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."

Well, that is some declaration, surely. Could you perhaps be more specific? "We need a new government for a new century," he goes on, "a government that is smaller, lives within its means, and does more with less." Fine. But . . . why should it be smaller if it's supposed to do more? "Where it can give Americans the power to make a real difference in their everyday lives, government should do more not less." Check. The president has us right where he wants us. Everyone is thoroughly confused. He went to Yale Law School.

The speech barrels forward. Having limned the limits of government, the president utters the magic words of the New Democrat. We "must assume personal responsibility" -- you bet -- "for our neighbors and our nation." But wait again. If we have personal responsibility for everyone else, then it's not personal, is it? It's sort of, well, corporate. Collectivist, even. And, not to put too fine a point on it, a little bit commie. But the president is not a commie, needless to say, and he quickly moves us back into the realm of the abstract: "Our greatest responsibility is to embrace a new spirit of community for a new century." That's better. Meaningless is better.

Confusion begets confusion, issuing finally in gibberish. The White House had released photos of the president scribbling away at his speech, recasting sentence after sentence, fine-tuning every word choice. How, then, are we to explain this: "Prejudice and contempt, cloaked in the pretense of religious or political conviction, are no different." Different from what? Does he mean that prejudice and contempt are the same thing when they're cloaked? Are they different from each other when they're not cloaked? Does the cheese stand alone?

Before we have time to ponder, he's tossing us back into the land of new promise. "The promise we sought in a new land we will find again in a land of new promise." This is slightly repetitive, but it's nice to be in familiar territory again. And at last the president is getting more specific. In the land of new promise, "our streets will echo again with the laughter of our children, because no one will try to shoot them." This is inarguable. As any parent can tell you, if you don't shoot kids, they laugh like little maniacs.

Many minutes have passed. The president is now winding down. The speech thus far has only been about 1,600 words long, but what words they are! Brawny, hairy-chested words: America strengthens ties, fortifies bonds, faces challenges, embarks on missions, sustains journeys, dares and lifts and fortifies again. And thanks to the toothless meat grinder of his rhetoric, it does all these things in Kennedyesque reverse parallelisms that are as inept as they are annoying: "A nation that balances its budget but never loses the balance of its values." And: "For any one of us to succeed, we must succeed as one America." The president is right: We should not -- we will not -- shoot children. But he makes a very good case for shooting Ted Sorensen.

At last he reaches his peroration, and there, there, is is famous bridge to the 21st century. "Yes," he says, after a moment's pause, signaling a kind of climax, "let us build our bridge!" He pauses again for hysterical applause, assuming that we have been waiting, waiting, waiting for him to mention the bridge. But the applause is merely tepid. Perhaps this is because the bridge he mentions is the bridge to the land of new promise, which may or may not be the same bridge that goes to the 21st century. This is so confusing! And there is one last complication. He mentions the "American promise" -- perhaps the old promise about being created equal? No. Now the American promise is a " promise of a more perfect union." Go figure. There's no time to straighten the whole thing out, for with a final pyromaniacal touch -- as " America's bright flame of freedom spreads throughout the world" -- the president closes.

Ovation et exeunt.

But again the ovation is muted, and the reviews have only gotten worse as the days pass. And here is the largest failure of the inaugural address, the final Clintonian touch.

The president is an extraordinarily fluent man. Off the cuff, in press conferences and town meetings, and in speeches where he lacks a prepared text, he speaks in parsable sentences and well-tuned paragraphs and rises, occasionally, to a simulacrum of eloquence. But give him a big speech -- think back to his nomination of Michael Dukakis in 1988 and work forward through the first inaugural, the State of the Union addresses, up to his self- indulgent victory speech on election night -- and he invariably blows the opportunity. He is at his best when he's winging it; he is an improviser above all. He excels in the small moments, but when the large burden is placed upon him, and all eyes turn and every ear cocks to him, he falls embarrassingly short. The problem for him, to paraphrase the Clinton Second Inaugural, is that nothing big ever came from someone so small.

Senior Editor Andrew Ferguson was a speechwriter for President Bush.

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