It was the seventh day of the White House's European campaign and President Clinton had reached the fancy dress phase. Now was the time to put on a plum-coloured cape, a black felt beefeater's hat and sit amid rows of creaking old men in white hair and white ties, red gowns and red faces.

Anything for a picture.

For a moment it seemed as if the occasion he was attending was simply the presentation of an honorary degree from the University of Oxford. There was a man intoning away in Latin, there was Lord Jenkins, the University's Chancellor, citing, in the arcane phraseology expected of the place, Mr Clinton's qualifications for the distinction.

But when Mr Clinton spoke in reply it became apparent that the ceremonials were nothing more than a colourful back-cloth to the important business in hand. His speech began with a tribute to those who died in the D-Day landings. Utterly irrelevant to the occasion, but exactly what was required to fulfil the purpose of the European campaign. On Wednesday he was not addressing the dons around him in the Sheldonian Theatre, he was addressing the gallery. Or more specifically, the camera in the gallery, with which he maintained eye contact throughout. The one linking him to 100 million voters back home.

Battered by scandals surfacing like a company of moles on a croquet lawn in Washington, Clinton's advisers saw the chance of breathing space in Europe, a chance to rebuild his image. In Rome, Italian-Americans could be reassured by talk of a special relationship; in Paris, Mrs Clinton could hold her own with Europe's female political elite; in Normandy, the draft-dodger could play soldiers. And now Oxford, an opportunity to focus attention on one of the President's less well-publicised organs: his brain.

Nothing was left to chance; image was all. Along the High, where platoons of wide-shouldered security men failed hopelessly to blend into the sandstone, an American with a wire dangling from his ear was handing out plastic stars and stripes to the crowds.

'It seems a nice way to greet the President of the United States, a popular President of the United States,' the man said, when asked why he wasn't charging for the flags. And what was his name?

'I'm sorry,' he said. 'I do not wish to be part of a news story.'

The President, though, knew he was permanently part of a very big news story. Everything he said would be analysed for hints and nuances. So in the place where he had once taken two years' opportune absence from his homeland, he talked about military sacrifice. In the place where he had once had an unconsummated relationship with a joint, he talked about the important task in hand for the world's youth. In the place where he met half his Washington advisers, he indulged in photo opportunities that might help them keep their jobs beyond 1996.

But the odd thing about Wednesday was that if Clinton was using Oxford, Oxford was doing its best to use him back. If the President came to the university encumbered with the world's media, ready to beam his image-building around the world, the university would not miss its chance to hitch a ride on the soundbite satellite.

Every one of the international media's representatives was greeted on arrival with an information pack detailing the long and fruitful relationship between the university and the United States. The words 'endowment', 'generosity' and 'appreciation' were generously spiced through the text.

'The university is quite servile at times, frankly,' said Godfrey Hodgson, director of the Reuter Foundation at Green College. 'They are meekly willing to be used by Americans for media opportunities, because they have convinced themselves there is a pay cheque at the end of it.'

And, just as the university saw its chance to hold out its mortar boards, so every student politician in the place was equally switched on to the fact that CNN was down their alley for the day. While Mr Clinton spoke, the streets outside the Sheldonian were turned into a jamboree of demonstrations. An anti-abortion campaigner rubbed banners with a man flourishing a poster about Rwanda and the Anti-Nazi League protesting about Mr Clinton dining with Italian Fascists.

'We've got nothing against Clinton personally,' said a mild-mannered man from the League. 'But we want the world to know we will not tolerate Nazis.'

Most spectacularly there were about 500 students chanting the most esoteric war cry in the history of protest: 'If you can't pay your battels clap your hands.' College battels, or rent, as it is known in the real world, are due to be raised by up to 30 per cent next term and these undergraduates were unhappy.

'We met about a week ago and we realised that today would be the perfect day to get our point across,' said Martha Howells, a second-year history student, one of a noisy gaggle from St Hilda's College. 'We thought it our best chance to embarrass the university.'

They were particularly delighted to hear that Clinton, in the one ad-libbed moment of the speech, referred to the battle with battels.

'Yeah,' saidMartha on hearing the news. 'Done it.'

Would she, then, not have come to see the President if she were not protesting?

'Maybe,' she said. 'I do have a thing about middle-aged Americans with love handles.'

And it wasn't just their banners these wannabes wanted to thrust forwards into the camera's range. Flapping around the edges of the demonstration was a student in blazer and tie, sidling up to anyone with a note-book, camera or microphone. When he spotted the crew from St Hilda's talking to me, he was over.

'Come on, girls,' he said. 'Don't just stand there talking. There's the Chancellor. Get chirruping with your little song.'

The well-trimmed youth claimed to be the leader of the demo.

'My first,' he said. 'The university just don't seem to realise that everything they do these days is a press opportunity.'

On being asked his name, the student produced a printed card from his breast pocket.

'Thought you might ask me that,' he said. 'If I can be of any help, don't hesitate. And which paper are from from. I'll have to buy it.'

What a chance to see your name in the paper. Shame I lost the thing. The Clinton image makers, though, were too sharp, even for careerist Young Conservatives on the make. Instead of the President and his camera-companions walking past them on his way to visit his successors in the Rhodes Scholarship House, he drove swiftly by in an armoured motorcade. 'Security reasons,' said a man in dark glasses and a mac.

A different kind of security. Terrified of pictures of Clinton walking past baying protestors, what they were protecting here was not the President's person, but his image.

In the end it would be wrong to suggest that no one in Oxford had another agenda in mind when they came out to see the President visit. Standing against a railing in Christ Church Meadow, where the Clinton circus first touched down in the city, there were four women fluttering US flags. They watched the helicopters arriving on the manicured lawns with increasing excitement, until the President himself stepped on to Oxford soil and they tried to out-yell the rotor blades with their greetings.

'We like him, we like his wife,' said Thelma Cahoon, from Manassas, Virginia, whose husband has been posted in England for more than a year. 'But I guess more of us over here love him than over there. If only he knew we were here. He could take us home with him. He could use a bit of help.'

(Photograph omitted)

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