently asserted that serious historians of his administration "will be amazed at the amount of energy and effort that went into the wide variety of areas that we worked in." The State of the Union was designed to let those writers know beforehand just how constructive the president thinks he has been and, as he assured Mr. Lehrer, how much progress he made in virtually every one of those areas.

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The president’s second underlying purpose was to campaign for Vice President Gore and for Mrs. Clinton. If next November they are elected respectively to the White House and the Senate, and if in addition the Democrats gain control of Congress, Bill Clinton will consider himself vindicated. In the Lehrer interview he conceded that he had, as he put it, misled the American people in the Lewinsky affair but he added that he had also defended the Constitution and the presidency against the abuse of power by an independent counsel who was out to get him. If his favored candidates win in the fall, he will interpret that to mean that a majority of the electorate sticks with him because it agrees with him.

In the speech last month he radiated serenity and confidence. In the Jazz Age they would have said he looked like a million dollars. Make that a billion today. Playing the role of a leader who rises above the grubby political fray, he invited his listeners to "set great goals for our nation," but he did not suggest they had been sluggish so far.

When old-line liberals promote social programs, they do so in a scolding manner aimed to make conservative dissenters feel guilty. Mr. Clinton, in contrast, was warm and affable. He began his speech by telling his fellow Americans how lucky they are to be alive at this moment in history, when things are so great. Only then did he proceed to call for hundreds of legislative actions that he thinks are needed to improve the quality of the national life and solve all kinds of crises. On the home front alone, the actions he listed range from the recruitment of 100,000 new and qualified public school teachers to the licensing of hand guns to aid for Native Americans and family farms to closing the digital divide between those who have access to computers and those who do not.

The president knows, of course, that Congress will enact only a fraction of this multitude of recommendations. So what, he might say. Let future generations know that he himself had a statesmanlike vision that extended from encouraging the Russians to elect democratic leaders to encouraging medical researchers to find a cure for Alzheimer’s.

It might seem laughable to suggest that there could have been significant omissions in so long and crowded a speech, but in fact there were. In his tour of the foreign policy horizon, for instance, Mr. Clinton talked about China’s economy but not about Taiwan, although that remains an incipient flash point. Apart from asking aid for Colombia in its war against drug traffickers, he had nothing to say about Latin America. Africa received only a few parenthetic phrases.

There was a parallel selectivity in the president’s view of domestic issues. He proposed, for example, a "landmark $30 billion college opportunity tax cut" but had nothing to say about school voucher programs that would implement the right of parental choice for poor families. Of course, he opposes even the smallest of such programs, but since he was reporting on the state of the nation, he might have noted that 25 state legislatures are now considering some form of a voucher experiment.

The speech’s most substantial omission is discussed by our columnist, John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., in this week’s Ethics Notebook. The president was totally silent about abortion, although it is currently the subject of the country’s leading moral debate. This silence was striking, because Mr. Clinton said that in preparing his address he felt he was surveying the nation from a mountaintop. For all its teeming detail, his speech showed that one can ignore even a massive feature of the landscape if one chooses not to see it.

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