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The Big Speech: Clinton’s State of the Union Address

January 26, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: This ongoing crisis has drawn great attention to the President’s State of the Union address tomorrow night. Here again is what he said about both this morning at a White House event on child care.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Now, I have to go back to work on my State of the Union speech, and I worked on it till pretty late last night. But I want to say one thing to the American people, I want you to listen to me, I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never. These allegations are false. And I need to go back to work for the American people. Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Now, some perspective on tomorrow night from NewsHour regulars: Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, Author/Journalist Haynes Johnson, and David Gergen of U.S. News & World Report, former aide to Presidents Clinton, Nixon, Reagan, and Ford. Doris, there have been suggestions that tomorrow night’s could be the most dramatic State of the Union in history. Does that make sense to you?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, it only makes sense in terms of what we’re experiencing right now. I mean, compared to FDR’s State of the Union in 1941, when Britain had been bombed for several months and we were looking to whether or not an isolationist nation could really commit itself to the allied cause, and he gives that great Lend-Lease speech, and he mobilizes the Congress and the country to aid Britain, this is not high drama. But it is certainly low drama.

And I think the real challenge for Clinton in some ways is he was going to have to create a dramatic situation before all this happened, so that he could create a legacy that would stand the test of time and somehow mobilize an uninterested public in public issues so that they could follow his goals and purposes and produce something that the words could lead to action. Now, it’s the opposite challenge. Whatever he says publicly, people are looking at the internal drama beneath the public figure. And it’s an incredible thing to imagine how he’s going to stand up there with all that private turmoil. But we’ve had instances of that before.

I mean, JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis was able to carry out public duties while he was thinking of the Cuban Missile Crisis; FDR when he was about to invade North Africa had to go before the public, his hands were trembling, so worried about the invasion and yet he was able to be a public figure. So my guess is he’ll be a public persona but not without that private turmoil inside.

JIM LEHRER: And everybody will be watching that, will they not, Haynes?

HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Yes. Doris says it’s low drama, but this is a drama that we’ve not seen before in the history of the presidency of the country because of this incredible circumstance that now surrounds this particular story. The State of the Union will have this country focused on this President in a way that we haven’t really watched before. We watched Richard Nixon come up there in January of 1974, and the last year of his term. We watched Lyndon Johnson go up there in January ’68, when the Vietnam War was about to explode–I mean, about to turn him in and drive him out of office. And so those were incredibly emotional moments. Nothing quite like this, because this is the character of the country and the personality of the President. And because of this story only five days old–it seems like five years already–we are now–

JIM LEHRER: Five days–you promise me it’s only been five days?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Five and a half days, Jim, I believe.


HAYNES JOHNSON: But we’re going to be watching him in a very personal way because this is a chamber, a theater, a politics of the theater that the President uses as a platform. Now he’s got the attention of the country, and we’ll be watching every little nuance, every flicker of the eye. We’ll be watching Newt Gingrich behind him, Al Gore, the vice president, behind him, panning and seeing in the audience the members of the Congress who have his fate in his hands, potentially, Hillary up there in the balcony. This is a theater that you cannot, as a drama, it may be low drama–and I agree with that–but it is high stakes drama.

JIM LEHRER: High stakes drama, Mike?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Absolutely high stakes, and added to by the fact that, as Haynes said, this was just five days ago that the scandal burst into the public view. Richard Nixon in January 1974–that was after almost a year of Watergate revelations and investigations, and actually in that speech, one of the things that Nixon said was, “It’s now time for these investigations to be brought to an end, one year of Watergate is enough.” It was the best remembered line in that speech.

JIM LEHRER: I had forgotten that. One year of Watergate is enough.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And it turned out that people thought it was not enough because it was eight months later that he resigned. But the point was that that was a guy who had had a very big foreign policy agenda–openings to Russia, China, also in the Middle East–and also had domestic things he wanted to do. People ignored him. What they were looking at that evening was, was this a president who can function while fighting for his political life?

Most people thought that he could not. And we also had the same sense with Ronald Reagan, January of 1987. That was about two months into the Iran-Contra scandal. There was some question, perhaps a little bit less than Nixon, but some question whether Ronald Reagan could remain in office, or whether his presidency could function. This was a president who particularly wanted to make it a very big step toward ending the Cold War. As it turned out, we now know, about six months later, he was able to emerge from that shadow. So as we watch this tomorrow night, I think for those of us who lived through this period in a way Nixon and Reagan are hovering in our not-to-distant memory.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Well, David Gergen, first of all, sorry about the coat and tie–you’re in Durham, North Carolina, tonight, and you normally don’t go down there with a coat and tie if people want to know why you’re sitting there–

DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: It’s my teaching day.

JIM LEHRER: It’s a teaching day. But, David, how would you set the scene for tomorrow night?

DAVID GERGEN: Well, I imagine Bill Clinton tonight is probably thinking three and a half years of Ken Starr is enough. But, Jim, my sense is that tomorrow night is much more about the state of the presidency now than it is about the State of the Union. No scandal comes at a good time for a president, but a State of the Union address probably couldn’t come at a better time because this gives Bill Clinton something he has not had for several days now in this–in his firestorm–and that is a way to change the subject, a way to transcend the scandal.

And I think–I think he’s very likely to help remind people tomorrow night about the other parts of his presidency and why people have been supporting him at 60 percent levels here these last several months. He will come in to a trial in which the Democrats who have not been speaking up for him will have a chance to stand up and cheer for him because they’re not having to say anything about the scandal; they can simply show their support that way. I think the Republicans will be more respectful. And then he can get up and talk about things that are important to the country. I think this is–from his point of view this couldn’t come at a better time.

JIM LEHRER: But, David, do you think anybody is going to be paying attention to what he says?

DAVID GERGEN: I think he’ll have a huge audience tomorrow night, Jim, just people who want to tune in and see what he looks like, how he’s doing, and see if anything happens, you know, if there’s going to be any crack in the facade, or anything like that. So the audience may not stick with him, but I think he’ll have a big audience there in the first ten or fifteen minutes.

JIM LEHRER: Doris, do you believe that the President should speak of this outside crisis in some way?



DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: No. I don’t think he should do it tomorrow night. I think he’s got so much more that he’s got to say about it, but I think tomorrow night he’s got to adhere to the ritual. This is one of our great ceremonies in American history, the State of the Union. He walks down that aisle; the Supreme Court guys are there; the Congress is there; and it’s partly a ceremony that attaches us to the past. And I think if he lessens the dignity of that, that’s the problem. I think David’s right. It is a great coincidence for him, that he’s got this forum tomorrow night.

But, on the other hand, the State of the Union really reminds us that it’s the presidency; it’s a great institution. And what we’ve been discussing for five days is so undignified, so embarrassing that the contrast between that and the presidency is going to be even heightened tomorrow night, I think, and that’s the problem. I mean, this frenzy is not going to go away. We’re not going to forget the last five days as we watch him. I don’t think he’s going to make us suddenly think, oh, yes, he’s our president, he can’t have done these things.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. But, Michael, where do you come down on this? All this attention and everybody’s going to be watching because of the crisis, not to hear his plan necessarily on child care, et cetera, and he doesn’t mention it, is that–is that going to sound strange, or not?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: It’s–I agree with what Doris said. I think he should not mention this matter because this is a state occasion, and the purpose of the State of the Union, of course, is to outline what kind of things he wants to get done politically outside of saving his political life. But the problem is that, I mean, if this is a way of getting attention for this speech, it certainly is going to get a lot more attention than we might have imagined a week ago.

No President would ever want to go through this as a way of getting people to ratchet their attention on this speech. And the thing I keep on coming back to is he could give the best speech of his political life, but people are still going to be thinking about this scandal that’s enveloped his presidency, and my guess is that also people will begin to notice who is not clapping, if there are people not clapping on the Republican side. There was even a story today that one Republican senator is thinking of not attending the speech.

JIM LEHRER: Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes. And I think there will be incidents like this.

JIM LEHRER: He said–what he said–just so we will get the record straight here–he didn’t say–he said it wasn’t because of this scandal; it was because he didn’t know–he was tired of standing up and applauding for Clinton programs or a president’s programs that he didn’t agree with, that’s what he said.



MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But I must say that, as I read the report, I wondered whether he would have said that if the last five days had not happened as they have been. So what happens–and you saw this in the Nixon case in ’74 and Reagan in ’87–is you’re sort of looking for what’s wrong with this picture, what is true of this picture that would not have been the case if there were not a scandal that was hovering over the presidency.

JIM LEHRER: Haynes, what do you think about whether he should say something about it? Does he create a bigger problem by speaking about it than he would if he doesn’t or whatever–

HAYNES JOHNSON: When I listen to my esteemed friends and colleagues here, I have thought a lot about this–the position he’s in is so extraordinary–I don’t think he should go on and give a mea culpa and cry and repent and rent his clothes and apparently he saw the movie The Apostle Saturday night about sin and redemption in the White House–interesting choice to have friends over to watch that movie on Saturday night. But I think it would be very strange not to make some allusion to simply we’ve got to get on with the country’s business, not our own personal problems, but I don’t know–I’m not the speech writer. David Gergen is a speech writer. But it would be odd not to have some allusion in a personal way. That’s my own feeling.

JIM LEHRER: David, what do you think about that?

DAVID GERGEN: He could open with “And back to regular programming.” I think, Jim, that something that makes a flick but doesn’t create a headline is appropriate. In my own judgment, I happen to disagree with Haynes, I’ve thought a lot about this, Jim, and given the gravity of this controversy, if there are truths–there are substantial truths to these allegations, in my own judgment, after discussing the state of the country, he should discuss the state of his presidency. And if there is substantial truth, this is the time to come forward and tell the country and ask for forgiveness. But I think he clearly sent a signal this morning with that emphatic statement, much more emphatic–I’m wondering if he had given that statement to Jim Lehrer last week, whether this might be on a somewhat different track today than it is–because it was so much more convincing than the way he talked to you.

JIM LEHRER: But the words were similar. They were delivered more forcefully. That’s what you mean, right?

DAVID GERGEN: They were delivered much more forcefully, and there was a tinge of anger, I thought, that was coming out against Monica Lewinsky. He talked about “that woman,” and it was–it was a different tone. And I think he might have changed the tone of some of the coverage had he said that with that much emphasis and conviction as he did today. And having done that, he clearly is not going to say anything different tomorrow night. Nor do I think he’s going to say anything substantial. I think he may take a flick and move on.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Doris, what did you think about his statement today, as compared with what he said before?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, I do think that it showed that he took a greater emotional risk today and that they decided whatever the truth, there’s going to be no mea culpa. I mean, it’s clear he cannot go back on what he’s said right now. But what’s so interesting is this frenzy that we all feel for the next chapter in the story. It’s one of the things that’s going to make the State of the Union seem almost irrelevant when he doesn’t talk about it as we’re all talking about. Every day I feel this vacuum if something new hasn’t happened in an hour, and I get so mad at myself, what is the matter. I start thinking it’s like the people used to wait for Charles Dickens’ stories to come across the ocean at the harbor in a frenzy. What’s going to happen to Little Nell? This has become a story, and we feel obsessed with what the next episode is in that story. And to that extent, if the State of the Union is irrelevant to this, we’re going to wait for the next day, for the next episode, and I could kill myself for doing this. But it’s human nature.

JIM LEHRER: Have you ever seen a frenzy like this before, Haynes?

HAYNES JOHNSON: No. Watergate had it, as we said last week on this program.


HAYNES JOHNSON: But nothing like this continual build-up, literally hour after hour, where Doris is describing, it is just building, you can’t escape it now, and it’s not just in Washington.

JIM LEHRER: One of the reasons that we wanted to be so careful using the Washington Post resources so we can–all of these stories that come out–a source said–whatever Starr was doing–we wanted to try to head all of that off. It’s very difficult to do. Michael, what about the frenzy?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: One thing I really worry about, we just have to keep on repeating, this has been only five days. Watergate is something that took about 18 months to come to resolution. The idea of the Constitution is that if a President does something wrong, we’ve got a constitutional process. Everyone takes a deep breath, and follows it through, and examines whether this is something serious enough to jeopardize the President continuing in office. And one thing I worry about, this frenzy and the fact that this is all moving so quickly is that Americans could rush to judgment in a week in the absence of the kind of evidence that would really cause us to reach the kind of a decision that’s this important.

JIM LEHRER: Dan Balz of the Washington Post I think just spoke on television the first time a reporter has spoken these words, I’m sorry, we don’t know yet. We don’t know yet. It’s the first time somebody’s said that on television.

HAYNES JOHNSON: And there’s a fascinating thing here, Jim, that Michael was just saying. The polls so far are fascinating. There is a disconnect between what they say about continuing the President’s popular job rating. People still think he’s doing a good job, even though trust in him has eroded further. So there is a suspension so far on the rush to judgment, and I hope it remains that way.

JIM LEHRER: David, yes, go ahead.

DAVID GERGEN: I was just going to add that I think Haynes is right. My sense of one silver lining from all of this has been while there’s been a frenzy–and I think an understandable frenzy–to get to the facts–follow the tidbits of news, the leaks and that sort of thing, my sense–and it’s based only on a couple of trips out of the city in the last week–is that the country is very, very mature about this. I think people are mostly withholding judgment. They’re talking like crazy about it. Everybody wants to talk about it. But I don’t think people have reached firm conclusions yet. They want to see more evidence.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Well, David, thank you, and it’s a very nice looking shirt you have on. Thank you very much for joining us. And Doris, Haynes, and Michael.