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WITH MALICE TOWARD CLINTON

11:00 PM, Feb 2, 1997 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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For many days leading up to its actual delivery, the White House staff took pains to keep a waiting nation informed of the president's preparations for his second inaugural address. The president, we were told, was drafting and re-drafting, night after sleepless night, greeting the dawn. He read poetry -- Seamus Heaney, guys like that -- to refine his sense of cadence. He pored over William Safire's Lend Me Your Ears, an eccentric collection of speeches that places Pericles and Pitt the Younger alongside Daniel Schorr and Eric Sevareid. He immersed himself in the second inaugural addresses of other presidents (he judged Lincoln's good).


How odd it was, then, that the product of all this deliberation and study, the Second Inaugural Address of William Jefferson Clinton, elicited a reaction so indifferent after it was finally offered up on January 20. Even the president's friends were caught shrugging. "A fairly non-substantive speech full of platitudes," said Margaret Carlson of Time. "While it lacked great passion or memorable phrases, it was filled with noble intentions," said Tom Brokaw, himself a sure hand with a platitude. "Not eloquent," said CNN's William Schneider. "Distinctly earthbound," the New York Times editorialized. "Why," cried the Washington Post's Mary McGrory, "would a man willfully choose to make a mediocre speech?"


The question isn't fair, of course, since there's no evidence that the president chose to make a mediocre speech, much less a god-awful one. He may have simply been reading too much Eric Sevareid. And while Mary McGrory is correct that the speech was a failure, it was an interesting failure, as the drama critics say. It failed in distinctly Clintonian ways, which alone makes it worth one final walk-through.


The word used by the president's men in describing the speech beforehand was "thematic." As with most Washington euphemisms (courageous, innovative, etc.), the term in practical usage means the opposite of its dictionary meaning. Thus, a thematic speech is one that has no theme. What the inaugural address did have, however, was a catch phrase. This is important for Clinton, who, as a student of history, knows that a good president needs a good catch phrase -- a Deal that is New, Fair, or Square, for example, or a Frontier that is also New, or a Society that is Great, or a Majority that is blessedly Silent.


And so, on the west front of the Capitol, with thousands spread out before him on the national Mall, the president uncorks his phrase. It debuts in the fourth sentence of his inaugural: "Let us set our sights upon a land of new promise." The phrase calls to mind other, earlier lands: of Milk and Honey (Exodus), of the Free (Francis Scott Key), of Sky-Blue Waters (Hamm's Beer). But no sooner has the president declared it his own than the land of new promise is swallowed up in confusion by the words that follow. "The promise of America," he continues, "was born in the 18th century out of the bold conviction that we are all created equal." Wait: Is that the old promise? Is the new promise different from the old one? And does the old promise still get promised in the land of the new promise? If it doesn't, does that mean we aren't created equal anymore, or. . . .


The president does not dally to answer such questions, for two sentences later something terrible happens to the old promise. "That promise exploded" - - yikes! -- "onto the world stage" -- yuk! -- "to make this the American century." This is a curious account of the American century, with shards of promise dripping from the proscenium of the world stage, but before we can absorb the imagery the president is hauling us on "our march to this new future" (new, as opposed to the old future).


Presumably the new future holds the new promise, although the new promise is as yet undefined. But we can't be sure. The land of new promise, as a rhetorical matter, has vanished. We hear no more of it for another dozen paragraphs. For after starting us on our march into the new future, the president jerks us back to the present.


And the present, as he explains, is a time of intellectual portent. "Once again," he says, "we have resolved for our time a great debate over the role of government." Apparently this happened in the last election, while the rest of us weren't looking. The role of government, of course, is the preeminent question of political philosophy in a free society, and now it's solved. (About time!) Should government do more or less? The president answers it as only he, praise God, can answer it: "Today we can declare: Government is not the problem. And government is not the solution."