Clinton focuses on building legacy

by Deborah Bernstein | 1/28/00 6:00am

In his last State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton was out to save his legacy -- by calling for policies like a $350 billion tax cut to finance college educations, as well as touting his and Vice President Al Gore's achievements.

Saying "all of us are judged by our dreams and deeds we pass on," Clinton called for numerous programs, including strict licensing for handguns, money for health care and schools and hate crimes legislation.

While saying the country is better off today than in 1993 when he took office, Clinton also gave credit to Gore, who is currently running himself for the presidency.

Clinton referenced Gore six times in his speech, as well as thanking Gore's wife Tipper, and his wife Hillary, herself running for senator in New York.

Only five days before the N.H. primary, Clinton flubbed one line meant to draw attention to Gore's successful tenure as vice president. Instead of saying Gore has worked to make communities more "livable," Clinton instead said "liberal," drawing laughter from the audience and Gore himself.

In sharp contrast to his attempts to elevate Gore, Clinton also used his speech to criticize partisan politics on the part of Congress, saying that its members have been standing still on pressing national priorities.

This harsh congressional criticism presents quite a contrast from last year's State of the Union, where Clinton went to the pulpit before the House of Representatives members that had voted for his impeachment and the senators who would try his case.

Instead of last year's call for bipartisan cooperation, Clinton could last night chide Congress for failing to yet pass a patients' bill of rights, "common sense" gun safety legislation and campaign finance reform.

This year's welcome was rousing and warm when Clinton strode down the aisle, and his speech was punctuated by frequent and enthusiastic standing ovations from Democratic audience members.

Clinton was comfortable enough to joke that American citizens in their livingrooms would be able to tell there were still "modest differences" between the Democratic and Republican parties, all the while putting the Republicans on the spot during what is sure to be a tight election year.

While many of the proposals Clinton brought forth last night were similar to those presented previously, albeit increased in dollar amounts -- like the proposed $3,000 tax credit for long-term homecare -- Clinton was successfully able to keep the focus of the speech on the strong character of American life right now, and what can be done to further improve it.

Over and over, Clinton reinforced the point that he is leaving the White House with the country in the best shape it has been in for a great while.

"The state of our union is the strongest it has ever been," Clinton said.

While he wanted to emphasize the differences between now and 1993, somethings did remain similar. Reportedly, Clinton and his staff were working on the speech up until the last minute -- a characteristic of almost all his early State of the Union addresses.

His speech also ran an unwieldy 89 minutes, the longest of his addresses yet.

Ever conscious of the power of reaching out to the people, Clinton applauded Tom Mauser, the father of Columbine victim Daniel Mauser, who has worked for stricter gun control laws and was in the audience last night with the First Lady.

While clearly moving forward in his focus on Gore and legislation for this, his last year, in office, and reveling in the support of his party, Clinton did, however, also look like the president who would miss the office of the presidency and who was wrestling with how history would remember him.