Magazine article The Spectator

Handicapping the Oval Office Stakes

Magazine article The Spectator

Handicapping the Oval Office Stakes

Article excerpt

THE CLINTON presidency is over. He will not resign, Congress may have no stomach for impeachment, and the people might well be willing to pay him to attend cookouts with Carly Simon on Martha's Vineyard until January 2001. But, as president, he's already gone. His legislative agenda is dead: neither Republicans nor Democrats in Congress have any reason to deal with him, and plenty of reasons not to. His plans to rouse the people to 'national conversations' on weighty themes like race have collapsed. This president cannot be released among the citizenry, except in tightly controlled groups of wealthy showbiz donors to his legal defence fund. He cannot even give a television interview. Once in a while he can go on air and announce he's bombed the Sudan or Afghanistan, but there aren't enough countries in the world to lob cruise missiles at. And there's a danger in the news footage of excitable Muslims jumping up and down in the street and burning effigies of him. Americans might start to think, `Hey, maybe we should be doing that.'

'Presidential', like 'federal', is one of those words grievously misused in Britain. Tony Blair, for example, is often said to be `presidential'. But, of course, he wields far more power over the United Kingdom as the Queen's first minister than he ever could over the United States as president: Bill Clinton cannot single-handedly appoint an entire upper house of the legislature more to his taste, or even a humble cabinet secretary. The presidency is institutionally weak: character counts, because in the end character is all there is. That's why, at some point in his second and final term, every president becomes a lame duck: as the man himself matters less, so does the office.

Aware of this, Bill Clinton planned to devote his energies to securing Al Gore's succession and to carving out a role for himself as President Emeritus - the young elder statesman whose gifts the less charismatic Mr Gore would need to inspire the people through what history would come to regard as an unbroken 16-year `Clinton era'.

That won't happen now. Every friend of Bill eventually discovers that, although he professes to feel your pain, you mostly wind up feeling his: carrying the can for him, paying the price for him. The question the Vice-President will surely have been pondering on the beaches of Hawaii is a simple one: is he going to go down as Bill Clinton's last fall-guy?

Not much has been heard from Al Gore since his claim a few months back to have been the inspiration for the Ryan O'Neal character in Erich Segal's Love Story. It's a measure of the Vice-President's tin ear for the nuances of pop culture that he thought this would make him seem cool, but nonetheless he persisted with the story, even after Mr Segal had publicly denied it. Whatever the truth, it's certainly possible to put a Gore-ist interpretation on Love Story. If you recall, the Al Gore/Ryan O'Neal figure is a rich, pampered preppie who falls for a colourful dirt-poor character from the wrong side of the tracks (Bill Clinton, played by Ali McGraw). They move in together, but the preppie soon notices that his working-class pal is tragically succumbing to a chronic sickness that requires him to spend all day in bed - or, at any rate, the anteroom to the Oval Office. Loyally, the rich boy decides to stick with his chum to the end.

But will Al Gore? His father, Senator Albert Gore Senior, raised him from birth to be president: as with most pre-programmed robots, Al Junior has no other purpose. Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that he'd be a shoo-in: it might even be an advantage to have a nominee who's completely stiff from head to toe after eight years of a president whose stiffness is more, er, centred. The press reported approvingly his mastery of the self-deprecating jest. Visiting, say, Loser-ville, Illinois, he'll get the mayor to introduce him as `the greatest vice-president in history' and then say, `Hmm. …

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