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Historical Perspective on the State of the Union Address

January 20, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, some overview perspective on these last 24 hours from NewsHour regulars presidential historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, journalist/author Haynes Johnson, joined tonight by Joan Hoff, director of the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University. Michael, how would you describe last night’s event and all the things that it means and encircled it?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, you know, I think if a Martian had landed in that House chamber and not known that this was the first time we had a president giving a State of the Union to a House and a Senate, the majority of whom wanted to see him out of office as unfit, that Martian would not know — not have known that anything was awry. Even Richard Nixon in 1974 knew that there was sort of a big cloud over the chamber during his State of the Union. That was when he said, “One year of Watergate is enough.” There was a lot of applause from the Republicans but they didn’t agree. And you know the other thing that struck me, Jim, is that usually State of the Unions are used by presidents to signal a great change in national direction — F.D.R. in ’41 saying “you Americans may have to get involved in a big war against the Japanese and Germans;” Kennedy on the Cold War in ’61; Reagan in the early 1980′s on taxes and defense spending. Bill Clinton has used these speeches in a new way. Think of the number of times he’s used these things to spring himself from a bad political crisis.

JIM LEHRER: Like even a year ago.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: A year with Monica, but it began in 1994; it was just after Whitewater, an independent prosecutor had just been appointed, 1995 — in the wake of the Republican victory in Congress. And he gives these long speeches — they’re full of Dick Morris-like proposals, 90 minutes, people tune in for a few minutes, they hear something they like, and the next day the public opinion numbers go up, we could have almost predicted that that would have happened today — so it did.

JIM LEHRER: And, Haynes, as the person from Denver just said, the government goes on. I mean, the Supreme Court is still meeting and the House is doing its business, and the Supreme Court – I mean, you just go all through the list.

HAYNES JOHNSON: And there aren’t tanks in the streets and we’re not being barricaded and so forth. This is so astonishing what Michael talked about, Martians; this is exactly six years ago right now when Bill Clinton became President of the United States. This was his inaugural day. Two years from now the next president will be take office, maybe he’ll be out, maybe he won’t, but somebody will be sworn in on inaugural day and you think about the high-wire act of this comeback kid – again and again and again coming up. But last night I just have to say I watched that speech and we’ve seen him do this again and again and hear all the expectation and I remember what William Allen White, the great Kansas editor said about Franklin Roosevelt.

JIM LEHRER: Emporia, Kansas.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Emporia, Kansas. The Emporia Gazette — the great, life-long Republican, he wasn’t a fan of Franklin Roosevelt at all and he issued this wonderful – he wrote a wonderful editorial when Roosevelt had gone at the end of the war all over the world looking at the troops in combat and he said, you know — he wound up by talking about how you had to give this president credit. He said, “And here it is, we who hate your gaudy guts salute you.” And I looked at those Republicans last night, once again he had appropriated their issues, he was confident, he was ebullient, he was enjoying himself, he was taunting and playing with the audience, and he was on top and you would never have believed that this was a man in trouble or had actually been impeached in that very chamber four weeks to the day before last night.

JIM LEHRER: Joan Hoff, what did you see and hear last night?

JOAN HOFF: Well, I think, again, he did give a great performance but the question is, what does his 75 spending programs do for the nation overall? In other words, there were no basic priorities there, no real analysis, no focus. It’s the same kind of Santa Claus, glorified wish list that he’s given us several times before. And I think that’s what we have to think about. It reflects, I think, his intellectual lack of discipline as the impeachment trial – it reflects or was based initially on his private lack of discipline. So I think he’s downgrading what could be meaningful State of the Union addresses as some presidents have used them in a very focused and disciplined way to reiterate or to present for the first time one or two or three major programs. And he’s abandoned that completely and he does it very well by using focus groups and polls, he can provide a gift like Santa Claus to everyone and he doesn’t have to deliver because there are so many promises you can’t hold him accountable. If he only promised two or three, people might follow up to see what he’s delivered. If you look at his past addresses, he’s done the same thing and there’s been little delivery.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what about in the context of the impeachment trial? It was suggested during the day yesterday, even in our gavel-to-gavel coverage, somebody said well, that he would go up there and be his prime defense witness in the form of making his State of the Union address. In that context, what did you hear and see?

JOAN HOFF: Well, what he did was take the burden off of his defense attorneys. They now only have to address the senators. He can reinforce his own popularity with the people with a speech like this, as he did last night. That’s the real connection. It takes a burden off of them — where the House managers had to try to cut into his popularity with their prosecution of him and at the same time address the senators. I see a real connect there. I don’t think this is an alternative universe at all or -

JIM LEHRER: Compartmentalization? You don’t see a compartmentalization at all?

JOAN HOFF: I don’t, I think it was coincidental that the two occurred and he utilized that occurrence, that coincidental occurrence, to his advantage to just increase his own popularity which, as I say, alleviates the burden on his defense team.

JIM LEHRER: Doris, do you see the same connection?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I do think it was his best defense, that more important than anything that Mr. Ruff or Mr. Craig could say in the senate was the fact that he proved himself effective, energetic, just full of excitement about America. And I’m sure the people responded to that. What haunted me in the whole listening to the State of the Union, however, was the ghost of what might have been had that trial not been going on. Imagine a president as Clinton, popular, producing popular programs as he did last night without that trial with this incredible economy underneath him. Today he could have been up on Capitol Hill maybe asking to start moving, prioritizing, as Joan said. That’s what he has to do now. He’s only two years left. Timing is critical. Move on one, move on another. He could have been doing that.

You know, at the end of Lyndon Johnson’s speech in 1965 when he did give a set of priorities, a lot of stuff too, it was jammed full but he said I want voting rights, I want aid to education, I want Medicare. That very next morning he’s talking to the congressmen and the senators and even the Republican leaders had to admit it was a magnificent, eloquent speech. Now, you could have had that kind of bipartisanship given the economy, given centrist programs, and the trial is taking that time away. That’s the ghost that we have to recognize. He might have even had more Democrats elected in this midterm election had this trial not been here, rather than the other way around. That’s what saddened me. To listen to that trial again today, it was such a colossal letdown to be talking about Monica Lewinsky, who did what, when, and where when at least last night we were beginning to debate big issues again.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the trial, specifically Michael, you listened to it today, Mr. Craig and Cheryl Mills on behalf of the president. How do you feel the defense is going?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, I think the president’s defense has actually been a lot more effective than I expected and there’s one thing. You know, often times when you see a process of government play out in the flesh, you learn certain things that you perhaps didn’t imagine when you thought of what this might be like. And the president’s defenders have a little bit of an advantage over the House managers because there had to be this half dozen or so House managers they, to some extent, nominated themselves. They didn’t coordinate very well and that defense really rambled all over the place. When you’ve got a president defending himself who can chooses who going to represent him, it’s much easier to have a tighter defense that is a little bit more effective and that’s the sense I got.

JIM LEHRER: And, Haynes, would you agree with Joan Hoff that the president took a great burden off his lawyers because he’s handling the public which the House managers had to do that in addition to dealing with the Senate.

HAYNES JOHNSON: They played with each other, Jim. I mean, you had Mr. Ruff yesterday, setting the stage for Mr. Clinton last night and Ruff was strong, forceful, clear, direct, and then Clinton came on. I disagree with Joan Hoff about one thing. What the president did last night is frame the issue of politics for years to come on what do we do with the surplus, what do we do with an aging America, and you can argue about how you do it. And we’re going to see it played out in the year 2000 and long after tonight and way into the future. But I think the days and the testimony of the witnesses that they may call yet are now not nearly as relevant because of the case that has been made. And you can see a switch. After the Republicans finished their three days, the Democrats privately were in terror. There were people talking about defections and this and that. Then all of a sudden the polls came out before the witnesses — the defense of the president and then that turned around and then you have this sudden, absolutely impressive performance by the president, number one, and then you had today with the two people –short, clear, direct, and I think it helped the president. They worked together.

JIM LEHRER: Joan Hoff, what did you think specifically about Cheryl Mills and Gregory Craig and the way they handled themselves and the case?

JOAN HOFF: Well, you have to remember that this is a trial even though it has all these political overtones and the burden on the defense is simply to raise reasonable doubts. They don’t have to prove anything to the public or to really the senators. And consequently, I think today that they did a better job in trying to poke holes in the perjury article of impeachment than they did in the obstruction of justice. But it’s not over yet and what we’re seeing is the typical trial, the prosecution presents its case, the defense, and then you have a jury or triers who are going to make up their minds. We haven’t seen the complete defense yet but it’s typical to this stage and I think it’s stronger on the perjury than it is on the obstruction of justice.

JIM LEHRER: Doris, what did you think of the folks that told Elizabeth in Denver that they weren’t even paying attention to this? For those of us in Washington who are dealing with this day in and day out, it seems a little bit incredible.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: And I think what that means is that for many people the trial is a spectacle. It’s a performance; it’s something that’s happening in Washington. And it’s part of that larger passivity that too many citizens have fallen into, I think, in this last decade, where too much of our political life has become entertainment or show. Even last night this extraordinary State of the Union message, which I do think was successful, was being rated as a show. It’s his performance we talked about, his composure as opposed to really debating the issues that he raised. And I think that’s what we’ve fallen into in this last decade and the trial seems like a show. Some people are very interested in it, others not at all. Disconnected from their lives, it’s a very unusual phenomenon.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Michael?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I do, except for I’m a little bit tougher on the speech last night. I think there was a degree of artificiality that only came somewhat from the fact that the president did not mention impeachment during the speech. The State of the Union addresses that have worked in history have been when you have a president talking about something he feels in his gut like Roosevelt about the war or Johnson on civil rights — when he takes a political risk — when he uses language that we remember for a long time. All those things were really absent last night, and as I listened to Bill Clinton speak, I couldn’t remember very much of what he said but more important than that, I could hear those polls ticking in the background — you know, one proposal after another, 70 percent of the American people liked that.

JIM LEHRER: They liked that.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: 65 percent liked that and we’ll see in future weeks whether that’s going to affect the outcome of this trial.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, Jim -

JIM LEHRER: Yes. We have to go. Quick thing.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I was just going to say I kept hoping he would concentrate because of the pain of the impeachment. Freud once said when he had a toothache, “Concentrated is my soul in my molar hole.” So I keep hoping he’ll concentrate on priorities. I still am the optimist.

JIM LEHRER: Okay, thank you all very much.