A Long, Lavish, Final Address

chelsea hillary tipper senate gallery (jan., 2000)
President Clinton's final State of the Union speech Thursday night was big. It was long: one hour and 29 minutes, a personal record. It was interrupted 119 times by applause. And it was crammed full of congratulatory musings, exhortations and vintage Clintonian rhetoric, as the president urged America to look ever forward, and to "dream big dreams."

Highlights included a tax cut, as well as proposals to expand health care, improve education and fight crime. "We are fortunate to be alive at this moment in history," Mr. Clinton told a House chamber packed with senators, congressmen, cabinet members, diplomats, military leaders and assembled dignitaries - though curiously not a single member of the Supreme Court was present.

Behind Mr. Clinton sat the man who wants to give the address next year: Vice President Al Gore. The president mentioned Gore several times and praised his work. More to the point, many of the proposals Gore's selling in New Hampshire - especially health insurance - were reflected in the president's speech.

In the gallery, there was blonde ambition: Next year, Hillary Clinton aims to be on the Senate floor and Tipper Gore wants to be the first lady. The president did not miss either one in his lavish praise, citing his wife for her work with children and Mrs. Gore for her efforts in the area of mental health coverage.

Displaying the centrism that front-runners in both parties find so handy, the speech also included several ideas espoused by Republicans, including a proposal for a tax cut of $350 billion over 10 years; retirement savings accounts; and greater accountability for public schools.

Mr. Clinton warned that his tax cut, as well as his new spending proposals, would only work if the government kept its financial house in order, "in the context of a balanced budget that strengthens and extends the life of Social Security and pays down the national debt."

On a more traditionally Democratic note (made possible by a lush surplus) are government spending programs, some of which the president has urged before.

launch videoCBS News correspondent Bill Plante reports.
Mr. Clinton has spent much of his two terms battling over healthcare issues, so it's not surprising that he called for $110 billion dollars to "follow Vice President Gore's suggestion" to include parents in their children's health insurance coverage. If passed, the new plan would offer the largest health coverage expansion in 35 years.

Mr. Clinton's proposals for education are among the most ambitious he's offered. They include over $4 billion to expand after-school programs and Head Start; to improve teacher training and hire more teachers; and to give good bonuses to good public schools, while reforming or closing poor ones. For higher education, the really big money kicks in: a $30 billion tax credit over 10 years to make paying for college easier.

The president also urged every state to require a license for anyone purchasing a handgun. "Let's make this country the safest big country in the world," he said. He also asked the gun industry to work on "Smart Gun" technology, which would allow a gun to be fired only by the person who'd bought it.

Several old favorites from previous speeches made return appearances, including a patient's bill of rights, prescription drug benefits, a rise in the minimum wage, campaign finance reform, cutting down on greenhouse gases and enacting hate-crimes legislation.

Keeping to his theme of economic expanion, Mr. Clinton repeated his request that the U.S. normalize trade relations with China, to ease that country's admission to the World Trade Organization.

The president touched on peace-forging and peacekeeping efforts around the world, and asked Congress to pass a nuclear test ban treaty. He sought money to fight drugs in Colombia, and to develop drugs that will fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

It was a big agenda. But Mr. Clinton defended his vision, calling it a "21st Century American Revolution" that was "worthy of a great nation."

Step-by-step, the president is starting the "last time" process. Perhaps it's a sign of the months to come that his last State of the Union address was full of lofty ideals meant to inspire Americans, and carefully crafted policies meant to help the man he hopes will carry on his legacy.