WASHINGTON — Aides knew late Wednesday that the President's speech was shaping up to be a bit, well, on the long side.
But no one could have guessed then that in the exuberance of his first address to Congress, the President would elaborate, and expand, and annotate, until his 3,800-word script swelled to a full 6,600-word, hourlong megillah. Bill Clinton, an orator in the grand Southern tradition, had done it again.
As it turned out, no harm was done. The speech was generally praised, even by some who disagreed with its call for higher taxes and its mix of spending cuts and increases.
But Clinton knew he might have caused a little trouble: Afterward, he telephoned to thank the aide who was responsible for rolling the text of the prepared speech on the TelePrompTer for the President to read.
It had been up to Air Force Staff Sgt. Rodney Kipling to know when to stop the machine--while Clinton spoke extemporaneously--and to resume rolling the text when the President returned to his prepared remarks.
"The man must have been having a heart attack," said Frank Greer, a Clinton campaign adviser.
White House aides said the speech revealed the vintage Clinton impulse to get in one last thought--and then maybe another--on the topics that are dear to his heart. On the fly, he added whole sections on health care, campaign finance reform and the disputed deficit estimates. He even included a brief mention of the Los Angeles riots.
"When he got to the health care section, he said what was in his heart," said David Dreyer, one of three aides who knitted together ideas from several dozen people to help Clinton prepare the speech.
During the address, Republicans snickered when Clinton characterized the deficit estimates of the Congressional Budget Office as "independent." Republicans view the office as an organ of the Democratic majority. But a suddenly testy Clinton remarked that the office's estimates were more accurate than those used by President George Bush. The rejoinder was so smooth that even some Democrats wondered whether it had been a setup.
Not so, insisted White House aides. "That was pure him," said Dreyer.
To be sure, there was some risk for Clinton in running too long. In 1988, his Democratic Convention nominating speech for presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis droned on at such length that delegates cheered when Clinton reached his conclusion. Various commentators warned Clinton against too long an inaugural address--and he kept it to 14 minutes.
In this case, Clinton had aimed for a 45-minute speech. Aides, remembering that Bush's last State of the Union had been interrupted 75 times, believed that interruptions for applause would add 50% to the speaking time.
But even as late as Wednesday afternoon, Clinton was changing section after section in the text, until he missed the deadline for getting the speech to the printer, where bound copies were to be produced. Aides had first said advance copies of the text might be available to reporters as early as 6 p.m.; the copies finally showed up after 8 p.m.
Some portions of Clinton's ad-libbed remarks were familiar to those who had heard him during the campaign. "A lot of the phrases were pure Bill Clinton--things I'd heard even before the campaign," said Greer.
Clinton's extemporaneous comments about chasing deadbeat dads were familiar from his stump speeches, as were his calls to shift welfare from "entitlement to empowerment" and to "rethink" the way government works.
But other ad-libbed thoughts seemed directed at his immediate audience. Among them was a plea for campaign finance reform that was not likely to find a congenial reception in the halls of Congress.
After asking Congress to vote for a bill ending the tax deduction for lobbying, and requiring registration of lobbyists, Clinton added: "Believe me, they were cheering that last section at home."
He said he believed lobby reform and campaign finance reform were a "sure path to increased popularity for Republicans and Democrats alike, because it says to the voters back home, 'This is your House, this is your Senate. We're your hired hands and every penny we draw is your money.' "
Many of the statistics Clinton spouted also came from his head, rather than the text. If the government fails to tame the deficit, he ventured, legislators a decade from now will be devoting 20 cents on the dollar to interest payments, more than half to health care and other entitlements, and would have only 6 or 7 cents on the dollar in "discretionary" spending.
His aides and other Democrats scored this a bravura performance. "Can you imagine Ronald Reagan even being familiar with the estimates of the (Congressional Budget Office) or the (Office of Management and Budget)? No!" said Greer. "Seeing this has got to be reassuring to the American public."
Clinton showed signs of satisfaction with his performance as well. Afterward, he invited members of his staff, including some junior researchers and fact-checkers, to the third floor residential area in the White House for a celebration that went on until after midnight.
The President's 6,600-word speech could have gone on quite a bit more and still not set a record for long-windedness. The longest comparable speech, the State of the Union address delivered by President Harry S. Truman in 1946, ran for more than 25,000 words.
Times researcher D'Jamila Salem contributed to this story.