Leading Article: Flawed, fired by danger, but still a symbol of hope

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The Independent Culture
IT MUST be suspected that we are a long way from the endgame of the Clinton presidency yet. For one thing, William Jefferson C does not come across as the resigning type. Insofar as quack psychology offers any insights, it is that Mr Clinton displays in full measure a character type quite common in men who achieve high office. An early biography of him by Elizabeth Drew, On The Edge, described a man who - like Jack Kennedy - was fired up by a sense of danger. More than that, though, Mr Clinton likes to make things difficult for himself. Whenever things seem to be going too well or too easily for him, he loses interest and resorts to risky and self-destructive behaviour. His life story has been a wild career (an apt word) from success to recovery from self-inflicted failure.

The descent of the leader of the Free World into bathos is unlikely, then, to come to a swift or clean end. The executive arm of the United States government is likely to be paralysed for several months, before Mr Clinton either struggles through to regain some tatters of credibility or hands over to Vice-President Al Gore. Does this matter?

Yes, although not perhaps as much as might be expected. After all, Mr Clinton has been unable to get any legislation through Congress for the last four years of his six-year incumbency, except that which the Republican leadership has allowed. As a system of checks and balances, it has to be said that the American constitution, for all its nonsenses, works extremely well. For all the grand rhetoric of "ending welfare as we know it", "reinventing government" and introducing health care for all, the presidency has turned out to be little more than a secular pulpit - and now it has been deprived not just of executive power but of its moral authority, too.

Mr Clinton's domestic approval ratings did not reflect what he had done but what he had failed to do, namely screw up the US economy. To the average American, Mr Clinton's affable front was all that they asked of him at a time of prosperity and stability, and the President was quite happy to take the credit for the skilful economic management of Alan Greenspan. Much of Mr Greenspan's skill, too, lies in calmness while doing little, but he has shown a sure touch, for example in nudging Wall Street back up from its Russian panic with just a few words.

But the paralysis of the presidency does matter beyond US borders. One of Mr Clinton's few historic achievements was to assist the cause of peace in Northern Ireland. With Russia in crisis, Nato crying out for leadership in Kosovo, nuclear tensions high in the Indian subcontinent and economic difficulties threatening to destabilise large regions of the world, now is not the time for the leader of the world's remaining superpower to be tripping over his own trousers.

For this reason, and as dispassionate but sympathetic observers from abroad, we are tempted to say: Bring on Al Gore, a man almost unique in American politics not just because he has no middle name but because he has a Blairishly blameless private life.

As the vice of impeachment begins to close, Mr Clinton is bound to consider how and when to hand over the reins. If he does go early, he will want to hang on until next January, the halfway point of his second term, because then Mr Gore would be entitled to stand twice for re-election. Either way, the case for Mr Gore is strong. He would be able to act abroad, but also offers the prospect of a more activist presidency at home. His attention to the issues of the environment and devolution of federal power has been rather more sustained than any of Mr Clinton's brilliant but short- lived policy interests.

As Mr Clinton considers his position, and as he inevitably thinks about his place in history, he should take pride in his remarkable personal achievement. It is not hyperbole to say that he personifies the American dream. That he should have raised himself from the poverty of an Arkansas backwater, from a broken family with an alcoholic stepfather, to the highest office in the land is a tribute to his intelligence, drive and - at some level at least - the ideal of public service.