Clinton's pragmatic speech represents a good beginning

January 21, 1993|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

WASHINGTON -- In President Clinton's inaugural address yesterday, 88-foot-high Capitol Hill became "this joyful mountaintop of celebration."

It was a rare flight of rhetorical excess in an otherwise earthbound and highly pragmatic speech.

As if reminding himself to "keep it simple, stupid," Mr. Clinton stuck closely to the themes that brought him to power: change, change and change.

Those hoping for soaring phrases were disappointed. There were few memorable lines.

There were no heart-tugging anecdotes or five-point plans. No surprises, beyond brevity; the speech lasted 14 minutes (positively minimalist, by Clinton standards).

out that you could stage events at But it served the president's purposes well. It sought to define him, at the outset, as the agent of change he's pledged to be. It reinforced the upbeat messages of his campaign and his inaugural celebration: inclusion and hope.

Most of all, it put him squarely on the side of those who voted him into office, and implicitly warned Congress, whose leaders surrounded him on the podium, that he'd go over their heads if necessary to do the people's business.

Positioning himself, once again, as an outsider, Mr. Clinton lectured unnamed Washington elected officials who forget "those people whose toil and sweat sends us here and pays our way." If that seemed at odds with the expensive inaugural extravaganza that ended last night, the president did not seem to notice.

"Let us give this capital back to the people to whom it belongs," he said to applause, one of about a half-dozen times he was interrupted.

The Arkansan's address was most notable for the ways it mirrored his campaign for president -- and the ways it did not. In putting heavy emphasis on individual responsibility, Mr. Clinton returned to a central theme of his 1991 announcement speech (and one he seldom returned to during the campaign).

He seemed to be accentuating the doable, by highlighting his plan for national service, which could become the first of his major initiatives enacted into law.

Mr. Clinton mentioned education and job training and cutting the deficit as key changes he would seek, along with promoting democracy abroad (one of the few references he made to foreign policy) and political reform at home. The coming battle with Congress over campaign and lobby reform will be an early test of his commitment to real change.

At the outset of his term, just how bold and tough he'll be in pushing for change remain open questions. The answers, politicians say, may well determine his success or failure, and by extension his 1996 re-election chances.

"There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America," Mr. Clinton said. "To renew America, we must be bold," he added.

But he seemed somewhat less than convincing in calling for a dramatic break with the past. While forcefully proclaiming that it is "our time" to embrace "dramatic change," he avoided mention of health-care reform, perhaps the most ambitious, and politically treacherous, item on his domestic agenda.

Nor did he mention raising taxes, reducing government aid to the middle class or the other painful choices he may be forced to make. Mr. Clinton did say "change" -- a word he used 11 times, in one form or another -- "will require sacrifice."

"It can be done and done fairly," he insisted, "not choosing sacrifice for its own sake, but for our sake."

His address was deceptively simple in design and refreshingly free of cheap rhetorical artifice. At the same time, it managed to touch all of the traditional bases.

Mr. Clinton paid homage to the founding fathers by name (Washington and Jefferson) and by imitation (his elegantly spare opening -- "My fellow citizens" -- recalled Jefferson's "Friends and fellow citizens").

He saluted George Bush, while at the same time taking barely veiled swipes at the outgoing president, by criticizing the nation's leaders for having failed to face "hard truths and take strong steps," for allowing the nation to drift and its people to pick up the "bad habit of expecting something for nothing, from our government or from each other."

He quoted scripture and asked for divine assistance in one of the most eloquent passages of the speech, which concluded: "We have heard the trumpets. We have changed the guard. And now, each in our own way and with God's help, we must answer the call."

Only one Democratic Party hero was mentioned by name (Franklin D. Roosevelt) but the thrust of the speech, indeed the ceremony itself, was strongly evocative of John F. Kennedy's swearing-in 32 years earlier.

Mr. Clinton, the third youngest president and, like his hero, the first of his generation to assume the presidency, made several references to the dawning of a new era (using springtime as a metaphor and casting himself as a world leader standing "at the edge of the 21st century").

Mr. Clinton is one of the best speakers in politics today, though he has a history of not rising to the occasion. He is often at his worst in formal settings -- most infamously, his interminable keynote at the 1988 Democratic Convention and equally

long-winded and wandering acceptance speech last summer.

If his address failed to contain any immortal lines or a catchy slogan for his presidency, if it read better than it was delivered, as some thought, it still represented a good beginning for his presidency. Mr. Clinton's challenge is to maintain that hard-won public enthusiasm and support as he makes the tough choices that are his now.

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