The making of the candidate

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The Independent Culture
The trouble with Bill Clinton was that he went on and on and on. There were strings of nouns. Chains of qualifying clauses. Entire freight trains of substantives. You could practically hear the brackets in his sentences. And the words themselves were pure polystyrene. How could the convoluted language of the economist match up to the plain Texas talk of Ross Perot, or even Jerry Brown's priestly asceticism? As the campaign developed, Clinton's problem worsened. Until, like many candidates before him, the Governor of Arkansas learnt that by saying less he might be achieving a whole lot more.

IN MID-APRIL, on a sunny Saturday in Pittsburgh, the Pirates beat the Phillies and the afternoon crowd came spilling from the stadium in high good humour. The conspicuous unsmiling men were from the secret service. In cheap office suits and dark glasses, with flesh-colored radio cables taped to their bristle-cut necks, they escorted the candidate - in his official weekend uniform of sneakers, jeans, denim shirt and red Pirates cap - to a campaign limo.

The moment he was seated, an aide passed him a tombstone-slab of newspapers, each one folded back on a report of his own progress across the nation. Riffling quickly from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the candidate wearily glossed his mixed reviews.

I was given the once-over by the ss men and shovelled into the back seat of the limo beside him. The peak of the baseball cap wagged. He was on to the Philadelphia Inquirer. For the last two or three weeks, the critics had been reporting excitedly on the crackerbarrel mottos of Ross Perot, as if he were a latterday La Rochefoucauld, while the long, pained speeches of Governor Clinton were being relegated to the lower half of an inside page, where he kept company with rabid bats, brush fires and important news from Canada.

Kingsley Amis once said that you should let a bad review spoil your breakfast but never your lunch. I wondered if Bill Clinton would be entertained by this useful thought, but feared expulsion from the limo for impertinence. Yet it seemed odd, and not irrelevant, that one's first instinct on finding oneself at close quarters with the presidential candidate should be to want to offer him some kind of consolation.

For three days I had been enviously marvelling at his toughness. I was numb with exhaustion from just tagging along and watching him. I'd joined the campaign on Wednesday evening in San Francisco - two fundraisers, one big speech. At 11pm, the candidate, his aides, the secret servicemen and the wolf-pack of attendant journalists had taken off in the chartered 727 for Philadelphia by way of Kansas City.

We lost three hours to the revolving globe, and it was breakfast time in Philadelphia when we touched down. Clinton delivered a lecture on economic policy at the Wharton Business School, loped down a street on a 'meet-and-greet', and took to the sky again, bound for Cleveland, Ohio, where he held a press conference on the tarmac at the airport, made the keynote speech at a union raily, attended two fundraisers and gave half a dozen radio, TV and newspaper interviews. We were back on the plane shortly after midnight. At 17,000 feet, aides, journalists, a stewardess and a secret serviceman played softball down the aisle while the candidate pulled a blanket up to his chin and dozed through the ruckus.

Feeling robbed of sleep and privacy, aching for stillness, I was discouraged to hear that this had been a pretty typical day in the Clinton primary season. 'He's a brutal campaigner - the most brutal campaigner that I've ever seen. But he's a good one,' said a parchment-faced reporter who was himself on the edge of keeling over.

I've always disliked contact sports, and Clinton's appetite for the scrummage induced in me a feeling of vicarious nausea. The man appeared to need no body-space at all. On the street or in the housing project, he snugged into the crowd like a newborn piglet in a litter. Helloing his way through the crush, grinning like a maniac, he seemed to take comfort from the warmth of strangers' bodies as they jostled against him.

I wanted to catch him out in some small signal of distaste for what he was doing, but he looked as if he was genuinely enjoying himself, and for no good reason. He'd won the New York primary, but on a dismal turnout, and he was going down in the polls for the second time around. First there'd been Gennifer Flowers and the Vietnam draft; now Ross Perot was stealing everybody's thunder. Unlike Perot and Brown, Clinton had no claque of supporters to cheer him on. When he hit the streets, the crowds came because they were following the TV vans like fire engines, hoping for a spectacle. When they found out that it was only the Governor of Arkansas, they tended to melt away. More often than not, Clinton had to run a gauntlet of jeering moralists with two-day beards.

At the fruit and vegetable market on 9th Street in Philadelphia, a woman asked me if I knew what the fuss was about. 'Bill Clinton . . .' I said, pointing to the floating smile on the far side of the street. 'I've seen enough assholes in my life, I don't have to watch him,' she said.

'Bill: Hey, Bill] Just one question, Bill?' It was a bum with a bottle, but he had succeeded in hooking the candidate's attention. From thirty feet off, Clinton graciously bestowed his smile on the bum.

'Just one question - are you going to cheat on America like you cheated on your wife?'

Tho smile didn't waver by so much as a millimetre; it just moved on, to meet the lavender eye of a video camera on a truck, as Clinton waved a symbolic sprig of broccoli for viewers of the local evening news.

Ambushed by a 50-strong band of Brownites, who drowned him out with a war chant of 'Jer-ry] Jer-ry Jer-ry]', the candidate seemed to move in his own soundproof bubble. His lips continued to frame the word hello, the complex musculature around the sides of his mouth continued to manufacture the how-nice-to-meet-you Dale Carnegie smile, while the Brownites roared and the policemen unsheathed their night-sticks.

Whenever the motorcade stopped or the plane landed, there was another speech. Each one was different, but each one devolved on the same slogan. Within a day of joining the campaign, I could hear it coming from three sentences away, and took to lip-synching along with the candidate when he announced that it was time to turn America around to become a high-growth, high-wage, smart-work society.

It was hard to imagine how anyone could endure the pummeling of the primaries for such a clunking call to arms. It was an attempt to collapse a quite-complex economic idea into a memorable catchphrase.

The idea itself was all right. Robert Reich, the Harvard economist and Clinton's long-time adviser, stated it clearly in his 1988 essay, 'Dick and Jane Meet the Next Economy':

In a world where routine production is footloose and millions of potential workers are eager to work for wages far lower than Americans are willing to work for, we can no longer expect to be competitive simply by producing more of the same thing we produced before, at lower cost. As the production of commodities shifts to other nations, America's competitive advantage correspondingly must shift towards work the value of which is based more on quality, flexibility, precision, and specialization than on its low cost. . . .

The trouble with the Clinton version was that it sounded like pie in the sky rehashed in pseudo-specific jargon. The word 'society' at the end was a specious substitution for 'economy' - it was a feel-good word, designed to reassure you that there was something, well, moral about this high-growth, high-wage, smart-work arrangement. The meter - that solemn spondee, boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom - attached a pompous weight to words that were 100 per cent polystyrene.

The slogan lodged itself in my head and would not be exorcised. I kept on hearing it in the engines of the campaign plane and in the wheels of the press bus. It got tangled up with a snatch from Iolanthe:

When you're lying awake with a dismal headache,

and repose is tabooed by anxiety,

I conceive you may use any language you choose

in a high-growth, high-wage, smart-work society.

With a softball whizzing past my car somewhere over Pennsylvania in the small hours, I took to scribbling variations -

When your luck's on the wane in a major campaign,

and you're stuck for a suitable piety,

You can always fall back on our desperate lack

of a high-growth, high-wage, smart-work society.

Off camera, in the limo, the smile was still intact, though the youthful pink of the candidate's skin was going to grey, and the big bags and his small eyes looked like the early stages of an ambitious origami project.

He was fighting sleep, occasionally hyphenating words with yawns, yet he spoke patiently, thoughtfully and at characteristically copious length.

'I'm still struggling to find a way - a distilled way - to convey the whole ball of wax,' he said, when I complained of his rattletrap economic slogan.

I'm not the first person to come away from talking to Clinton feeling flattered, not only by the attentiveness with which he listens to each question and meets it directly with a careful answer, but by his genius for signalling that you and he are on the same wavelength, that he's eager to hear your view, that he cherishes criticism.

'Oh - absolutely]' is how he likes to begin an answer. Or 'I agree with that.' Or 'This goes back to the point you were making earlier.' Or, nodding seriously, 'Yes, I think that's true.' Sixty or seventy words later (by which time he has worked himself around to a very different position), he appears only to be teasing out the implications of what you've been saying. He is a study in conversational good manners.

I put it to Clinton that launching a presidential candidacy was not unlike writing a novel: you had to create yourself as a sympathetic hero in language that would touch the reader's heart and mind.

Clinton readily agreed that he had so far failed to emerge as a rounded and credible character in the unfolding narrative of the election; failed to find an idiom in which to engage the imagination of the country in its present angry mood; and failed to rid himself of his fatal public image as a stereotyped Southern charmer. At least, he agreed, and then, by piling qualification on qualification, he disagreed.

As the Pittsburgh suburbs unpeeled around the motorcade, Clinton talked about his difficulties. The 'serial' nature of the primary system had made it hard for him to develop as a character; in each new state he had been forced to start again from scratch. 'When you get to Philadelphia and walk down the streets, and talk with the mayor on the strip, people in that Pennsylvania crowd are asking the same questions that people in New Jersey did, because the campaign has just come to them. They don't know, by and large, what the candidates stand for, where we are; they've just heard about . . . things . . . mostly, probably, personal things . . . and if you try to focus on that, from state to state, it's no longer news for the national press because it was news in New Hampshire, so it can't possibly be news in Pennsylvania. That makes it more difficult to write the script, because the way you display constancy is, in part, to say the same things and keep working it through.

'It's proved to be more difficult than I thought it would be: if people don't get to know you slowly over time, the least little thing can elevate you, but it can also be very damaging to you, because people don't have a larger context in which to measure today's statement against yesterday's 'revelation.' '

The atmosphere in the speeding car was that of a pleasant tutorial. Clinton's tone and phrasing were detached; he finished his epic sentences with well-defined full stops, and he had a knack, usually confined to elderly Oxbridge dons, of being able to house whole clauses between audible brackets.

'Reagan not only glorified the market (which, I think, the Democrats should embrace, but say how the government could better shape); he denigrated government to the extent . . .'

Clinton's rococo grammar seemed on a par with his weakness for candy: when it came to fancy punctuation, he just couldn't help himself. I thought, people don't talk like this, except in the later novels of Henry James. His voice was hoarse, his larynx still damaged from the talking-marathon of the New York primary, and he was dog-tired, but his grammatical engine purred away under full power as his voice grew croakier.

Sometimes he touched an unexpected note of wry, self-deprecating irony.

'. . . one of the problems that I face, as someone who peddles hope, is the presumption against one's credibility and integrity.'

Someone who peddles hope? He wasn't confessing cynicism so much an modestly doing himself down, after the English fashion.

'. . . and now I think the trick is for me to be able to go beneath the specific components of my plan, to show people what animates it, and what animates me; what drives me.'

The trick? This was Professor Clinton, taking the strategic long view of the candidate whose adventures were chronicled in the newspapers on his knee.

The motorcade was now inside the airport perimeter fence.

'Look,' Clinton said. 'You had the failure of Johnson's presidency, the deaths of Kennedy and King, the resignation of Agnew, the impeachment of Nixon, the collapse of the economy, the frustration of Iran in the last Carter year - and then you had Reagan and Bush tell us, 'Well, what did you expect? Government is intrinsically bad.' Now there is this alienation from Congress, and all of that. So one of the big problems that I have, in breaking through with language, and trying to offer what I perceive to be legitimate win-win solutions instead of win-lose solutions - you know, the kind of drawing of the old dichotomies, and maybe getting on a different side of them (which is what some people in our party want) - is that I'm just inconsistent with the experience of the American people, who are used to political failure, economic failure, moral failure; and to being told that there's something intrinsically bad about politics and government anyway.'

We were parked beside the campaign plane. A television crew was waiting on the tarmac. Clinton tightened the rigging of his smile.

'It's a big tide to swim against,' he said, his voice worn to a crackle of dry leaves in his throat.

THERE MAY be a clue there as to why this election has come to focus so obsessively on the childhoods, the personal and family lives, of the contenders. Politics and government have come to be seen as alien activities, and politicians as alien beings; and not only because the last three Republican administrations have denigrated government in the way that Governor Clinton describes. The language of everyday, non-electoral politics has increasingly merged with the language of economics, and competence in it is almost as rare among the mass of voters as competence in Latin. (Hands up all those who can give concise, off-the-cuff definitions of aggregate demand, Keynesian, monetarist and supply-side. I'd make a stab at it but end up in woolly bluster).

Yet in peacetime now the main issue on which voters have to pass judgement is the management of the economy, and most are no better equipped to adjudicate between rival techniques of dealing with the federal deficit than they are to assess the accuracy of rival translations of Martial. This is alien territory, and never are the aliens more passionately disliked and feared than when they start babbling in that ugly tongue.

It's no wonder that people have leaped gladly to judgement on the 'character issues': they are the only issues in this election on which all voters feel themselves to be competent experts. Every voter has been a child, and most voters, at one time or another, have had sex, in one form or another. In the present climate of ignorant bewilderment at what is going on in the American economy, it makes sense to judge a presidential candidate in terms you understand - on his performance as a boy, a lover, a husband and father. As the man on 9th Street put it: I'll trust you with the deficit if your wife can trust you to come home at night.

Bill Clinton was taking questions after making a speech to the National Association of Manufacturers. The CEO of Company Number Two-hundred-and-forty-something in the Forbes 500 got to his feet to say that he and the Governor had more in common than met the eye: they had both grown up in houses with outdoor toilets.

'Overrated, isn't it?' Clinton said, and paused. 'I don't like to talk about it.' He paused again. 'Makes a better story than it does a life.'

He has been a reluctant storyteller. The anecdote about the outdoor toilet was dragged from him at a televised forum put on by the San Francisco Chronicle, and the cesspit over which the outhouse was perched was infested with snakes. Clinton made little of it, though he admitted that 'you had to want to go real bad'.

Through the primaries we kept on seeing Clinton's childhood in frozen snapshots like this. They came shuffled, out of order; and without captions. There was the picture of his stepfather, firing a gun in a drunken quarrel with Clinton's mother when the boy was five; his father's car, skidding out of control in the dark on a wet Missouri road; the grandparents' dry-goods store, 'across from the cemetery', as Clinton described it (and the phrase seemed to register something more than a casual geographic fact); the handshake with JFK at the Boys Nation camp; the saxophone playing; the overweight teenager (it was said that he weighed 210 lbs when he was 15) defending his mother from his stepfather, who had threatened to 'mash his face in' if the boy took her part.

These fragmentary images didn't make a story. They were raw facts of the kind that William Faulkner or Raymond Carver might have licked into fictional shape - though had Faulkner or Carver gone to work on them, they would have been hard pressed to make them lead to Oxford, Yale and the boy governorship. Clinton's life, as he let it fall in these disjointed bits and pieces, strained one's sense of natural likelihood.

The news magazines published real photographs, from Virginia Kelley's family album. They were wonderfully redolent of their period, taking one back to an age when a single roll of film was expected to last through a holiday season and every shot was posed and composed. The Clintons knew about putting your subject's head off-centre in an upper third of the frame, and even in the late 1940s they had a flashgun. The incidental details conjured a life in which appearances mattered, with flowered curtains on the windows and lace doilys on the tables. All the Clintons, including the dog, smiled for the camera, but the smile on the face of the young Bill Clinton was way out of the family league. His mother, his stepfather, his half-brother put on dutiful smiles, ranging from a strained grin to a sickly simper, that stopped short at the photographer's person, while Bill's smile reached far beyond the camera to the world outside. A Christmastime photograph of him aged seven showed him standing in a striped bathrobe before the fireplace. The grown-up pose (left arm draped along the mantelpiece) had evidently been held for several seconds too long, but the smile was running on full power. Lower jaw dropped, upper teeth thrust forward, the seven-year-old was meeting the people with exactly the same single-minded, brave complaisance that he showed on the campaign trail.

He told Newsweek: 'I was raised in that sort of culture where you put on a happy face, and you didn't reveal your pain and agony. Those were not things you shared with people.'

The habit remains with him still. Interviewed, he never talked directly about his childhood, but instead drew generalised morals from it, speaking only of the strengths and virtues he had learned from his singular upbringing. To Bill Moyers: 'It's a legacy that my grandparents left to me - the idea that you may not have much money and things may get really tough, but you've just got to get up each day and make the best of it; and the best of it is your family, your friends, the beautiful outdoors, the things that nobody can take away from you. That certainly has had a big impact on me - that whole view of life, that you've got to get up and do the right thing regardless, and if you get beat down, you just get up again'. Or, to US News & World Report: 'In an alcoholic family, I grew up with a much greater empathy for other people's problems than the average person has. It made me a lot more self-reliant and tougher than I might have been, and I learned some good skills about how to keep people together and try to work things out.'

That smile again. Such sunny-side reticence was admirable in its own way, but the language in which Clinton deflected his interviewers was insipid and and colourless. We wanted stories that would make him real, turn him into a believable character; we got Sunday School homilies about the beautiful outdoors, and working things out, and doing the right thing regardless.

In Hope and Hot Springs, the neighbours never knew about the drinking and the violence that went on behind the curtains of the Clinton household. The masking smiles did their job. Clinton himself appears to have been regarded by the local children as a sort of Willie Mufferson, the hated 'model boy' in Tom Sawyer. He was famous for his eagerness as a community service volunteer and as an over-achieving teachers' pet. Garry Wills wrote (in Time) that 'some of Clinton's high school contemporaries recall him as disgustingly responsible, always trying to impress his elders'.

Things haven't changed. Pressed by his interviewers to talk about a boyhood whose published facts make it sound compellingly close to that of Huck Finn, terrorised by a drunken father with a clasp-knife and a vision of Hell, Governor Clinton answered them with Willie Mufferson's inscrutably shining face and ghastly good manners.

HIS RIVALS on the trail were doing much better at spinning tales of the childhoods that had made them the men they were today. One would have thought that Jerry Brown, son of one well-known politician and brother to another, might have wanted to keep his family life under wraps in this year of the 'Exterminate Career Politicians' T-shirt. In fact, Brown brilliantly condensed his youth into a single incident, which he narrated whenever a chat-show host brought the talk round to the potentially tricky topic of Brown's upbringing.

In the story, Brown was in his early teens and riding in his father's car when Edmund Brown was California attorney-general. Heading north, they approached the toll-booths at the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. The state attorney-general waved his official pass and the car sped past the line of waiting motorists, whose heads turned to stare at the bigwigs going by on greased wheels. Brown Jr was mortified.

And one could see it - the lanky, pimpled teenager, close cousin to Holden Caulfield, squirming with the shame of being singled out by the crowd. It was skilfully told. It was not that young Brown wanted to strike down his father (that would have been a bad narrative tactic), but that he'd felt on his own pulse the awfulness of The System. Highway 101 was the road to Damascus where Brown had been granted a vision of Congressional perks, dollars 1,000 campaign contributions, and the divorce of the professional political class from We the People.

From the Golden Gate it was (as the story went) a short and inevitable step to the seminary, where the young man renounced the world, the flesh and the Devil. So Brown ran in the primaries not as the ex-governor but as a rebellious priest castigating a fallen world. He carried with him a kind of priestly solitude and a priestly perpetual adolescence. Between the embarrassed child in the car and the angry man on the platform there stretched a continuous doctrinal thread. Whole chunks of Brown's biography were importantly absent from the story - but it had powerful merits. It reconciled the apparent paradox between Brown the pol from a family of pols and the strident anti-politics of his campaign strategy; it furnished him with an alternative identity as a leader (the man in black, come to put down the mighty from their seats); it made him friendly. You suffered for him in that car. You'd been there too.

But by far the best story, at this stage of the battle, was the elaborate folktale of Ross Perot's early life. Everything that Perot promised to bring to the presidency was in it - his financial acumen, his physical courage, his willingness to stand up for justice against the powers that be, his agility as a quick learner, his enthusiasm for breaking new ground, his first-hand experience of hard times.

In sharp contrast to Clinton's behind-closed-curtains childhood, the Ross Perot story took place outdoors, in bright sunshine, with everything exposed to view; the only books in it were the Bible and Baden-Powell's Scouting for Boys; and it was packed with healthy action.

It was set in the Great Depression and the early 1940s, but the details of period were very lightly sketched. The real power of the story lay in its seeming timelessness as it reached back to include the world of the frontier (at least the Frederic Remington / John Ford myth of the frontier) and reached forward to include America under the administration of President Perot. It cunningly suggested that American history was not a dynamic process but a state of grace from which the unhappy present was just a temporary aberration.

Squads of fact-checkers were despatched to Texarkana with a long shopping list of questions. Was Ross Perot really born in, as he said, 'very modest circumstances'? Had he, aged eight, broken his nose while breaking-in wild horses at dollars 1.00 a horse? Had he ridden through the ghetto, delivering papers to whorehouses, where no boy had dared to go before? Was he the fastest-to-qualify Eagle Scout on record? The fact-checkers reported back that Perot's contemporaries did not generally recall these events in the terms in which Perot described them. When he said that held started EDS with a check for dollars 1,000 drawn on his wife's savings account, or that he'd left the Navy in protest against his commanding officer's misuse of the ratings' entertainment fund, the fact checkers wet-blanketed the story with long dissenting footnotes.

There was a good deal of tautology in all this. Perot, whose whole candidacy rested on his charm as a raconteur on a TV show, telling stories of the future, was being shown to possess the necessary virtues of a good storyteller: a ruthless and autocratic memory, a gift for creative editing and a sure sense of how to touch up the picture with a dab of bold colour.

When he told his life as a tale of can-do and derring-do, it sounded like a detailed and persuasive vision of the route that America at large might take, if only the country had the wit to hitch itself to H Ross Perot's gaily painted wagon. Looking like a snapping turtle, with his left eye glaringly wide open and his right one squinched half shut, he was the supremely artful romancer, beguiling the people with the story that people always best like to hear - the story of their own canniness and daring.

He told it in the vernacular. Though Perot went from Texarkana Junior College (he had planned to take a law degree) to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, he managed to sound like a shrewd rancher who dropped out of school in 8th grade and picked up a doctorate in the university of life. He abhorred abstractions and dictionary words, and hardly ever allowed himself the indulgence of a dependent clause. The syntax of a Perot sentence was chapel-bare. It went subject-verb-object-stop.

If this was a no-nonsense Texan style of talking, it was also a strikingly Calvinistic one. Perot is a strict Presbyterian, and Calvin's watchwords of will-power, discipline and order, together with his insistence on austere plainness of dress and expression, have clearly been taken to heart by Ross Perot. The rigid dress and hair codes that were enforced at EDS were very much in keeping with the religious practice of the company's founder. So is his grammar.

Though Perot's 'plain Texas talk' was in one way a great deal fancier than Clinton's high-toned term-paperese. Clinton eschewed metaphor; Perot wallowed in it. In the early weeks of his campaign, when he was making the rounds of the talk shows and unburdening himself to receptive hosts like Larry King, David Frost and Barbara Walters, Perot seemed to have access to an unlimited hoard of pithy tropes and images.

He not only talked about change, he changed things as he talked. The federal deficit (always a tough concept to get one's mind around) was changed - before your very eyes - into the crazy aunt in the basement about whom everyone kept quiet but who would, one day, get loose and kill a neighbour. The ailing economy was a stalled car with problems in its carburation system; someone was going to have to get his head under the hood and dirty his hands fixing it. Congress was a fouled and stinking barn, and it was time to clean it out with brooms and shovels. When the barn was swept, under the Perot administration, the executive and the legislature would waltz together like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.

The Emir of Kuwait was some dude over there with 70 wives; Saddam Hussein was a revolting baby with goo on its face, that George Bush had insisted on burping and diapering and pampering. When Perot spoke of the belt-tightening that was necessary to rescue the economy, he changed it into an adventuresome safari vacation 'a trip across the desert with limited water'.

He had the gift of being able to transmute his own past with figures of speech. His tenure on the board of General Motors had been - by most accounts - a spectacular failure. Yet when Perot likened his time at GM to teaching an elephant to tap-dance, he turned a business debacle into a linguistic triumph. It was not the rows, the law suits, Perot's regal arrogance, that people would remember, but the elephant, going step-brush-brush-step-step; step-brush-brush-step-step . . . on the creaking floor of the dance studio, and the genial character of Perot the narrator.

There was real magic in this. Through May and June, one switched on the TV, hungry for more news of the bright fictional world of crazy aunts, broken-down cars, horse sales, fruit jars (wherein money is always kept, in Perotville, TX), gorilla dust and the rest. Perot would polish off each verbal sleight-

of-hand with a complacent 'Pretty simple, really]' or 'Pretty basic stuff]'; hinting, like a good conjuror, that he had many more tricks up his sleeve where that one case from.

But the metaphors slowed. By early July, they had become rarities. In their place was the snap and bluster of the irascible boss, shaken that people could dare to treat him with such candid disrespect. A few days before he terminated his bid for the presidency, he appeared to be down to one metaphor, which he repeated everywhere he went. It was mosquitoes] The press investigations of his business life were mosquitoes; Dan Quayle was a mosquito; the Republican National Committee was a nest of mosquitoes.

At his press conference in Dallas on 16 July, Ross Perot was a man persecuted by insects; he was walking away from a stagnant pond at sunset, his wrists and ankles coming out in florid bumps.

WHEN PEROT talked, he suppressed all traces of his higher education; when Bill Clinton talked, he sounded as if held first entered life in a cap and gown, His voice was 'Southern', but one could hear no local coloring in it. People from Hempstead County, around Hope, Ark, can almost certainly tell a Hempstead County accent, but it's hard to imagine them listening to Clinton's voice and knowing it as one of their own. Graduates of Georgetown and Oxford, though, would latch on in seconds to the university degree in Clinton's style of talking. .

Sometimes he would attempt a self-conscious countryism. 'Back home where I come from, the farmers have a saying that whatever you do, you mustn't eat your seedcorn. In this country now, we're down to eating our seedcorn . . .' In fact, Clinton is clearly on more intimate terms with Arkansas farmers than Ross Perot ever was with the rustic characters who inhabit his metaphors. Yet when Clinton tried to talk of farmers' wisdom, he sounded like a German anthropologist discussing the folkways of a tribe of Hopi Indians.

The syntax of a typical Clinton sentence is brachiate, like the skeleton of a sycamore leaf, with pairs of dependent clauses sprouting from a central stem. While a . . . at the same time b . . ; if c . . . but d . . ; it's not just e . . . it's also f . . . He is capable of exhausting the alphabet in this fashion.

It was with such enormous, formal sentences, far more naturally suited to print than air, that Clinton hit the campaign trail. At his worst, he was like a parent's nightmare of higher education - you send them off to college, and you don't recognise them when they come home, knowing all the answers and talking like books.

But at his best, his many-branched sentences made an important statement of their own. This is a complex world, they said, in which all easy answers are suspect; change is hard; you have to modify and qualify, to trade off this in exchange for that. As Clinton said to me in the limo: 'My belief is that average voters are more sophisticated about economic problems than we think they are, and they don't mind being challenged to think about reasonably complex subjects. There is such a deep awareness of the global nature of our circumstances, and such a curiosity, at least, about whether we could be doing other things that would alleviate our problems, that you can speak in more detail and with more specificity this year than in any election year.'

He was taking a risk. It was a pernickety qualifying clause that made him the laughing-stock of the nation for ten days or so in March and early April, and a multitude of qualifying clauses that brought him into deep trouble over the draft issue. He was the first person (and almost certainly the last) to expound on economic theory on MTV, and his own evident pleasure in his fluent grasp of the affectless language of economics often left his audience baffled. In Cleveland, Ohio, I sat in a hotel convention room full of members of the United Transportation Union ('Progress Through Unity'), while Clinton lectured them on the superiority of the West German and Japanese economies, and on the merits of the policies of Chancellor Helmut Kohl: the members, Sunday-suited, gaped.

Ross Perot's despotic figures of speech (and the breezy tone of voice in which he delivered them) made the world seem readily amenable to change. You could mould it between forefinger and thumb - get Auntie Deficit out of her basement and put her behind bars with competent nurses to attend to her needs. Bill Clinton talked of change, but the underlying grammar of the Clinton sentence would tell a different story, of an intractable world that could be changed only slowly and with great difficulty.

On June 9, he was on the Today show with Bryant Gumbel, taking calls. Scott, of Austin, Texas, came on the line, to inquire how the Governor would stabilise the economy and bring down inflation. This was a question that Ross Perot would address on the same show two days later. Perot would build a growing dynamic job base.

'Now this can be fun if we'll all stick together, because there's only one way to do it, and that's to make the words 'Made in the USA' the world standard for excellence. Now, one more time, I'll give you a reason not to vote for me. If you can go home and sleep at night, when we don't make the finest products in the world, I'm not your man. If you want to climb in the ring, play in the industrial Super Bowl, beat everybody in sight fairly and squarely, we'll have fun together.'

To Scott of Austin, Governor Clinton said: 'Well, inflation's pretty low now, but the economic growth rate of our country is the lowest it's been since before World War Two, and it's plain that that's because we haven't invested in our people; we haven't invested in our jobs - in our education - in controlling health-care costs and providing health care to all our folks. If you look at the growth rate in America (compared to Germany, Japan, a lot of other countries), it's obvious that we've got an investment shortage; and what I would do is, first, I would take every dollar by which we've reduced defence, and invest it in the domestic economy, in creating jobs for the future, in creating a 21st century economy; high speed rail; fibre-optic networks; smart highways; short-haul aircraft; new computer and biotechnology; and other areas of high technology which would generate new jobs. Second . . .'

Fibre-optic networks? Short-haul aircraft? This was one of Clinton's beloved noun-strings. They were as near as he came to poetry, these lists of gleaming, weighty tangibles; and one could sometimes see a faraway look in the Governor's eye as he painted in the details of the high-growth, high-wage, smart-work new world. Yet the sentence groaned under the sheer tonnage of this freight train of substantives. What it convoyed was the huge burden of the task. If you had to do all that to restore the economy, might it not be better just to steal quietly away from the whole wretched business? Listening to Clinton, I thought of Scott in Austin and imagined him driving to work that morning, mulling over the cost of moving his family to Frankfurt.

Clinton moved, without benefit of simile or metaphor, by a process of dogged enumeration. He was like Funes the Memorious in the Borges story, living in an ever more crowded world of facts that he was incapable of forgetting. Again and again he fell into the pattern of saying: 'We have to do two things. First . . . Second . . . Thirdly, we have to . . .'

Though he never talked down. He spoke to the electorate as grown-ups, and his postgraduate-level syntax paid people the compliment of being as intelligent, and as interested in the tricky details, as he was himself. Clinton said to me: 'I'm trying to avoid being typecast; I don't want to be pigeonholed into categories' - and his baggy sentences were his best defence against stereotype. They showed him as a man at home with paradox, whose temper of mind was eclectic and rationalist, who would come to any table ready to bargain and trade-off. The character of Clinton's grammar, with its hinged checks and balances, its regard for the as-isness of things, was against ideology, and it was no wonder that ideologues detested him. The left (especially the Nation's British columnists, Alexander Cockburn and Christopher Hitchens) nailed him for corrupt pusillanimity; the right went at him for being a liberal with a cosmetic nose-and eye-job. His while . . . at the same time . . . style, with all its laboured reasonableness, provoked two sections of the country to rage, at the same time as it sent a large third section to sleep.

An Arkansas journalist, interviewed on C-Span, the public- affairs cable TV network, said that the Governor was in the habit of introducing elaborate bills to the state House of Representatives, then standing by while the legislators lopped clauses off them with buzz-saws. Eventually a bill would get through, pollarded to around 40 per cent of its original spread, and Clinton would claim its passage as a triumph of reform. His sentences were like that. You could knock off a subjunctive qualifier here, a dependent main clause there, until most of the sentence was lying in a tangled heap around your feet. Yet 40 per cent of a sentence by Bill Clinton, even after you'd eliminated the short-haul aircraft and the fibre-optics systems, would still be a substantial mouthful.

JERRY BROWN'S lapsed Catholicism and Ross Perot's practising Presbyterianism were integral to their political personalities. Clinton's Baptism, though, seemed at odds with the rest of him. His basic style was secular, sceptical of dogma, educated to a fault. He'd lay out an economic policy in cool seminar-room terms, then squirt it with a top-dressing of religiosity like so much mayonnaise.

Most of this was harmless stuff - 'uplift', of the generalised, non-denominational variety. When he launched his campaign last fall at Georgetown University, with his first 'New Covenant' addresses, he laced them with remarks like 'These are not just economic proposals; they are the way to save the very soul of our nation', which did no more than strike the note of moral grandiloquence that the American electorate seems to expect of its presidential candidates.

I took Clinton's religion, like his enthusiasm for putting criminals in his home state to death, as being just one of those compromises that Southern politicians have to make in order to stay in office. That his rejoining of the Emanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock coincided with his electoral defeat in 1980 was . . . interesting; and when he dragged God into his speeches, I thought he was merely being Arkansas-electable.

Yet the more he moved out of the South to address the nation at large, the more stress he placed on his religious faith. He told US News & World Report: 'My faith has taught me to see this as a ministry,' and 'I pray virtually every day, usually at night, and I read the Bible every week.' To People magazine, he said that his faith provided him with 'an incredible amount of protection'.

For a devout Baptist, he seemed surprisingly theologically careless. 'The New Covenant', a title that failed to catch fire at Georgetown and was resuscitated at the Democratic Convention, is a nice case in point. After Woodrow Wilson's New Freedom, F D Roosevelt's New Deal and John F Kennedy's New Frontier, a New-something was clearly in order. But Covenant? There had been a New Covenant for the last 2,000 years. Cruden's Biblical Concordance supplies a gloss:

covenant The most common uses of the word in the Bible are for the covenant between God and his people. (1) The covenant between God and man, of continued life and favour on condition of obedience . . . The New Covenant is the covenant of God in Christ with his followers, frequently mentioned in the New Testament.

In the first of his Georgetown speeches, Clinton announced: 'Today we need to forge a New Covenant that will repair the damaged bond between the people and their government.' Where the old New Covenant was between God and the people, the new New Covenant was between government and the people - and the two g-words met in a verbal car crash. Nine months later, Clinton was - is - still trying to make the phrase famous; not a smart move, one would have thought, in this nation of God-lovers and government-haters.

Clinton, deft with secular ideas, appears clumsy with religious ones. His remark to People, quoted above, made his belief in God sound like a thermal blanket, in which he had sat huddled against the cold, scandalous wind of the New Hampshire primary. Usually he settles for a sort of genteel churchiness, which can come across as merely unctuous.

On Larry King Live, seated in the chair left warm by Ross Perot, Clinton spoke about how he was unable to get to sleep at night, thinking about the 'hurt' suffered by the American people under the Bush administration. It happened (probably not the right verb) that William F Buckley was on hand for the last 20 minutes of the show, ostensibly there to plug his latest sailing adventure. Buckley conclusively torpedoed Clinton's line by repeating it in his own patrician drawl: it was pure Willie Mufferson.

What is clearly true is that Clinton is a man who likes being in church (particularly if it is a black church). In his People interview, he said of his time at University College, Oxford: 'I never stopped feeling better in those big churches in England, but it wasn't anything that guided my life . . .' Church is a place where you feel better.

Anyone who has grown up in a tight, rule-bound, good-manners society (like rural Arkansas in the 1950s - or rural England in the 1950s) knows how one's emotional life comes to be distributed over a range of physical and geographical locations. You learn to remake yourself from place to place. There is one code of manners for the kitchen, another for the dining room - as you are one person at school, another at home, another in the houses of the gentry, another in church. For each setting, there is a different face and a different voice, and it is part of the child's basic social training to become a chameleon, instantly responsive to the rules that apply in this room, that building.

Watching Clinton, I kept on seeing my own anxious, English social equipment at work. He would adeptly feel his way into a new context with the same kind of antennae that I was brought up to grow myself, taking his cues from the voices around him and moulding himself to fit, in the Southern-manners way that Northerners are inclined to suspect as dissembling, but which an Englishman knows as something else.

He plays by the rules (a phrase he overworks) and thrives on rules. In an unruly context, like that of the New York primary, Clinton flails. Give him a situation in which a clear code of manners applies, and he rises to it with striking grace.

Nowhere was this more evident than in his campaign visits to Baptist churches and to black political meetings where the manners of church carried over into the hall. The Baptist church supplies a set of rules for being warm and spontaneous (do you have to be an Englishman, or a Southerner, to understand that this doesn't involve a contradiction?), for opening your heart in public in a way that would be impossibly unseemly elsewhere.

Always in church Clinton looked as if he felt better: his posture relaxed into an easy slouch, and his language went with it. As the university lecture hall liberated him intellectually, so the Baptist church liberated him emotionally and gave him a dialect in which to express a side of himself that was normally kept buttoned-up. In churches, or churchlike places, Clinton, usually no storyteller, could tell stories - and do it well.

Addressing the NAACP convention in mid-July, Clinton was warming up before embarking on his policy speech:

'You know, when I hear Ben Hooks preaching, it kind of makes me want to do the same thing?'

'Take a try]' shouted someone in the audience-congregation.

'When I was about ten, I got carried away one day, and started talking like that, and my grandmother looked at me, and she said, 'You know? I think you could be a preacher if you were just a little better boy]' '.

Clinton paused, turned slightly sideways.

'So I wound up in politics.'

He delivered the line in metrical deadpan, with that slight Southern question-mark at the end of the phrase. It was warm, unforced, genuinely funny; the Governor was on a roll, playing by the rules.

I WANTED to see at first-hand the Ross Perot crowd - the hopping-mad, get-the-bastards-out sector of the electorate in whose hands the outcome of this election was said to hang. With a Seattle friend, the novelist David Shields, I drove down to Olympia, Washington, the state capital, to see Perot speak to his followers.

South of Tacoma on Interstate 5, the Ross For Boss bumper-stickers began to crowd on the highway. They were accompanied by others: Happiness Is Being A Grandparent and a variant, new to me, on the same theme, Revenge Yourself - Live Long Enough To Be A Problem To Your Children. The Perot supporters' favoured mode of transport was the late-model camper. In Dolphins and Winnebagos, with fishing-rod CB aerials, they converged on to I-5 for a senior citizens' field day.

Perot was due to speak on the steps of the Capitol at 1pm. At 11.30am, there were already two or three thousand people gathered in the broad square under a blue sky. The band played Dixieland; the rally organisers unloaded from a truck 120 giant American flags. Put New Glory In Old Glory, said the T-shirts: Perot - The Poor Man's Rich Man; Exterminate Career Politicians; It's Time To Clean Out The Barn.

These people had been busy, and not only in collecting signatures to put Perot's name on the ballot (in Washington, he needed 200 and got 55,112). They came with painted placards, embroidered banners and a collection of shovels and brooms, their business-ends coloured red, white, and blue, for cleaning out the barn.

They waved aloft their brooms and shovels, and held their placards high. Friday Harbor For Perot. Ritzville For Perot. Moses Lake For Perot. A glance over the crowd gave one a thumbnail demography of Perot country.

Washington is a politically schizophrenic state. The urban corridor of western Washington is more solidly liberal-Democratic in its temper than almost anywhere else in the country, while the rural hinterland east of the Cascade mountains is a stronghold of the libertarian and the religious right. Pat Robertson carried the state in the Republican primary of 1988. This is John Birch Society territory, National Rifle Association territory, land of stand-up-on-your-own-two-feet and to-hell-with-the-bleeding-hearts.

At Olympia that day, eastern Washington had come to town. The jostling placards said Yakima, Wenatchee, Ephrata, Ellensburg, Walla Walla, Toppenish, Cheney, Sunnyside. The standard-bearers had burned country faces under their candy-striped straw hats. Alongside the easterners were well-off retirees from pretty villages in the San Juan Islands, north of Puget Sound - from Lopez, Orcas, West Sound, Olga, Port Stanley. Boat-owners for Perot.

If this was anger and disillusion, it wore a happy, pig-roast picnic face. There was a festival mood, disturbed only by a few brave young men and women from ACT-UP who carried placards (shabby, scrawled affairs, by comparison with the painstaking artwork of the Perot slogans) that said things like Queers Won't Vote For Perot.

When an ACT-UP demonstrator mounted the Capitol steps with a portable speaker-system, to declaim the message that Ross Perot was a homophobic sexist - but I lost the rest - a section of the crowd responded with a chant of 'Get rid of fags] Go, fags, go]' This was enthusiastically taken up. 'Get rid of fags] Go, fags, go]' shouted Yakima and Walla Walla and Roche Harbor For Perot. 'Get back in the closet]' When a TV crew, whiling away the time against Perot's arrival, approached the ACT-UP people for an interview, the crowd roared:

'Media bias] Media bias] Media bias]'

With the exception of the ACT-UP platoon, everyone in the crowd was in a couple or a family. Shields and I, two men standing together, found ourselves shunned by our immediate neighbours. The crowd was shoulder to shoulder, torso to torso; we were allowed a generous quantity of body space.

A beefy Friday Harbor type in his sixties turned on Shields. 'What have you got against Ross Perot? Why don't you like him? Give me a reason. I want to hear.'

Shields, whose own stammer supplied him with the central theme of his novel, Dead Languages, was fighting to get words out. He was - undecided, he said. He - hadn't made his mind up. He was curious - to hear what Ross Perot - had to say.

Friday Harbor played his trump. Fixing Shields in a stony glare, he said: 'Ross Perot's done a lot of research on Aids. That ought to please you people]' He turned on me. 'Did you know that? He's spent a lot of money on Aids research. You ought to be grateful.'

'I think,' Shields said, in a mild aside to me, 'that the man has a problem.

Out in the crowd, the sapling-forest of upraised shovels and brooms shook as if a gale was passing through when the news spread that Ross Perot had come. Long before he showed on the steps, the crowd, sensing his presence, had gathered itself into one, taking a long deep breath of anticipation, while Perot campaign officials went on with their speechifying.

Suddenly he was there - a small, taut, bristly figure, blinking at the sun and taking the steps slowly, breasting the outstretched hands. The cheering of the crowd over the urgent triple drumbeat of We love Ross] We love Ross] We love Ross] filled the square with a single, enormous exclamation.

Standing at the bank of microphones, Perot had the air of a peppery company chairman, press-ganged into saying 'a few words' at the firm's annual outing. He was - and it was perhaps part of his role as the arch anti-politician - a bad public speaker. He looked tired from his long flight, and had brought no metaphors from Dallas to entertain us.

He ran through his standard stump text. I'd watched him doing it before, on C-Span, and it had been a good deal fresher a couple of weeks earlier in Annapolis, Maryland.

What the crowd wanted was to give voice - to sing back their approval to their leader. Patiently, they waited for Perot to give them the signal that it was time to shout.

'Can we agree . . .' Perot barked into the mike, and the crowd readied itself. '. . . that we should not move all the manufacturing industries away out of this country?'

There were no dissenters on that one. The crowd came back with a rapturous Yes]

Perot nodded. 'Very good. Now - can we agree . . . that we are all in this together?' He raised his head from the mike and drew back the corners of his mouth in the gesture that most made him look like a member of the Chelonidae family.

'Yes]'

Vantage and Prosser and Chelan, and all the one-gas-station towns of eastern Washington, oscillated furiously on the ends of their poles. Everyone was in this together.

Perot nodded briefly at his children, and it looked to me as if he was beset by the mood that sometimes comes to the best of teachers, when they wonder if, perhaps, one can have just too much of finger-painting and Play-doh.

He dismissed them, as he always dismissed these vast kindergarten classes, with the words of a song: he reminded them of their own children and grandchildren; told them they were rebuilding America for the sake of children yet unborn. Then he snapped out the refrain of the lyric, giving it a curious, military punctuation, as if it were the scout camp orders-of-the-day.

'Climb: ev'ry mountain. Ford: ev'ry stream. Follow: ev'ry rainbow. Until: they find their dream. Thank you and God bless you.' And he was gone.

I thought: Bill Clinton is barking up the wrong tree.

AS CLINTON stood, he wouldn't do. The other characters on the scene were - 'characters': you could move them from the political circuit into a television mini-series with no more than the odd dab of powder on their shiny bits.

Perot already had been a character in a mini-series. He'd hired Ken Follett to knock him into fictional shape as the hero of a true-life thriller, and Follett's two-dimensional Perot reduced him to a manageable cliche. From On Wings of Eagles:

He came in from the kitchen with his face set. His eyes were as blue as the Arctic Ocean, and as cold. She knew that look. It was not just anger: he was not the kind of man to dissipate his energy in a display of bad temper. It was a look of inflexible determination. It meant that he had decided to do something and he would move heaven and earth to get it done. She had seen that determination, that strength, in him when she had first met him, at the Naval Academy in Annapolis . . . could it really be twenty-five years ago? It was the quality that cut him out from the herd, made him different from the mass of men . . .

Jerry Brown was adept at manifesting himself in vivid stereotype, and his performance owed a lot to fictional models. Peter Finch in Network had clearly been one inspiration; and during the New York primary, the Clinton campaign accused Brown of lifting a speech from the mouth of a character in an unpublished novel by his pollster, Pat Cadell. Wherever Brown went, he was accompanied by the one-time-filmmaker and disciple of Jean-Luc Godard, Jacques Barzhagi. He stayed with his friends Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, consulted Gore Vidal by phone. He was surrounded by experts in the art of constructing character and had a talent for acting the part that had been scripted for him, whether by himself or others.

When the press found labels for Perot and Brown, the labels stuck. Perot was dubbed 'the jug-eared can-do billionaire', and it seemed to fit. The New York Times took to calling Brown 'Savonarola', which happily condensed Brown's angry-friar performance into one word.

Whenever a label was found for Clinton, though, it fell off as soon as it was stuck on: 'Bubba' and 'Good Ol' Boy' were tried, but lacked adhesive; 'televangelist' lasted for a week or two before it blew away in the wind.

The trouble was that there were too many Bill Clintons: Clinton in church; Clinton the 'policy wonk'; Clinton the dysfunctional family victim; Clinton the school swot; Clinton the outsider; Clinton the crafty politician; baby-boom Sixties Clinton with Mick Jagger hair and a joint in his hand; New Age Nineties Clinton with his allergies and psychobabble; liberal Clinton; conservative Clinton . . . The Clintons kept on coming, and just as the press hit on a cognomen for one of them, another Clinton emerged to make the name look misapplied. Insofar as it expressed anything, the Slick Willie label expressed the annoyance of the nicknaming journalists at finding a surface to which no label would satisfactorily stick.

I found Clinton fascinating to watch. Here was a genuinely complex character who could surprise one as Brown and Perot never did. You could suffer for him, in the way you suffer for the flawed heroes of novels that are richer, darker and infinitely more involving than those of Ken Follett. During the Gennifer Flowers business, the pot-smoking business, the draft business, it was possible to feel for Clinton as a hero in the Dickens or the Thackeray mould.

But he was too messily real for the rapidly narrowing plot- line of a presidential election (a genre of boldly painted, easy-to-recognise characters, much closer to Follett than to Thackeray), and he had to be rewritten.

IN THE MONTH before the Democratic convention, we kept on being shown teasing trailers for a new Bill Clinton, coming soon. Dee Dee Myers, Clinton's travelling press secretary, appeared on CNN to announce that - at last - the Governor was going to 'tell his own story', and it was everywhere said that the convention would 'reintroduce Bill Clinton to the American people'.

It was Al Gore who began this reintroduction. On the day he agreed to be Clinton's vice-presidential nominee, the Gores and the Clintons (from l to r: Hillary, Chelsea, Kristen, Al III, Sarah, Tipper) stood in front of the gubernatorial mansion in Little Rock, while the Senator addressed the crowd.

'I come from Carthage, Tennessee,' Gore said. 'I've never been to Hope, Arkansas, but I'm told that it's just like Carthage in one respect - it's a place where people know about it when you're born and care about it when you die. That's the America Bill Clinton and I grew up in, and when we elect him president, that's the kind of nation we'll once again become.'

It was ringingly phrased, and it put to death two widespread misapprehensions. The first was the idea that Gore had actually grown up in Washington DC (where his family kept a permanent suite at a hotel and where he attended St Alban's prep school) and only visited Carthage (where the Gores had a farm) on vacations. The second was the notion that Bill Clinton had grown up in a town where not even the next-door neighbours knew of what went on behind the drawn curtains of the Clinton place. (The family moved from Hope to the bigger resort and gambling town of Hot Springs when Bill was seven. Virginia and Roger Clinton wanted to make a new start, and Hot Springs offered them a welcome anonymity.)

Gore's speech did away with the inconvenient details of his own and Bill Clinton's upbringing; it conjured an idealised small town, uncannily like the Texarkana of Rose Perot's sunny American boyhood. Gore's broadstroke brushwork was streets ahead, artistically, of Clinton's habitual style of niggling and qualified realism.

While Gore spoke, another storyteller was putting the finishing touches on her account of Bill Clinton's life. Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, creator of the sitcom series, Designing Women, about sisterhood in the New South, close friend of the Clintons and adviser to the campaign, was making a 13-minute film, to be played as the overture to Clinton's acceptance speech. Clinton had found his Ken Follett.

Ushered in by Jennifer Holiday (singing 'Stay strong . . . when things are going wrong') and Governor Ann Richards ('The story of Bill Clinton is a truly American story . . .'), the Bloodworth-Thomason movie was a masterpiece, perhaps the masterpiece, of political advertising.

It was night-time in the Governor's mansion and the lamps were turned down low. (Message: Bill Clinton has been working late for the public good.) Clinton, in soft focus, was lit from the side, in a honey-colored light after the style of a Rembrandt portrait. The camera looked up at him searchingly, from a position perhaps four feet above the floor. (Message: this is a man you can respect.) Each time Clinton spoke, the camera would embark on a slow zoom, until his face filled the screen. (Message: trust him.)

This was a newly inarticulate, method-acting, Bill Clinton. He would shake his head (aw-gosh, that's hard . . .), and say things like 'it was . . . you know . . . tough'. His memories were punctuated with honest hesitations: '. . . she came to - Arkansas, and - we were - driving around one day together - and we - drove past this - beautiful old house . . .' The master grammarian had taken his leave, and in his place sat a big, shy man from the back-country, with misty eyes for the bad times and a goofy chuckle for the good ones.

Music (light orchestral, warm and soupy) played as the film assembled the jigsaw puzzle of the Clinton family past. Everyone except the Governor was shot in natural light, and usually in sunshine. With its quick cross-cutting from character to character, the close-knit film artfully mirrored the close-knittedness of the family. Bloodworth-Thomason conveyed the shared nature of the treasured family memory with a series of corroborative duets.

BILL: . . . I just bowled through the door, and told him that he wasn't going to do that any more. I said:

Cut to:

VIRGINIA: 'Stand up - I have something to say to you.'

And again:

BILL: . . . and walked the entire length of the law library, and walked up to me, and she said:

Cut to:

HILLARY: 'If you're going to keep looking at me, and I'm going to keep looking at you, we at least ought to know each other, and I'm Hillary Rodham . . .'

CUT TO:

BILL: . . . 'and what's your name?' . . .

It was a brilliant confection. For every moment of catch-in-your-throat pathos (Virginia, kneeling by the side of the railroad track and crying, as she left her three-year-old son behind) there was a balancing episode of happens-to-us-all family comedy (Baby Chelsea, rolling off the side of the bed, 'unlearning gravity'). Hollywood polish was carefully offset with footage from old home videos and home movies.

This was Hope, Arkansas's story. The 'wonderful little small town where it seemed like - you know - everybody knew everybody else' was sketched in iconic terms. There was the old brick rail station; the movie house where, in the week of Clinton's birth in 1946, Tomorrow is for Ever, with Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert, was playing; the Baptist church; the grandparents' country store; the children's swimming-hole; the July 4th parade. 'All I am and all I ever will be came from there,' said Clinton in voice-over, while the woodwind section sobbed plangently behind the words.

It was a story designed to drive other stories out of mind. Most of what we thought we knew of Bill Clinton was cancelled at a stroke. Hot Springs was gone; so was Oxford. Yale was there as the place where he met Hillary, and the place where he turned down the offer of a job on the Yale Law Journal because he had to 'go home and be a country lawyer'. As Mark Antony said, was this ambition? Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.

The fatherless boy who'd taken precocious care of his mother and brother, who'd shaken hands with JFK, who'd provided for Hillary and Chelsea, was now ready to take care of the larger family of America and bring it home to Hope. There's room for more] was the film's message, as it showed the swinging hammock in the sun, enfolding the Clintons like a nest.

SO POWERFUL was the film that Clinton's acceptance speech, when it came, seemed like a footnote to the triumph of suggestive compression that we'd watched on the screen.

It was said that Clinton, before writing his own speech, had studied every acceptance speech by a Democrat since Roosevelt's in 1931; but it was Linda Bloodworth-Thomason's movie that most clearly shaped his words. His 'learning' was a major theme - but, pointedly, it was learning of a kind not taught in school. From his mother he had learned courage ('. . . always, always she taught me to fight'); from his wife, he had learned childcare ('Hillary taught me . . . that all children can learn, and that every one of us has a duty to help them do it . . .') and from his grandfather - 'My grandfather had a grade-school education. But in that country store he taught me more about equality in the eyes of the Lord than all my professors at Georgetown; more about the intrinsic worth of every individual than all the philosophers at Oxford, and he taught me more about the need for equal justice than all the jurists at Yale Law School.'

Clinton was up on the high wire here, at once paying tribute to his higher education and denying its value. He'd taken the train out of Arkansas to go to all those ritzy colleges, only to be taught things he'd already learned back in the country store. In the movie, he had said of his grandparents: 'They didn't go around and see the world, and become broadminded; they did it out of the depths of their experience and their heart.' The implied distinction, between things truly learned, out of experience, and mere book-learning, was weasel-worded, coming as it did from a man who, up to that moment, had appeared as a living testimony to the transforming power of education.

One college professor did receive an honorable citation: Dr Carroll Quigley, a historian at Georgetown in the 1960s. Quigley 'said America was the greatest country in the history of the world because our people have always believed in two great ideas: first, that tomorrow can be better than today, and second, that each of us has a personal, moral responsibility to make it so.'

Yet this philosophy of perpetual self- and national-improvement is precisely the kind of gnarled wisdom that you don't have to go to university to learn, but might as well pick up in the country store or the barbershop. QED.

This was a Bill Clinton whose only book was the Bible, from which he quoted twice. Gone were his branched sentences, his fluency in economics, his graceful, common-ground debating style - and in their place was a combative man who appeared to have acquired half his language in church and the other half in the poolroom.

'For too long, those who play by the rules and keep the faith have gotten the shaft,' he said. I have always been hazy about what 'getting the shaft' actually means, and I consulted Wentworth & Flexner's Dictionary of American Slang:

'to get the (a) shaft.' Fig., the image is the taboo one of the final insult, having someone insert something, as a barbed shaft, up one's rectum. See up my ass.

This new man, who could talk in one breath of keeping the faith and getting the shaft, could speak, with poolroom derision, of 'the brain-dead politics of Washington' (while the camera went off to scan the face of House Speaker Tom Foley). It was this new man's tough-guy syntax that gave the speech its dominant flavour.

'But I cannot do it alone. No President can. We must do it together. It won't be easy, and it won't be quick.'

Clinton had learned to talk in Hemingway-Perotese.

THE NEW Bill Clinton had found a conveyance to match his grammar: he traveled by bus. When the Clinton-Gore buscade reached St Louis at the end of its 1,000-mile trip from New York, an enormous crowd (of 40,000 according to Senator Gore, 20,000 according to CNN) assembled to hear the candidates speak. It was a far, far cry from the street market scenes that I'd seen in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Al Gore wound the crowd up with his 'What time is it?' routine ('It's . . . time . . . for . . . them . . . to . . . go]') and delivered it to Bill Clinton for the final treatment.

Somewhere along the road that had brought him from New York, Clinton had shed all his terminal g's together with a number of other grammatical refinements. Handing his jacket to Gore, loosening his tie and the top button of his shirt, the stripped-down, divested Clinton showed his stuff. He spoke now in the first person plural, and this shift from the singular did much more than register his partnership with his vice-presidential nominee; he was speaking for the multitude. His we was the we of We the people.

'When people think nothin's gonna change, and nobody cares about 'em . . .' he said; 'we're gonna have a welfare system that . . .' and 'we're gonna change the tax system to liberate the poor . . .'

The new Bill Clinton was a wonder. This was a guy who would have asked you Helmut-who? His blue Oxford shirt, now darkening with sweat, was as near a connection as he came to making with that university town, and as his speech came to its rhythmical climax, he looked and sounded like an authentic demagogue out of Arkansas, Hope's answer to Huey Long.

'So - if you're sick 'n' tired o' the way it's bin goin' - if you want the American people in control ag'in - if you think America's still the greatest country in the world ag'in - if you think we can still compete and win ag'in - if you're tired o' bein' heartbroken when you come home at night - and you want a spring in yo' step and a song in yo' heart - YOU GIVE AL GORE AND I A CHANCE]'

The crowd came back to him with a football-stadium roar of approbation. All that was missing was the waving of a few thousand painted brooms and shovels. Certainly this was the speech that people had come to Olympia to hear from Ross Perot (they had melted away in silence at the end of Perot's company pep talk); and now Clinton was giving it to them, right down to the snatch of song at the end.

Smart work. To the long list of Bill Clintons already in existence there now had to be added a politician so flat, and vivid, that a child could do him in red, white and blue crayon. Like a cannibal king, he'd taken on the qualities of his rivals by ingesting them. He'd stolen Brown's angry fervour and Ross Perot's pretty-basic-stuff simplicity: over in the Bush camp, there were complaints that he was plagiarising the Republicans' best lines.

He had the feel of his audience now: he knew what they wanted him to be, and he was being it. During the primaries, he had sometimes entertained the journalists on the plane by obliging them with his Elvis Presley impressions. His new demagoguery was like that; it was his Huey Long impression, and he did it with the same smiling compliance that he brought to all his roles.

I rewound the videotape of the St Louis speech and played it back in slow motion, without sound. Slowly his arms sawed the air, and he slowly thumped the lectern with his clenched fist. Lower lip thrust forward, upper teeth exposed, his meaty face was cast in an impressionist's parody of angry determination. Yet his eyes were mild. He didn't seem to be looking at his audience so much as watching them from a distance, through those pouched and anxious eyes. The silent mouth was all bold certitude; the eyes said, but on the other hand . . . -

(Photographs omitted)

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