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WASHINGTON — “Beauty and the Beast” was on television Monday night — the movie, not the continuing news saga of our current president and the most recent former one. That show seems to be a never-ending saga.

The Clinton pardons have made news commentators’ jobs easy. There have been daily news pegs to hang the harsh words on. Those anti-Clintonites who feared that President Bill Clinton might make a quick political comeback can rest easy. Every day that prospect is growing more and more remote.

Sen. Hillary Clinton is constantly under hostile fire from the press. And she doesn’t handle the pressure well at all. Her reactions and answers when pressed about her husband’s and brother’s questionable deeds lack credibility and finesse.

It is a tough time in the Clinton-Rodham house.

President George W. Bush, on the other hand, is having the time of his life. He appears to thoroughly enjoy his new job. Aside from the constant press corps gibes about his ability to massacre the English language with regularity, he is getting rave reviews from all sides.

He has brought a different style to the White House. He is relaxed, even casual, in his approach to the great and weighty problems of his job. Bill Clinton almost never slept, using the nights to read and exercise. Bush gets a good night’s sleep and even takes time off during the day. When his security force interrupted an intruder at the back fence of the White House around noon a couple of weeks ago, it was discovered that the president was in the residence, taking a little exercise break and a nap.

Now the problem is getting his government running and his programs into place. With the Clinton news taking so much television time and printers’ ink, the Bush message is moving in heavy traffic and not getting through as clearly as he would like. He took to the airwaves last week to address the Congress and the American people. It was billed as a budget address, but it was Bush’s attempt to outline his program and begin to build support for his programs.

A new Washington Post-ABC News Poll shows how much work the president has to do. On his No. 1 priority item, the tax cut, the American people disagree with him on the major items of his program:

* By a margin of 53-43, the public prefers a smaller tax cut designed to help mainly lower- and middle-income people.

* By a small 42-40 margin, the public disagrees with their president. They do not believe that his $1.6 trillion tax cut would leave enough funds for the government to keep the budget balanced and provide funds for vital programs such as social security, education and health care.

* They turn his priorities upside down on how to spend the budget surplus: Increase spending on programs such as education and health care, 35 percent; strengthen Social Security, 25 percent; cut federal income taxes, 22 percent; reduce national debt, 17 percent.

I guess we have to remember that a majority of American voters in last year’s election preferred a candidate who had those exact priorities.

Americans were treated to a different kind of “State of the Union” type of address than they had gotten used to. While Clinton used to orate for more than an hour (last year he ran 89 minutes) in rambling oratory over a full range of issues, Bush’s style is more informal and less oratorical. And he keeps his speeches short. His first offering ran only 58 minutes. It was, by his own admission, the longest speech he had ever given.

During this, his first address to a joint session of Congress, Bush argued for his 10-year, $1.6 trillion tax-cut proposal and outlined the estimated $1.9 trillion budget request for fiscal 2002 he submitted to Congress last Wednesday. He also made his case for cutting taxes, restraining government spending and creating a commission to study Social Security reform.

He said it was possible to pay down outstanding debt, fund his spending goals and allow for tax relief. “It’s within our grasp to do so,” he said. Bush’s budget proposal seeks to halve growth in government spending to about 4 percent while funding increases for military benefits, education, Medicare and health research.

The centerpiece of Bush’s agenda is his $1.6 trillion tax cut. In addition, he plans to use the bulk of the roughly $2.6 trillion in surpluses stemming from the Social Security retirement-income system to pay down debt. Bush proposes setting up a commission to study how to reform Social Security, which is projected to run out of money in 2037 as the baby-boom generation retires, leaving fewer working Americans to fund their benefits. The remainder of the projected surpluses would be set aside in a contingency fund.

Bush went out of his way on many occasions to reach out to representatives of Democrats as well as African Americans and other minorities that did not support his candidacy last fall. He caused a lot of smiles from former adversaries when he singled them or their groups out for special attention and plaudits. It was a fine example of his campaign to lessen the partisanship and rancor in Washington.

The substance of the speech contained no real surprises. It was a summary of the agenda that the president has been announcing bit by bit, plus a fiscal plan and budget for the coming year. The spotlight was on the performer — and he performed well. He was relaxed — not like the speeches he made during the Florida recount ordeal. His demeanor then was compared to a hostage statement — frightened and uptight, but there was none of that this time.

While political attention has been focused on Washington, there has also been ongoing postelection activity in Florida. Making use of the state’s liberal open-records law, The Miami Herald and USA Today commissioned an accounting firm to review the ballots from the election last fall — to recount the Dade County (Miami) ballots by hand, just as Vice President Al Gore wanted to have done last November and December.

The team separated the ballots into the categories that became familiar last fall — into ballots with fully punched chads, unmarked ballots, ballots with bumps (pregnant chads), ballots with a chad that is not fully separated (hanging chads) and whatever else they found. They then took the most liberal view of the counting, accepting all sorts of chads and non-chads that appeared to indicate the intention of the voter.

When all of that was done in Dade County, it turns out that Gore would have picked up a few votes but Bush would have, too. The change would have been less than the official margin by which Bush was declared the winner of Florida, and thus the election. Maybe Bush really did win Florida fair and square and is a legitimately elected president. He hopes people will begin to believe this. But there are other and more aggressive reviews of the ballots in Florida and tough investigations into alleged voter intimidation still ongoing — it never stops.

We just ended Black History Month — a great annual reminder of how little we know and appreciate the contributions of African Americans to the success of the nation. I find it a good time to do a little reading on the subject — from a book about black cowboys to “Roots.” My penchant for February reading provided one memorable moment.

Ten years ago, I found myself in Tirana, Albania, on the occasion of their most explosive demonstration against the old system. On my first morning in the city, thousands of citizens, led by the students of Enver Hoxha University, held a noisy protest that filled the central square of the city and destroyed the 13-meter-tall statue of longtime despot Hoxha. It was quite a frightening scene, but it ended peacefully and successfully just after lunchtime. In the afternoon, there were still many people in the square, celebrating the way New Yorkers do when the Yankees win the World Series.

When they discovered that I was an American, a short, squat cobbler took custody of me, demanding that I find his father in America. His father had deserted him 40 years ago — and I was the first American he had ever met. He persisted, and showed up at the Hotel Daiji later in the afternoon with a young university student he had recruited as an interpreter. He brought gifts, some wooden bowls, a copper letter opener, and three bottles of homemade liquor. I invited him, his wife and the interpreter into the hotel for coffee. It was the first time entry to the hotel had not been banned for ordinary Albanians.

I had brought some goodies for gifts and decided to give the interpreter some cigarettes (those were the good old days). I asked him to help me carry the gifts to my room. As he put the bottles on the tattered, bumpy, carpet one of them tipped over and rolled to the side of my bed. There it stopped against a book I had been reading.

The young man was excited at the sight of my book. “American book?” he asked. “Yes,” I said and knew immediately that he would leave with the book. It was to be the first “Western book” at the university, he told me. He would invite all of his fellow students to read it. Thus, Black History Month came face to face with an emerging democratic student body.

The book happened to be “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

I have often wondered what the Tirana University students (the president of Albania caved to the students’ demands that evening and changed the name) thought about that book. If you have read it, you know that Malcolm X had quite a ride through life — and it was anything but an average American one. The students, still isolated from the modern world, must have really wondered what they were getting into.

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