For students of politics as image, Bill Clinton's State of the Union address was a dream. There he was, the Husband of Hillary to be sure, but youthful, appealing, and above all projecting good cheer. True, on the rostrum behind him, Vice-President Al Gore was doing his habitual impersonation of a Secret Service officer. But, compared with the Republicans, even the famously wooden Al came across as a bundle of fun.
Next to Mr Gore sat Newt Gingrich. Only once did the Speaker's countenance lighten, when just before the speech Mr Clinton handed him a sheet of paper. Earlier that evening, a television reporter had inquired of the Speaker what he would like the President to say. "Thank you and good night," came the reply. That was the mock text Mr Clinton handed him. Even Mr Gingrich, who has not had much to smile about of late, had to grin.
But that was the end of the festivities as far as the Republicans were concerned. A few times they clapped. For the rest, if the cutaway television shots were any guide, they sat in a silence that was, well, just grumpy. A peevish Al D'Amato, chairman of the Senate Whitewater committee and Mrs Clinton's Congressional persecutor-in-chief, raised a faint smile as the President praised his wife in the gallery as a "magnificent mother, wonderful wife, and great First Lady".
Then the camera panned on to Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, 93 years young and staring blankly ahead. And the instant Mr Clinton finished, many Republicans sprinted from the chamber rather than accord the courtesy of applause. But that was just a trailer for the main show.
Pity Bob Dole. Probably history will remember him as a man who should have been President, but wasn't. If so, the reason will be in part his age of 72, which would make him the oldest ever occupant of the White House should he win the election and which even long sessions under the tanning machine cannot conceal. But most damaging of all, he's grumpy.
As he officially responded on behalf of the Republicans, Mr Dole gamely did his best, littering his speech with words like "future", "children" and "youth" and trying to smile. Alas, even Walter Matthau on a bad day looks radiant compared to a smiling Bob Dole. Stiffly he stood there, an old man without vision, parroting lines about values and "getting the country back on track", unable to resist gibes at young Bill Clinton the "elitist".
A nation must have watched and wondered, Is that the best the Republicans have? Mr Dole remains the front-runner for the nomination. But if Tuesday night was a preview of the first debate of the campaign, the President won hands down. In politics, grumpiness doesn't pay.
Rupert CornwellReuse content