A speech from the heart to capture minds

WASHINGTON - He was a little late of course, but that was to be expected. Word had also leaked out that the speech was to be long, very long. No surprise there either, writes David Usborne.

And when he did finally appear to face his audience of esteemed members of Congress and umpteen million television viewers he looked awfully tired.

The tiredness - apparent in an unusually puffed-up left eye - was self-inflicted, the result of President Bill Clinton's inability to delegate speech-writing to hired speech-writers. For most of the day, he had been scribbling adjustments in the margins of each of the drafts handed to him.

A noon deadline to have the address copied and bound for distribution to members of Congress was missed by hours and it had in the end to be duplicated on White House copiers.

So was an exhausted Bill Clinton about to fluff what all had agreed in advance was going to be the defining moment of his presidency with a muddled, over-loaded yawn? A self-deprecating joke at the start - 'It's nice to have a fresh excuse for giving a long speech' - did not bode well.

What followed, rather, was a 59-minute, from-the-heart appeal for a new start in government that, by American television standards anyway, made for compulsive viewing. There were no commercial breaks - a relief in itself. But viewers who absolutely had to visit the refrigerator did have 60 chances if they were quick - the number of interruptions for applause and standing ovations.

Notice that this was going to be an evening with real dramatic content came on word five. That was when the President first departed from the prepared text - the one that he and everyone had worked on so long to perfect. From there on he extemporised frequently.

What was this, Clinton solemnly addressing Congress or pretending he was improvising bars of jazz on his sax?

Some of the ad libbing must have had the speech-writers, who had tried so hard, biting their knuckles.

Statistics that had been exorcised from the text were flooding back in, especially when he got on to health-care reform: '50 per cent of the growth in the deficit between now and the year 2000 will be in health-care costs. By the year 2000, almost 20 per cent . . . ' And so on.

Often though, his off-the-hoof version was an improvement. The text, for instance, said: 'And there is no recovery worth its salt that does not begin with new jobs'. Passed through the Clinton filter it came out as: 'And there's no recovery worth its salt that doesn't put the American people back to work]' (Loud cheers and more up-on-their feet aerobics for his listeners).

The impression given was of a president who not only knew all the figures and the details but who was so convinced of the cause he was advocating he could argue it from the soul, not just from the teleprompter. When it was done, it seemed clear that the performance, if not all the tax-increasing details contained in it, had been a triumph. The Republicans, of course, did their best to look unimpressed. What did their Senator Bob Dole make of it? 'Well, it was very long,' he replied witheringly. Six thousand six hundred words long, to be precise.

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