Tonight, a reflective Clinton addresses US

President's last State of the Union opens a final year in which he vows

It's State-of-the-Union night, President Clinton's favorite time of year. It's his chance to speak unfiltered to the American people and to toss out policy points like confetti at a ticker-tape parade.

Yet it's also the president's last such speech, a wistful moment for a man who openly wishes he could run for a third term.

Lately, he says, he enters rooms at the White House more carefully, looking for objects he's been too busy to notice. It's as if he wants to etch them on his mind so he can call it all back once he's a private citizen again.

For Mr. Clinton, who says he loves his job even on its worst days, this final year is just one step away from the political sidelines.

Leaving the Oval Office has been difficult for some presidents, but for Clinton - a still-young and vigorous man who spent his whole life trying to get there - it could be especially difficult.

But people who know him say he'll handle his last year in much the same way he handled impeachment and the many other major major political crises that have tracked him - by throwing himself into his work.

"I wish I didn't have to sleep at all for a year," Clinton told reporters last week. "I wish that God would give me the capacity to function for a year without sleep. That would make me very happy."

In the meantime, with or without the help of a Congress that has been his arch opponent since 1994, the president says he'll work on keeping the economy humming and pushing issues such as health care and peace in the Middle East.

He'll also do everything he can to see that his wife is elected to the US Senate, and his vice president succeeds him as commander in chief.

"The president is going to deal with this year as if it were just any other year in his presidency," says former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta. "That's the way he stays focused. He doesn't allow himself to start moaning....

"Having said that, the reality of the last year ... I'm sure will have some impact on his thought process. It will take a toll but the public will never see that. It's a little like the impeachment process. People couldn't believe he was able to get through it, but that's how he does the job; he stays focused," he adds.

For some presidents, giving up the Oval Office wasn't at all hard. Two-termers Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower were ready for retirement after eight years that capped full careers outside politics. Thomas Jefferson referred to the presidency as a "splendid misery" and couldn't wait to get back to Monticello and his scientific interests.

But there were others - like young, robust Teddy Roosevelt and, in the modern era, Lyndon Johnson - who thrived on politics just the way Clinton does. Roosevelt loved the presidency so much he came back from retirement for another, unsuccessful run at it. When Johnson returned to his Texas ranch, he died just four years after leaving office.

"After Johnson left office it was exceedingly difficult," says Robert Strauss, a legendary political figure in Washington and a friend of Johnson's. "He took back up smoking more than he should, he had drink more than he should - at night. He was made for office and power and when he gave up both, life was really over for him."

This sobering account can't be lost on someone like Clinton, an avid student of the presidency, who says he'll try to fashion his life after the White House along the lines of Jimmy Carter - a peacemaker, writer, and major force in Habitat for Humanity.

But there are those out there devoted to the idea that Clinton's post-presidential years not be peaceful ones. They long to see him and his wife in court to answer for what they see as the unpunished crimes of the Monica Lewinsky and Whitewater legal sagas.

If he is concerned about that, it does not show.

Next year he will tend to his library, run a policy center that will tackle "big questions" such as racial and ethnic harmony, and shape a new graduate program in public policy at the University of Arkansas. He'll hit the lecture circuit, and a presidential memoir is a virtual certainty.

But no matter how busy he gets, it won't be the same, he said. "I love living in the White House," the president told "60 Minutes" last month. "I love going to Camp David. I love Air Force One.... But the thing I love most is ... doing the job every day,... the ability to make a difference, to solve problems.... I will miss it very much."

That's evident when he talks to the press now. In a briefing at a snowed-in White House this week, Clinton playfully warned reporters not to drag him into the campaign, saying it's a matter for the candidates and the American people. But after that caveat, political animal Clinton dived into a question about George W. Bush.

Then he was asked whether this State of the Union might be a bittersweet moment. "I don't feel bittersweet; I do feel some nostalgia," he answered.

But, without missing a beat, he went into his official work mode. "It's something I'm very much trying to fight off," he said, "because I think the important thing is to keep the attention of the country focused on the future...."

Given his record, there's the possibility another political grenade will roll into the White House before the year is up. But those who know him say his response will be the same: work.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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