We’ve seen this movie before — and yet we haven’t seen it. On January 19, 1999, as the Philadelphia Daily News’ chief political writer and just two days shy of my 40th birthday (sigh), I joined millions of Americans in marveling at either the brio or the chutzpah — depending, of course, on your political perspective — of Bill Clinton delivering a lengthy State of the Union address in the midst of his Senate impeachment trial.
It felt unprecedented, yet little more than 21 years later, President Trump is now poised to deliver a kind of a sequel. I can predict it will sound next to nothing like Clinton’s address — with none of the wonkery and more than a dollop of braggadocio. But the similarities are striking, too. Read what I wrote a generation ago and you’ll see what I mean ...
President Clinton showed America once and for all last night why he’s a commander-in-chief for a split-screen era.
Clinton's State of the Union address will be long remembered not for the things he said about Social Security or suing big tobacco but for the extraordinary circumstances in which he said them — just hours after lawyers launched his defense in only the second impeachment trial in American history.
The president stood on the House of Representatives podium where the vote to impeach him was announced a month ago and said that "perhaps in the daily press of events, in the clash of controversy, we do not see our own time for what it truly is — a new dawn for America. "
In a modern world of Internet shoppers and cable-TV channel flickers with an attention span about as long as Jay Leno's nightly monologue, Clinton's speech was his second-longest ever — a whopping hour and 17 minutes — and, as always, brimming with political wonkery while scrupulously avoiding the political scandal of the moment.
Unlike 1997, when the TV networks were grappling with a verdict in O.J. Simpson's civil trial during Clinton's address, there was no actual split screen on our TV sets last night. But the nation's politics have never seemed so schizophrenic as in 1999, with Clinton going about his routine of Martin Luther King Day observances or talking about Social Security while 100 senators listen to evidence that he committed perjury and obstructed justice from the White House.
Last night, some key Republicans, like House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois stayed home, as did Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is serving as judge in the impeachment trial. Others, like House Majority Leader Dick Armey and GOP Whip Tom DeLay watched Clinton with stony stares.
"It's incredibly inappropriate for the House to actually offer the invitation. Didn't we just impeach the guy?" asked Republican freshman Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, who stayed home.
"A picture is worth a thousand words, and if you looked at their expressions, you could see how uncomfortable they were," said Larry Ceisler, the Democratic political consultant, after viewing the Republican reaction. He noted that Clinton, who was interrupted for applause some 95 times, frequently called for bipartisanship.
Nevertheless, the strange juxtaposition of impeachment and Clinton's up-tempo speech echoed Monica Lewinsky's comment about her ex-lover that there seemed to be two Bill Clintons — a Saturday-night wild man and the Sunday-morning church-goer.
That "Sunday-morning" Bill Clinton took center stage last night, promising America that if he is allowed to complete the final two years of his term, he will work to complete his middle-of-the-road agenda that has proved so popular.
He said that the federal government will sue tobacco companies to recover the cost of treating smokers, that some $4 billion in expected budget surpluses would prop up Social Security and Medicare, and that cities that don't close poor schools will lose federal dollars.
"My fellow Americans, I stand before you to report that the state of our union is strong," Clinton declared to vigorous applause. "America is working again. The promise of our future is limitless. But we cannot realize that promise if we allow the hum of our prosperity to lull us into complacency. "
This is the message that seems to be winning the war of public opinion against Republicans who believe that Clinton should be booted from office for his misconduct in the Monica Lewinsky affair. Even before the upbeat speech, polls showed as many as 69 percent of Americans approving of Clinton's job performance, a record for the latter part of a president's second term.
It is why the Clinton White House never once seriously considered the pleas from several leading Republicans that he postpone the address until the impeachment matter is resolved.
Instead, an estimated 60 million TV viewers got to see the star power of baseball slugger Sammy Sosa, the sunny Dominican whose home-run chase with Mark McGwire has arguably contributed to the feel-good America in which Clinton is surviving.
Sosa sat in the House chamber as a guest of Hillary Clinton, as did civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, a special heroine to African-Americans who remained the bedrock of the president's political support even at the depths of the White House sex scandal.
The president also led a standing ovation for his wife — a moment that seemed more fraught with awkwardness than emotion.
Stephen Salmore, a New Jersey- based GOP consultant and political science professor, said after the speech he couldn't decide which he found more unnerving: The expensive new programs that Clinton was proposing or the fact that he was speaking to Congress at all.
"Clinton has no shame," he said.
Other political experts believe the real roots of Clinton's remarkable levels of public support have a lot to do with the booming economy of the 1990s, and with the soaring stock market.
So maybe it wasn't a coincidence that the president's most interesting new policy initiative last night was a proposal to invest some $700 billion of Social Security money — or a quarter of a $2.7 trillion proposal to shore up America's retirement plan — on Wall Street.
The $2.7 billion represents nearly two-thirds of the budget surpluses — the first such windfalls in more than a generation — that Clinton expects that he and his successors will enjoy over the next 15 years.
Clinton said he wants to spend another 15 percent of the windfall on aiding Medicare and an additional $500 billion on a new type of government subsidized retirement accounts.
White House aides suggested the speech contained more new policy initiatives than any State of the Union message that Clinton has given since his first one in 1993 — a signal that the impeachment struggle has made him more determined not to spend his final two years in Washington as a lame duck.
In the Republicans' televised response to Clinton's address, Reps. Jennifer Dunn, of Washington, and Steve Largent, of Oklahoma, pushed for smaller government, a new tax code and stronger national defense.
It was little surprise to the experts that Clinton did not address the impeachment issue directly.
Indeed, ignoring adversity has been the hallmark of his annual January speeches.
To many observers, Clinton proved his coolness under fire in his 1994 speech, largely devoted to the complicated issue of health care reform, when the wrong text was loaded into the TelePrompTer — causing the president to recite his long speech from memory.
Then came a series of potentially uncomfortable moments.
In 1996, he shared the Capitol podium with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich right after the fiery conservative's own censure for ethical wrongs.
Then came 1997, when he was forced to share the spotlight with onetime accused-murderer Simpson, as a California jury was finding him civilly liable for the murder of his wife and her friend.
Last year’s speech came at the end of a week of ceaseless media coverage of the Lewinsky affair. Clinton’s cool performance 12 months ago had a lot to do with keeping a lid on the scandal until late summer.