His State of the Union speech reveals a hugely ambitious man with a bold, if sometimes messy, political style

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White House officials gave Bill Clinton, a chronic procrastinator, a full six weeks to get ready for his State of the Union speech. Tired of those harrowing last-minute cut-and-paste sessions that have marked nearly all his major addresses, Clinton's aides met with the President before Christmas to discuss a couple of broad themes for the occasion, "renewal" and "continuity." Three weeks later, they delivered a first draft in a fax to Clinton in Europe. With a week to go, speechwriters David Dreyer and Bob Boorstin met with Clinton on Air Force One to rework weak spots. The new discipline seemed to be working. "This will be a shorter, more focused speech," an official boasted.

But change, as Clinton says, is never easy. He managed only to whittle his speech down to what an Administration wag called a "tight 64 minutes" -- half again as long as most recent State of the Union speeches. He limited his top priorities for 1994 to seven initiatives, eight if you count the information superhighway, but couldn't resist adding a dozen or so secondary and tertiary items, amounting to an enormously ambitious and detailed to-do list by any standard. The carefully planned practice sessions were postponed until Tuesday, and then nearly backfired: the price of the hurried run- throughs was the early onset of laryngitis. "Damn it," Clinton said, practicing at his kitchen table Tuesday afternoon, "I know I'm going to lose my voice." Clinton made it through the speech, but just barely, his voice catching on every fricative by the end. The next day his voice was gone.

The hour-long speech was an apt symbol of Clinton's presidency after one year: a bold, ungainly, often messy affair that moves in many directions, is impervious to order and yet, by sheer dint of effort, may prove successful. Recent polls have shown that Americans -- whatever they think of his policies and his character -- appreciate Clinton's formidable energy and his doughty resilience. And Clinton knows these traits are his biggest advantages. As he told a senior Republican lawmaker last fall, "I'm a lot like Baby Huey. I'm fat. I'm ugly. But if you push me down, I keep coming back. I just keep coming back."

Clinton's knack for self-renewal was evident again last week. As the economy showed signs of steady improvement, he was remaking his political goals to fit the electorate's less anxious mood. He all but boasted that nearly every detail of his controversial health-care reform proposal was negotiable, including its all-important implementation timetable. And he reached deep into enemy territory, stealing Republican rhetoric on crime, defense cuts and values to appeal to independent voters who have been slowest to find their "comfort level" with Clinton. The centrist language -- "We can't renew our country until we realize that governments don't raise children; parents do" -- had Perot voters and "weak" Clinton supporters assembled in Dayton Tuesday night by the White House twisting their hand-held approval meters. "When he talked about crime," said a Clinton adviser, "the dial groups loved it."

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