Gingrich tells House to show for Clinton during his address But some Republicans choose to behave brazenly

January 28, 1998|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich's instructions to his fractious Republican flock had been clear and simple: applaud as Bill Clinton enters and as he exits, show respect for the office of the president.

As Clinton entered the House, two California Republicans -- Reps. Richard W. Pombo and John T. Doolittle -- stood as if it took great effort to do so, smirked, then pointedly turned their backs.

The anticipation of the president's State of the Union had been intense all day. Tom DeLay of Texas, the third-ranking Republican in the House, said he thought the scene was the most bizarre of his career, given the swirling sex controversy that has engulfed Washington for the past week.

In the end, the president could take heart at the pomp, given the circumstances. Majorities in each party reacted as he might have hoped, with a touch of partisanship and a healthy degree of propriety.

Some Republicans, though, broke ranks with their leaders' admonitions and behaved brazenly, drawing attention to themselves after days of declaring they would not get involved in the president's problems.

More importantly for Clinton, the Democrats put on a show of unity and enthusiastic support.

"I will stand by the president," declared Rep. John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, even if Clinton did all he is accused of. "He's my friend. You don't run away from a friend."

Privately, Democrats remain concerned, but publicly, they united around the president's policy agenda, leaping to their feet constantly, like jacks-in-the boxes, while their Republican colleagues sat, often sullenly, like bored high-school students.

Sympathy for first lady Hillary Clinton from Democrats was palpable. At every chance, they stood and applauded her with seemingly genuine warmth.

Republicans were not nearly so cuddly. To be sure, much of the GOP response was evoked by policy proposals not to Republican liking.

When Clinton proposed an expansion of Medicare, the GOP side of the aisle responded with "no's" and a few hisses. Gingrich greeted many of the president's proposals by remaining seated, his right leg tucked under his left, picking at his fingernails. DeLay and Texas Rep. Dick Armey, Gingrich's top two lieutenants, sat silently nearly the entire speech.

Some reactions seemed personal. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, stood conspicuously by an aisle, feigning a clap but failing to bring his hands together.

GOP Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, who has been pushing for months to impeach the president, spent virtually the entire State of the Union sitting on his hands.

Pub Date: 1/28/98

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