Making up for lost time

Bill Clinton will emerge from the Monica affair with an even greater sense of purpose
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"THE FIRST time I looked in his eyes, I saw something I didn't expect to see." So said Monica Lewinsky of the prelude to her first "inappropriate" encounter with the President of the United States. Well, I too have looked into Mr Clinton's eyes, in so far as police cordons and television screens permit, and I too have seen something unexpected. After almost a year of poorly disguised stress, the over-apologetic lecher is ready to make a comeback as President, just as soon as the inconvenience of the impeachment process is over.

And the impeachment process will be over. The only question is when. However fiercely the Republicans in Congress huff and puff, they do not have the two-thirds majority in the Senate that they need to remove the President, and they cannot expect help either from Democrats or from public opinion. They could end the charade now by accepting that a Senate trial would be futile, and settle for a censure vote in the full House of Representatives next week. They could force an impeachment vote in the House, misread the mood, and lose - so letting Mr Clinton off scot-free. Or they could win that vote and force a Senate trial, which would extend the agony for a few weeks and months, but have the same result.

An act of God apart, all that can now prevent Bill Clinton from completing his term is a decision on his part to do the decent thing and resign - which seems as remote a prospect now as it ever was.

For until the temporary setback of the past week, when the leaderless Republican majority on the House judiciary committee decided to go for broke and push the impeachment process as far as it could go, Mr Clinton was clawing his way back. The unaccustomed hesitancy in his voice had gone; the washed-out haggardness of his visage was diminishing. Coming through once again were the steely determination and sense of mission that had brought him, in four-and-a-half decades, from the little town of Hope in the backwoods of Arkansas, to the White House.

In good times and in bad, Bill Clinton's demeanour tells much - more, perhaps, than is good for a politician, still less a world leader. One reason perhaps why other statesmen find him so engaging and women - with the exception of Paula Jones - find his charm so devastating, is that he still conducts himself so often like a small boy. His response on being caught by the evidence of Monica's blue dress was that of a male child caught doing what he should not have done.

"I could not tell a lie" may have been the guilty admission of George Washington, the ethical standard on which the United States likes to think it was built, but those days are past, if indeed they ever existed. In common with a good many of his predecessors, Bill Clinton could lie and did. He will bluff and bluster to save his skin. But once caught, he looks caught.

For the best part of this year, between the time that he was first rumbled by the US media in January to the time that he admitted he had been found out (August) and discovered the political capital to be made of contrition (September, October and November), Bill Clinton was never quite his old confident self. Last year's State of the Union message to Congress - just six days after the Monica revelations - was visibly a struggle, and he fluffed his lines.

Thereafter, he took on a haggard, somewhat haunted look. The fast-talking bluster was less evident; the lustrous confidence had faded. Caught off- guard, he could looked stooped, even cowed.

This week, as the depth and duration of his shame are being determined, something of that look has returned. But Bill Clinton will be back. He will be older and thinner than he was at the start of the year, wiser and more reflective. But he will also be even more determined and driven than he was at the start of his presidency. He has a legacy to bequeath, and that legacy must include something lasting that trumps the scandal, something that links his name for ever with something more than his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.

There was a glimpse of the post-Monica Bill Clinton this autumn, in the week of the Middle East peace talks at Wye Plantation, when he persisted in arguing and cajoling far longer than most negotiators would have allowed, far longer than a world leader could usually afford. Afterwards, he offered a hint of his rationale: he saw the hardships and the sleepless nights as a physical and intellectual penance of a kind for his misdeeds, and he saw his success - however tenuous and short-lived it turned out to be - as approval of a kind, from God.

It is possible to think of his trip to the Middle East this weekend - Jerusalem at Hanukkah, the first address by an American President to the Palestinian assembly - as another test. Far from deterring him, the violence in the region that has erupted in advance of his visit is a hardship sent by God. He is deliberately putting himself in harm's way: challenging God to preserve him for the work ahead.

In a country where material things count for so much, it is easy for an outsider to be cynical about the religious aspect of American life and about Americans' church-going, especially the church-going of politicians. But Bill Clinton's Southern fundamentalist roots run deep. He speaks the language of that church. He thinks in its terms, and - while his prayer breakfast contrition was as staged as any of his apologies - his recruitment of clergy as counsellors and his reference in his first televised confession to his affair as "between me, the two people I love most, my wife and daughter, and our God" were not.

Far from reconciling himself to being a lame-duck President, Bill Clinton will emerge from the Monica affair with a greater sense of purpose than before. He will be a man in a hurry to make up for lost time, a man saved by God for great deeds, a man with a mission for his country and the world even more urgent than before. Whether he turns his zeal to a domestic agenda - a return, for instance, to his health programme or to race relations - or to the international arena, Bill Clinton will be back, a man - and a leader - to be reckoned with.