Get yer State o' the U scorecard!

January 25, 1994|By William Safire

YOU cannot watch a State of the Union address without a scorecard. Here is a handy-dandy sheet of favorite plays and intricate defenses to paste in your hat as the president and Congress put on their annual pre-game pageant.

1. Watch for the keyword theme setter. Presidents say "The State of the Union is . . ." and then add "good" or "sound," or as one did in an unprecedented fit of candor, "not good." If Bill Clinton says something like "getting better," keep your eye out for:

2. The climbing-economy credit grab. Ordinarily the results of the first year are blamed on the previous administration; new policies take a year to take effect. This year, however (thanks to the defeat of the benighted Clinton stimulus package, and to the drop in oil prices bequeathed by President Bush), the economy continues to grow without inflation. Listen to credit being snatched by Democrats, culminating in:

3. We've all but licked the budget deficit, so come home, Perot voters. Remember those dire $300 billion red-ink projections? Thanks to spending reductions (forced on the administration, but now welcomed) and the aforementioned Clinton climbing economy, we're projecting a piddling $180 billion next year. Do not expect to hear anyone blamed for egregiously wrong projections, or credit given skinflints for suggesting that growth, not taxation, is the way out of deficits.

4. Centerpiece time, as he waxes rhapsodic about health reform, letting cameras linger on the lady in the gallery, who will not be holding hands with the Fed's Alan Greenspan. (Unemployed Kremlinologists, skilled in measuring proximity to power of bureaucrats atop Lenin's tomb on May Day, will watch for Hillary's seatmate this year, which may be the clue to this year's Pentagon boss, unless it is skater Nancy Kerrigan.)

5. Listen for Ewawki -- acronym for "ending welfare as we know it" -- the continued abandonment of which would strangle health reform in its universal crib. Watch for cameras to swing to Pat Moynihan's smile of floccinaucinihilipilification, as he listens to this surrender to his demand that health and welfare reform be remarried.

6. Observe the frustration on Republican faces as Democrats wildly applaud his brazen kidnapping of the crime issue. Liberal root-casuisty is dead; in the politics of personal security, it is no crime to steal the opposition's clothes.

7. Catch the List of Popular Accomplishments from national service to the signing of family leave, from happy talk of information superhighways to reinvention of government (watch him turn, shake hands with Al Gore, properly calling him "Mr. President" -- of the Senate) but note how little is said about controversial actions, from the compromise on gays in the military to support of abortion rights.

8. Listen for the strain in his voice as he tries to claim foreign-policy success in the holding of meetings. He's been practicing the line "From meetings in Moscow to promote democracy to meetings in Tokyo to revive the world economy, our seriousness of purpose is winning respect around the world and getting results"; if he tries this lollapalooza of a non-applause line in the State o' the U., observe the embarrassed silence on the left and unseemly guffaws on the right.

9. Bully that pulpit; stand by for uplift. The adept politician presses his oratorical strength. Because Mr. Clinton's strongest speech of the year was delivered at Memphis to a black audience, calling for individual moral responsibility and a rebirth of family values, look for a return to this theme -- this time, aimed at Americans of all ilks. Park your cynicism with the House doorkeeper; this is what presidents should do, and what Mr. Clinton has shown he can do well.

10. Ask not why the speech is running close to an hour; ask why the assembled solons, Supremes and secretaries are interrupting so often with applause. Because when they are clapping, the camera pans their faces.

They seldom clap for the president, no matter who he is; they clap for the camera to give them face time with the American people, whose Union is free and prosperous -- and though testy and self-absorbed, in a fairly good state.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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