Digging up dirt can land you in doo-doo

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Indy Lifestyle Online
DIDN'T anyone tell John Major that Bill Clinton is probably the most clued- up friend Britain could have since JFK? That it was not cool to let the Home Office play party politics in America when it tried to dig up dirt on Mr Clinton in aid of George Bush? Could anyone actually believe that Bill Clinton, clearly headed for a political career early on, would apply for British, for foreign, citizenship to avoid the draft during the Vietnam war?

Kenneth Clarke insists that neither he nor the Prime Minister had anything to do with this tacky episode. It's not much of a surprise that Mr Clinton refused to see Mr Major during the latter's forthcoming trip to Washington. Asked about the behaviour of the British government, Clinton just said: 'I thought they had more pressing things to do.' Maybe the Prime Minister never figured Clinton would win, but messing with Bill was pretty dumb, because, for one thing, the President- elect gives every sign of liking Britain. Bill Clinton knows Britain; he has smelt the place first hand. He has appointed several advisers who, like him, were Rhodes scholars.

There is something else. At Oxford in the Sixties, Clinton was part of the first really intercontinental generation of Brits and Americans. Unlike other periods, the Twenties, say, when Americans aped British manners, or the Forties or Fifties, when Britain doggedly devoured US culture from Glenn Miller to Elvis Presley, in the Sixties the generational traffic went both ways. It shared its attitudes, its advertising, its movies, its music - John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix - and if the American Sixties were about styles of politics and the British Sixties about styles of style, the two met on a cheap charter flight and said hi. Bill Clinton was there. I mean, the President-elect has asked a British band, his favourite band, Fleetwood Mac, to play at his inaugural gig.

Grown up now (more or less), this is a generation that might form a shiny new version of the Special Relationship, as it was once upon a time. Although Churchill and Roosevelt, and probably other prime ministers and presidents, certainly would not have agreed on almost anything in terms of domestic policy or ideology, so far as I know they did not get bogged down in party politics. But even before the Home Office stuck its finger in, the Special Relationship was diseased.

In the Thatcher-Reagan era, it deteriorated into a private power trip, like long-distance telephone sex for wrinklies; he let her think she was still running a powerful nation; she let him think he was smart. And Nancy got to do embarrassing things in the presence of the Queen. Americans had always assumed that the Special Relationship was with all of us, not just Republicans. John Major and George Bush, clinging to the wrecked ideology of their former masters, degraded the relationship even further.

During the US elections, our own State Department searched Mr Clinton's files for signs of 'unpatriotic' behaviour so Mr Bush could do a lot of finger-pointing, which was mighty trashy stuff. When a friendly foreign government gets in on the act, it lowers itself into, in George Bush's favourite phrase, deep doo-doo.

It wasn't just that the Home Office searched for the 'missing' files; a group of Tories advised George Bush on the election at the invitation of the Republican politician Newt Gingrich. Gingrich, a man whose entire face is perpetually seized up in a smirk, is so far to the right he probably thinks women who do not wear stockings in summer are sluts. (I know a Labour MP briefed the Democrats about how they lost their election and I don't think much of that either, but at least they told Clinton to fight on issues, not personalities.) Go for Clinton's character, said Britain's Tory beastly boys, preaching to the converted; get down and dirty. So what did the rent-a-Tory gang actually teach the Republicans? To say bozo with a better accent?

This has led me to ponder how ordinary Americans must feel. I really love this place, but in the Nineties does the United States care much about it? The attitude of most Americans towards Britain, I suspect, is historical affection and pervasive disinterest.

The regular blasts of anti-American feeling in Britain barely touch their target. Most Americans don't care if Britain thinks it's had an irony by-pass, is rampant with PC police, is a rude, crude place where folk eat babies for breakfast, or if Harold Pinter hates it. It does not lose sleep if, as one London tabloid suggested, its fashion magazines are run by Brits, who alone have style while American women look like dogs; it does not know or care that a tiny pack of 'Media Brits' is making it in New York. America does not quake in its cowboy boots at the prospect of Britain as part of a European commercial monster.

On the other hand, there is a profound liking for Great Britain in America - tinged with nostalgia and sentiment maybe, but real, nevertheless. And I bet that few feel it more than Bill Clinton.

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