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STATE OF THE UNION

Invisible Cloud Hangs Over Speech

Congress: Democrats cheer, GOP mostly stays silent during address. Even afterward, most shy away from furor surrounding the president.

January 28, 1998|EDWIN CHEN and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The Democrats cheered, loud and often. Occasionally, a few shouted out their approval of some policy initiative.

The Republicans were far less enthusiastic, and some sat in stony silence pretty much throughout. A few laughed sharply in scornful disbelief when President Clinton said his Medicare expansion plan would not "add a dime to the deficit."

It was, in short, your typical State of the Union address but for the invisible cloud that hung over the president as he spoke to a standing-room-only joint session of Congress Tuesday night.

The anticipation was such that latecomers, including Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), had to stand in the aisles way in the back. The packed chamber became so hot from the collective body heat and television lights that many in the audience fanned themselves vigorously, using the eight-page text of Clinton's speech.

But in the speaker's well, Clinton proved to be a cool customer. He seemed slightly tense as he began, often squinting his eyes. But he quickly found his pace and never once alluded to the furor that threatens his presidency.

Up in the VIP gallery, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton nodded nearly nonstop for more than an hour, displaying her support of the president. At one point, when he referred to his 1993 economic plan (which drew not one Republican vote), she leaped to her feet and exuberantly led the applause, her hands high over her head.

Everyone may be preoccupied with allegations of presidential misconduct, but members of Congress in both parties were on their best behavior as they sat through Clinton's State of the Union address.

Despite speculation that some might boycott the speech--only Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) did--or jeer the beleaguered president, Congress did nothing to embarrass itself or Clinton.

And that respectful reception was no accident. Indeed it was orchestrated by congressional leaders who huddled with their rank and file before The Big Speech to tell them to mind their p's and q's.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), no stranger to ethical controversy, urged his assembled Republican caucus to keep their mouths shut. "No comment is better than a dumb comment," was the message one Republican came away with.

Some seemingly took Gingrich's advice to an extreme. Slouched in the back of the chamber, three California Republicans sat virtually motionless throughout, looking dour and aloof. Even when Clinton urged Congress to save Social Security and end child labor abuses, Reps. Frank Riggs (Windsor), John T. Doolittle (Rocklin) and Richard W. Pombo (Tracy) hardly stirred. Indeed, another House member right behind them--his arm in a sling--gave the president more applause.

But some Republicans did find things to cheer about. When Clinton promoted a patient's "bill of rights," for instance, Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) stood up and, arms flailing, urged his fellow Republicans to join in. Only a few did.

Although there had been some question about whether Democrats would try to distance themselves from Clinton, there was little sign of that, although perhaps the cheers were less lusty than in past years.

One member disappointed because Clinton did not raise the Monica S. Lewinsky allegations was House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas). He said that the president had passed up the "best chance he's got of looking the American people in the eye" and explaining the situation.

After the speech, members of Congress who have spent the last week trying to dodge comment on the allegations involving Clinton could hide no longer. Every year after the State of the Union address, lawmakers pour off the House floor into an ornate chamber, Statuary Hall, where a horde of reporters and television cameras awaits, ready to pounce on lawmakers for reaction to the speech.

This year's traditional quote-fest was even more circus-like than usual, the crowds thickened by the scent of alleged wrongdoing. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), trying to make his way through the crowd, shouted, "I'm trying to get out of here! Clear a path!"

The scene posed the biggest test yet of Republicans' strategy of refraining from comment on Clinton's woes--and of Democrats' ability to walk a fine line between remaining loyal to Clinton while not seeming to defend possible misconduct.

It took a lot of artful dodging.

Gingrich continued his disciplined avoidance of the whole topic. "It was a good workmanlike State of the Union delivered professionally," he said in an interview. "We will take the parts we agree with and work with him."

Others couldn't resist talking about the controversy. "There's not a person in the room that did not believe he owed the American people a full explanation," said Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.).

But Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.), who wants to impeach Clinton, managed to cool his jets for the night. Asked if Clinton should have said something in the speech, Barr told reporters, "Not tonight. I don't think this is an appropriate forum."

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