A good time for Clinton to get away from it all

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The Independent Online
This may be hard to believe in Britain, where President Bill Clinton's stopover in New Labourland today is the climax to an all-star European tour in praise of the transatlantic relationship, but as far as the American public is concerned he might as well have stayed at home. From the moment Mr Clinton learnt, shortly before he met Boris Yeltsin in Paris, that he had lost his appeal against a lawsuit brought by a certain Paula Jones, his trip - and any domestic kudos that might have accrued from it - was effectively at an end.

Thereafter, the all-powerful US television networks, the all-pervasive American talk shows, not to speak of downtown bars, were buzzing with only one question: would Ms Jones's case come to court before Mr Clinton left office in the year 2001, and if it did, could he survive. Mr Clinton is accused by Ms Jones of sexual harassment when he was governor of Arkansas and she was a junior state employee. And if her highly graphic allegations are true, the charge of sexual harassment seems lenient.

Ms Jones's claims are far from proven. They have not even been fully investigated (by the courts, that is, though journalists have had a good go). The judgment that went against Mr Clinton this week simply allows the case to proceed. However, the fact that he went as far as the Supreme Court to argue that it should not, at least so long as he was President, showed how seriously he took it.

That Mr Clinton should arrive in London burdened by allegations of the sort that have driven not a few British politicians from office is a small irony and could cast a shadow over a visit that honours Tony Blair. But the coincidence also highlights the differences between two men who are often compared.

Both of the post-war generation, both married to high-flying lawyer wives, both of a leftish disposition, both prepared to embrace policies more commonly associated with the right, if only to win office, Mr Blair and Mr Clinton have much in common. They even share some advisers.

On the matter of women and sex, or - in more guarded parlance - family values, however, there is a difference. Mr Blair campaigned as a happily married man with three children who warned his ministers and MPs-to-be about the political risks of dalliance. Mr Clinton was elected President despite exposes about his private life which included at least one undenied case of adultery and the suspicion - never doused - of more.

Yet neither man's reputation seems to have had the effect on voters, especially female voters, that might have been predicted. Women voters had a generally less favourable view of Mr Blair than men did, while with Mr Clinton the so-called gender gap was reversed. Polls on Mr Blair suggested that women found him a bit too good to be true; their use of the adjective "smarmy" suggested mistrust. With Mr Clinton, though, whose evasive answers about his private life and much-reported indiscretions seemed to offer ample cause for mistrust, there was no women-voter problem at all, on the contrary. One simplistic reason may be the same reason why Mr Clinton enjoys such apparent success with women in general: his almost small-boyish manner, and his perceived sincerity.

Whatever his sins, Mr Clinton gives the impression of knowing what would have been right. Whether for reasons of political expediency - as some would say - or not, he and his wife have stayed together and brought up their daughter with a degree of commitment that has met every requirement of conservative America.

Mr Clinton, moreover, had one advantage over fallen British politicians and those of his compatriots who fell foul of the gossip columns. He never claimed to embody family values, he only aspired to try.

But something else sets the two leaders apart. Mr Blair has a degree of personal confidence that comes from power. But Mr Clinton has a natural aura of authority, a personal magnetism, that seems to compensate for many failings. Insiders may complain of his indecisiveness and openness to lobbying, but this is not a face the public sees.

They sense his power, they respond to his genius for finding the right word and the right register for any occasion and any individual - from state leader to homeless flood victim. They admire his mastery of complex subjects, from arms control to social security, that compares with the legendary ability of Margaret Thatcher to marshal an argument.

All this is why, despite the threat of a messy and damaging lawsuit brought by one of those rare women who did not succumb to his charms, Mr Clinton might just escape - not through the lenience of any judge, but by his own lights. Dubbed "slick Willie", he has shown a great facility for extricating himself from apparently hopeless situations.

He could settle out of court - a move that could leave him financially crippled when he leaves office and seems a tacit admission of guilt. He could persist in his denials, tough out the lawsuit and save some dignity by testifying in private; but he would have to be confident of his innocence. Perhaps, though, he could take the brazen approach, go on television to admit Ms Jones's charges, insist that his pre-presidential private life has no effect on his ability to fulfil his duties and assert that - unlike certain other presidents in similar situations - he has neither forced his accuser's silence nor bought her off. His combination of power and charm, sincerity and contrition could win the day.

Certainly, Ms Jones's damages would be greatly reduced from the $700,000 she is now claiming for loss of reputation. Mr Clinton already has a quorum of women on his side who ask why it took Ms Jones more than two years to mount her accusations.

The President's only difficulty would be his earlier insistence that he had never knowingly met Ms Jones. Lying, as we have recently learnt from the US military, is considered a more heinous crime than adultery, and a cover-up, as Richard Nixon learnt to his cost, is considered worse than the crime.

When Tony Blair plays host to Clinton in London today he will doubtless take comfort from his own clean bill of moral health. But however grave Mr Clinton's political difficulties, the US President is not to be underestimated. As a practitioner of the political arts, he still takes a lot of beating.