January 28, 1998
The day after President Clinton delivered perhaps the most important speech in his presidency, the NewsHour's regular panel of historians, joined by former presidential adviser David Gergen, discuss the impact of his State of the Union address and analyze its historical significance.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight some additional perspective on all of this from the same four who previewed the State of the Union for us on Monday: 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. Haynes, first of all, what was your reaction to the people's reaction in Denver?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
January 27, 1998
Comprehensive coverage of this year's State of the Union address.
February 3, 1997
The NewsHour historians discuss the importance of the State of the Union speeches.
Regional reactions to the State of the Union Address.
In his State of the Union Address, President Clinton declares that "the era of big government is over."
A look at the historical origins of the State of the Union Address.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the U.S. Presidency.
HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: Wonderful. We could sit around the room and talk to them. That's what happens when you get out of Washington--this fevered atmosphere--you sit down and you hear people serious, informed, deeply concerned, positive about their country, feeling good about the future, very fair about Mr. Clinton.
JIM LEHRER: It didn't seem to matter whether they were Republicans or Democrats.
HAYNES JOHNSON: No. Not at all. One Republican said it was a media baby and you'll have that tomorrow night, I guess, but--overblown--but this tempered really quality that they have which is one that also reminded me--I was thinking, listening to this, Jim, that I remember when John Kennedy had the disaster at the Bay of Pigs and it was a complete disaster. It was his disaster, and the media polls came out, it went up to 90 percent approval rating, and he said to Arthur Schlesinger, "What do you think they'll do when I really screw up?"
JIM LEHRER: Michael, what did you think?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Kennedy also said, "I'm just like Eisenhower; the worst I do, the more popular I get." And so--
HAYNES JOHNSON: That's right.
JIM LEHRER: Well, and, of course, that's what's happened in the polls. I mean--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: The polls, the overnight polls that Phil had in his piece earlier in the evening were reflected in what those folks said.
HAYNES JOHNSON: They measured exactly--what those people were saying reflected the polls exactly.
Mr. Beschloss: "You know, we historians lament the fact that this is a President who really doesn't have very much respect for rhetoric."
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: But, you know, Jim, we've been talking for six years about Bill Clinton's luck that seemed to run out a week ago, but, in a way, it doesn't seem to have run out because one great piece of luck he had was that one week after these troubles hit he's got a State of the Union in which he can really show himself to very good advantage, giving one of these speeches that almost consistently throughout his presidency have had this effect. You know, we historians lament the fact that this is a President who really doesn't have very much respect for rhetoric. You know, the number of memorable elegant lines that Bill Clinton has spoken in the last six years, you can barely think of one. Yet, when it gives these long lists of proposals, such as the one gave last night, they're tremendously popular. One other point--
JIM LEHRER: Now, why do you think that is? We're listening here for rhetoric in those great lines, and the folks are listening for long lists. I mean--
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I'm afraid we historians would love to think that what really resonates with someone is the speech like the one that FDR gave in 1941, urging Americans to prepare for World War II, or perhaps LBJ on voting rights and the Great Society in 1965. And those are memorable, and they did move people, and they caused them to think about important things in a different way, but I think we also have to grudgingly admit that when you read off a long list of proposals, some of which people like, they register that pleasure in the polls the next day.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. David, what did you hear from the folks in Denver?
DAVID GERGEN, U.S. News & World Report: Well, I felt that they--in speaking about this, they showed how much the President had changed the tone of the national conversation at least for now. You know, the Japanese have been saying in the last few days in their press, they've been talking about Bill Clinton's bottom half problem. And last night the President showed I am at the top half still and it's doing very well, thank you very much, and I think people were responding to that. They remembered what they liked about Bill Clinton, and they wanted to talk about it. I have some disagree with you, Michael, on the question of the speech, itself. I do believe that substantively it was a good speech. But when you have a good speech that is not memorable, that doesn't have very many good lines, that doesn't necessarily have a recall value a week or two later, anyhow, it's a bit more like a Chinese meal. It's very satisfying at the time, but you are hungry fairly soon thereafter. So in that sense I think the President did not leave himself with a lot of reruns--people running the same line for a week or so thereafter and playing it and talking about it.
JIM LEHRER: You don't think Social Security qualifies? Save the surplus until Social Security is saved?
DAVID GERGEN: That comes closer than anything else, but there's not going to be any legislative proposal that's going to follow this year; there's not going to be a debate about in that sense over a proposal. Rather, the White House has made very clear today that what they would like this year is a dialogue and move toward legislation next year. So I don't think--I think it's going to get some rerun, but the President faces the problem that the subject is going to change back to a lot of this. I think he has mentioned--take the heat out of the controversy, at least right now. I think--as I say, I think he's changed the tone of the national conversation. But ordinarily in a State of the Union speech you want both. You want both the substance and the memorable lines.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, how did you see it and hear it?
Ms. Kearns Goodwin: "It's the one vestige we have from the English monarchy where the king used to give a speech from the throne to open the parliament, and we took that up."
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, I think what struck me about the panel's reaction was how much we really want to respect the presidency. Everybody's relief on that panel about how composed President Clinton was in the face of all these allegations reveals how important the State of the Union is. I mean, it's that ceremonial moment. It's the one vestige we have from the English monarchy where the king used to give a speech from the throne to open the parliament, and we took that up. So I think they were expressing for the entire country a desire that the desire that the presidency stay intact, as well as for Bill Clinton. I think I'm more with David, however, on this speech. While I think it did satisfy people's opinion, obviously, you can't argue with the fact that people liked it.
There's a certain passivity I think in the kind of liking they had for it. They've liked his other State of the Union messages, but none of them seem to move them to do the things that he needs to have done. For example, in the last State of the Union message he called for the McCain-Feingold bill to be passed by July 4th in a ringing statement. Well, nothing happened in part because the whole campaign finance he had so screwed up made it hard for him to become a moral leader on that issue but also because it seems that his words--I'm not even looking for high rhetoric to be remembered. What you want in a speech--here it milked applause 102 times--but that fragments it. It doesn't take a reasoned argument that can come through.
When Lyndon Johnson gave that State of the Union in 1965, it wasn't just that he made memorable phrases. He talked about race in such a way that it energized the civil rights marchers, helped to make Martin Luther King's march from Selma to Montgomery work, helped to produce the Voting the Rights Bill. That's the real test, if you want something to stand the test of history. And, after all, this State of the Union was Clinton's shot at an historical legacy, so the question is--he's got a Republican Congress; he's got an uninvolved, unengaged public, who really don't care about public issues in a deep way--did he move them to become more active? I doubt that he did. And that's the problem, I think, with that speech.
JIM LEHRER: And, plus there's that other test that's hanging out there too, and the question is: How long--
HAYNES JOHNSON: That's right. And I think what David said and what Doris was just saying is certainly correct. I mean, what the President did last night on those people reflected very strongly; he reassured them. He wasn't falling apart. We're not going to have a crisis--
JIM LEHRER: In fact, the woman said that.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Exactly. He was in control. He didn't seem defensive. So that was reassuring to them. But now it's not going to go away, Jim, because there's--this thing, as David said, is shifting right back onto us now. And so he's out in the country now, speaking to them, but there's going to be the second phase of the story, and what's the truth, and they do want to hear--you could hear even in that conversation in Denver, they know that there's more yet to come.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. And so when Hillary Clinton and others say, have patience, they're going to have patience, but eventually answers, right?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And that's exactly what we would want as Americans, because what we want is Americans not to rush to judgment, to be able to withstand month after month of sifting sometimes very ambiguous evidence and to sort of step back and say evidence isn't all in; we've got to look at this very carefully. And I think that panel gave every sign of doing that. And the other thing that I think is a great sign for the country and also with Bill Clinton, by the way, is that that group out in Denver shows, I think, that he is going to be capable of functioning as President while this process goes on. That's something that for much of Watergate Richard Nixon was not able to do. He was not able to get people to think about things, other than the immediate scandal. Much of what I heard tonight suggests that if we have to do things in Iraq or in domestic policy, if Congress is considering some of the proposals we heard last night, you're not going to have an American public that is obsessed with the President's current troubles and unable to focus on anything else.
JIM LEHRER: You see it the same way?
DAVID GERGEN: I do. I think the metaphor for the day obviously was, as the President was trying to soar in front of that crowd, that his plane was stuck in the mud--you know, pulled down by that--and--
JIM LEHRER: For those of you who didn't see the News Summary, his plane--Air Force One--taxiing at the airport in Champaign, Illinois went off the runway and had to bring in a replacement plane and take him to LaCrosse.
Mr. Gergen: "I think he was very gutsy in that speech last night in his tone and in the way he presented himself...."
DAVID GERGEN: Yes. There is great quality about this. Watching the man last night, you know, the man who was seen--he was so forceful--I think he was tough. I think he was very gutsy in that speech last night in his tone and in the way he presented himself, and yet, you felt there was something that was pulling him back, that was holding him down, and that was in the back of your mind. I was very reassured by that panel, Jim, about how they're working it through. There's clearly--people are conflicted. They want to believe in him; they would like to see much of his programs succeed; they like him as president; they don't want to see him leave office. But they're also bothered by this, and they don't feel they've got any answers yet. And I think--I just felt that there was a lot of working through in that group.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think--do you agree with Michael, though, that what it proved is at least the probability that if there are not a lot of shoes, they don't just keep dropping one after another; that he can continue to function as President of the United States with this thing being unresolved, this thing meaning the scandal allegations?
DAVID GERGEN: I absolutely believe that, and also going back to Michael's point about Richard Nixon, again, it was Richard Nixon could function reasonably well until the bottom dropped out of the economy for him. It was the oil embargo that really began to pull Nixon down. When the economy started going down, Nixon's total support started going down. Clinton doesn't have that on the horizon.
JIM LEHRER: Things have to stay good for the country, in other words,--
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
JIM LEHRER: --for them to stay good for President Bill Clinton as president, is that what you're saying?
DAVID GERGEN: It would sure help.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, what do you think about that, his ability to function?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: I don't know. What's so confusing for me is that on the one hand people seem to be able to compartmentalize, to say that as long as he's doing things that make it good for us, the economy is working well, our lives are better, than I'm able to separate how I might feel about these private allegations, but I don't agree in the long run that those things can truly be separated. I mean, Roosevelt once said the presidency is preeminently a place of moral leadership. Now that doesn't mean necessarily private behavior. What he meant was moral public leadership. But a president has authority, has dignity, and to the extent that these allegations, if they remain unresolved, or if they seem to be partly true and we never feel quite comfortable about them, detract from his authority, I think it detracts from our whole feeling about the presidency and may partly explain why we can keep letting him go because we don't have any deep connection to him. We like him, but if we were really in love with this man, you could not go into a bar another night and have somebody talk about Clinton the way he did. Somebody would have punched you in the nose if that was Roosevelt in the old days. Nobody has those passions and those feelings, which become denuded of all that in modern times. And I think there's a real loss there, even though it may help keep us on an even keel right now.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Haynes.
HAYNES JOHNSON: There's a natural well of sympathy for the President. It's always been there. The Denver people reflected it last night. But I do think--I think we're all saying this--the situation's different from other crises that a President faces, so personal, so tawdry, and you don't know what next step is going to come, and there will be a next step. There will be a next phase. And that's where we're in right now, I think.
JIM LEHRER: And the term "moral leadership" does apply, does it not, Michael?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Sure it does, and Americans will be making that judgment about Bill Clinton. Even if he is able to survive these troubles, I think, there is no one who would suggest that this is going to be as strong a president for the next three years as he might have been.
JIM LEHRER: Because--that's no matter how it's resolved.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think so unless all these charges are absolutely deflected; the most we can really ask for is for people to look at him with some sense of fairness and be aware that they're in for this over the long haul.
DAVID GERGEN: I think Doris is absolutely right about one point. I think what people are saying is, as long as he's an effective president, we'll go along with him and so forth. I think if he asks something of the country, though, if he asks some people to do something difficult, if he tries to rally people from a position of moral authority, I think that's where he really still has a problem, as long as this hangs over him. He's not asking people to do a lot here. He's saying what he's going to do for them.
JIM LEHRER: And what he's already done for them?
DAVID GERGEN: And what he's done for them already.
JIM LEHRER: Yes. Okay. Well, Doris, gentlemen, thank you all very much.