Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
President Donald Trump’s got problems heading into his second State of the Union. He’s got scars from the longest shutdown in American history and another looming in 10 days. A new CNN poll shows that 43% of Americans say that the federal government is doing the worst job of governing in their lifetime, while a stunning 56% of respondents to another poll say they will definitely vote against Trump in 2020.
But Trump’s troubles right now are nothing compared to the political life-or-death stakes of Bill Clinton’s 1998 State of the Union, one of the greatest performances in American politics.
Only days before it, the President’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky exploded onto America’s consciousness. The Clinton White House was reeling, and amid the media feeding frenzy many wondered whether his presidency could survive the scandal.
White House chief speechwriter Michael Waldman recalled Clinton pollster Mark Penn summing up the situation as they waited for a motorcade to take them to Capitol Hill: “It’s very simple: If the speech is a hit, he stays as president. If the speech is not a hit, he doesn’t.”
This pivotal State of the Union address gets only a passing reference in Clinton’s memoir, “My Life.” But the story of how the speech got ready for prime time – which I fleshed out in interviews with Waldman, now president of the Brennan Center of Justice at New York University Law School, and then-deputy press secretary Joe Lockhart, now a CNN analyst – is a surreal portrait of crisis management and superhuman feats of compartmentalization by a President whose raw political talents always ultimately outpaced his self-inflicted wounds.
“The central thing you have to understand about Bill Clinton is that when things are going well is when he becomes undisciplined,” said Lockhart. “When his back is up against the wall politically, he becomes the single most disciplined politician you’ve ever seen.”
So, while an unprecedented political storm battered the White House walls, the speech prep for the 1998 State of the Union had a feel of discipline boarding on denial, while nearby communications war rooms plotted ways to keep the ship of state afloat. According to Waldman, “(Clinton) made a big effort to show his staff that he was focusing on it. Usually, we were not the audience for his charm. But this time, we were – because he wanted to hold us together.”
But the speechwriters were searching for precedent; Waldman described researching past presidential scandal speeches from Nixon’s during Watergate to Reagan’s during Iran Contra, but there were no clear parallels. Sex scandals require their own particular self-awareness, and Waldman’s team combed through the speech to remove any double entendres that could cause people to laugh or get played on a loop by Jay Leno – phrases like “must be strong abroad.”
But Clinton retained an ability to coin a phrase and command confidence even as he was being constantly filleted. He had positive trends to buoy him in stormy seas: as a result of a booming economy and budget policies, Clinton had at least one great asset heading into the speech – he was presiding over the first budget surplus in a generation. “The policy had been worked through, but we didn’t quite have the language,” explained Waldman, reflecting on their speech prep sessions in the White House theater. “And he said, wait a minute, I’ve got it – ‘I have a simple four-word answer: Save Social Security First.’ And then he threw out his arms and everyone applauded, and he said, ‘See, I haven’t lost it.’”
Perhaps most bizarre was a phone call between Clinton and his congressional nemesis, House Speaker Newt Gingrich. According to Waldman, Gingrich called Clinton and said, “‘You should have something near the beginning where you can get bipartisan applause.’ And so we moved some things around out of logical order so that that would get bipartisan applause.”
The 24 hours before the speech were punctuated by public statements that still resonate in our national consciousness. The day before the State of the Union, January 26, Clinton crashed an education event in the Roosevelt Room – “the most watched education speech in American history,” Waldman quipped – and afterward took questions, uttering the now infamous denial: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
The next morning, first lady Hillary Clinton went on “The Today Show” and told Matt Lauer: “The great story here, for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it, is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.”
It was against the backdrop of these two soundbites that Bill Clinton headed to Capitol Hill to give the State of the Union.
This was political theater with the jury of public opinion still out. Everyone was wondering how the Comeback Kid could come back from this epic embarrassment to still lead the nation. “It was not a normal night on the Hill. The electricity was amazing,” Lockhart recalled. “It was as tense as I think anyone’s ever seen a State of the Union.”
Clinton was announced to the audience to tremendous applause, especially given the gravity of the situation. The President opened with a moment of silence for two congressmen who’d recently died, Republican Sonny Bono (ex-husband of Cher) and Democrat Walter Capps. That set the congressional crowd in the direction of common ground.
Then Clinton leaned into the speech, never mentioning the scandal, but instead extolling the objective policy gains that had been made with a bracing confidence: “The lowest unemployment in 24 years. The lowest core inflation in 30 years. Incomes are rising, and we have the highest homeownership in history. Crime has dropped for a record five years in a row, and the welfare rolls are at their lowest level in 27 years. Our leadership in the world is unrivaled. Ladies and gentlemen, the state of our union is strong.”
With that litany of accomplishment, Clinton received the first of 104 sustained bursts of applause of the night, according to a tally by John F. Harris in his biography, “The Survivor.”
But the most memorable moment was the one Clinton had scripted himself. With the hard-won surplus in hand, there was a debate about what to do with it. The ruling House Republicans were pushing for a tax cut, Waldman remembered – always a popular, if sometimes short-sighted, proposal. Clinton asked and answered the question from the podium: “What should we do with this projected surplus? I have a simple, four-word answer: Save Social Security first.”
Democrats stood up and applauded as expected, Republicans waited for a sign from their leader Newt Gingrich. When the Speaker stood up and applauded, his caucus did as well. “And at that moment on national television,” Waldman said, “a trillion dollars shifted in the budget from the column marked tax cuts to the column marked Social Security.”
Against all odds, the speech was a resounding success. Clinton’s confident performance assured the American people that he could do his job despite the massive failings of his private life. It stabilized the President’s political standing at a moment of maximum peril.
“What would make a lot of other politicians crumble, made him stronger,” Lockhart reflected.
For Waldman, the result also demonstrated a triumph of policy over personal behavior. “The public really liked Clinton and his third wave policies,” he said. “The media felt he was slick and tactical and triangulating. But the public felt he had forged a new path for progressivism.”
The polls bore out the success of Bill Clinton’s big bet almost immediately. According to Gallup, the besieged President, still almost a year away from impeachment, saw his job approval ratings rise 10 points, from 59% to 69% – an astounding number few modern presidents reach even without scandal.
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Whatever your politics, you have to admit, President Clinton played a bad hand brilliantly. He refused to retreat from the State of the Union, as other presidents might have, and instead faced the full scrutiny of the nation in the biggest political arena of all.
An earlier version of this op-ed incorrectly described an encounter Joe Lockhart recalled between President Bill Clinton and Senator Strom Thurmond prior to the State of the Union speech as happening in 1998. The encounter occurred in 1999.