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So that was the business of the American people that was so essential
that this president simply has to stay in office to carry it out? A
themeless pudding of a speech, a dreary laundry list of poll-tested
applause lines stretching drearily on through almost every line-item in
the federal budget? A cynical exercise in buying two more years in
office with the peoples’ own money?

If Congress has a scintilla of taste, the House would have reconvened
immediately to add another item to the bill of impeachment. Then the
Senate would have voted the next day to toss the rascal-in-chief out of
office for the high crime and misdemeanor of delivering such a cynical,
mind-numbingly, stupefyingly terrible speech and trying to pass it off
as a serious political agenda, as the essential business the American
people elected our leaders to handle.

Shucks, everyone knows Bill Clinton can deliver a terrific speech, but
he just mailed this one in. It was delivered with the smarmy smugness
of the cleverest kid in class who has mastered the first rule of
student-body politics (“The most important thing is sincerity, and if
you can fake that you’ve got it made”) and knows nobody will call him
on the utter vapidity of the outline and content. It was like a veteran
actor doing the 350th night of a 10th-rate play in Paducah all the
tricks were there but delivered with the passion of a walk-through.

But our standards for political rhetoric keep declining heck, all the
talking heads thought every single one of the House “managers” and the
White House defenders did a brilliant, terrific job and that former
Sen. Dale Bumpers’ pastiche of cornpone and bad jokes was the soul of
sophistication so the speech was judged a marvelous success. And of
course the poll numbers went up.

The atmosphere in the House chamber only added to the air of
unreality. The only nod to the reality occurring in “the other body”
was the determination of the Democrats to applaud wildly at every
possible opportunity to demonstrate that this wise and judicious
statesman was the most popular leader in history. Naturally the
president fed them applause lines every six seconds or so in what was
essentially a campaign stump speech, so they had to jump up and down
like jacks in boxes as every hoary federalized solution to every real
or imagined problem was trotted out. Even the Republicans did the
Pavlovian routine when the president deigned to utter some shamelessly
cynical words on what a nice institution marriage is.

Of course the whole speech was a plea to avoid removal from office by
appealing to those who hold the balance in the Senate, liberal
Democrats who love big government. But it was such a formless,
intellectually bedraggled collection of nostrums as to defy easy
description. Can anybody tell me what the purported organizing theme
the need to “meet our historic responsibility to the 21st century” –
actually means? How can we have a responsibility to a year sometime in
the future an abstract concept devised by calendar-makers hundreds of
years ago?

But it is fruitless to try to analyze critically a speech in which
child-proof trigger locks on guns and “rapid response teams to help
towns where factories are closed down” (!) are proposed with the same
breathlessly earnest insincerity as a bogus plan to save Social
Security and rescue the world from global warming. Or where the
promise of free drugs for all is applauded one moment and the pledge to
establish drug-free schools at immense and fruitless cost is applauded
with the same discernment-free enthusiasm the next.

The president will doubtless avoid removal and win two more years of
making empathetic but empty promises empty because nobody expects a
Congress with even a slim majority of the opposition party to turn to
enacting the president’s laundry list and insiders now say
congressional Democrats have little interest in enacting legislation
now, the better to run on all those promises in 2000. But this is a
president to whom saying something nice or clever or popular is the
moral equivalent of actually accomplishing something.

If the polls are right, we’ll have the leadership we deserve. Or
perhaps there’s a silver lining. Perhaps the vast majority of Americans
have finally come to the point where they expect nothing of politicians
beyond performing ceremonial duties competently.

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