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Clintons cook up a storm

As you may just possibly have heard, President and Mrs Clinton have been having a few problems. Some of them are, of course, purely political. The difficulty politicians face is that everything they do becomes political, and because that is their choice in life, I do not suppose we should waste tears on them: they are like academics, for whom university life would be bliss were it not for the presence of students. Much more difficult to take - to my knowledge nothing similar has ever occurred at 10 Downing Street - have been the troubles the First Couple have been subjected to by their choice of cook and staff in the White House.

There is nothing new in this. The United States presidency is democratically discontinuous, and each new president is entitled to change the sheets, shift chintz and hire his own cook. Some, blessed with a sense of tradition, have left things much as they were, knowing they were temporary inhabitants, mere guardians of the presidency and not owners. On the other hand, eating is something pretty fundamental, and in the past few decades the staff turnover, despite employee rights, has been high.

In my boyhood, which goes back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and beyond, one did not hear much about the cooking in the White House. As in the august hotels of the capital, such mundane things as dinners and lunches were prepared by elderly black chefs of great dignity; an approximation was made to 'home cooking' of an ante bellum sort. The US was not, before the Second World War, much of a world power; the White House did not need to impress visiting dignitaries with its cooking, and presidents considered themselves more or less on a par with their fellow citizens. Thus Harry Truman was a sensible eater rather than an accomplished one; and Eisenhower had but to install his (faintly Europeanised) wartime cook.

Then came the Kennedys, and especially Jacqueline, who had been used to better things. Like French presidents since de Gaulle, they realised that a little eclat can go a long way. As one who has eaten in both the White House and the Elysee Palace, I can assure you that, on formal occasions, the two maisons were mirror images of each other. At other times, it must be remembered, the White House is also the playground and romper room of the president's staff, with their movie house, their tennis club, their snack bar.

The Kennedy tradition - public fancy, private plain - was continued, after a brief interruption of corn bread from Jimmy Carter, by both Reagan and Bush. When you put on your black tie you got monarchical cuisine - not Hanoverian monarchical (Buckingham Palace has some way to go before approximating the Republique Francaise in culinary matters) but Louis XIV: opulent, pretentious and tres chic.

The Clintons are much more democratic than anyone since Andrew Jackson; it is their aim that the Clinton presidency should show, in all things, the face of the United States. Hence public puzzlement over why they should quarrel with their staff of 100. So they wanted American cooking rather than French, and thus replaced executive chef Pierre Chambrin and sous-chef John Moeller. But why official dishwasher Adam Collick? (One could see why the latter's name would be no help to him as a chef.)

My source says Chambrin went because he was sniffy, because he thought himself above the laws of politics. But then, why also fire married-to-a-black-woman, litigious (he is suing the White House for racial discrimination]) Sean Haddon, who had been brought in by Nancy Reagan with the express purpose of Americanising the White House cuisine? Why fire Emery, the usher (butler)? Just because he made Hillary Clinton 'feel uncomfortable'?

A possible answer lies in the Clintons' fascination with image. On this score, the world of the well-to-do splits into two. The old hands think of a good meal as a gift to their guests (until recently, I still had my mother's entertainment book, with its elaborate list of what guests liked best and least - Count Ciano could not face the sight of blood), and a way of pleasing them. Parvenus tend to think of entertaining as a reflection of their new-found glory.

Officially, the Clintons are not into pleasure, but into an earnest abstemiousness. A Big Mac on the hoof and nibbled snacks are not the baked peacock of the Shah. Image requires that the Clintons be seen as plain, unfancy folk, like you and me. And if you think this ought to come naturally

to them, you do not understand the mantle of glory the White House

confers on its incumbent. Most Americans do not want their president to be ordinary.

A second reason may be the inordinate difficulty of cooking for everyone from flat-heeled women ministers on diets to future presidents last seen languishing in jail, from raw- fish Japanese to burnt-meat Slavs, from three or 300 seated for dinner to an Arkansas breakfast.

Fundamentally, however, I think it represents a new restlessness in the US, reflected as much in its eating habits as in its incessant fiddling with its 'problems', be they schools, crime or health. The Clintons, a minority choice, were elected to offer 'change'. So the cuisine, too, must change. It must become a form of Affirmative Action, because, for sure, what came before was wrong. Had it not been wrong, would Bill and Hillary be where they are?

The White House scene will bear watching. It is an influential place. It is from there that likes (jelly beans) and dislikes (broccoli) spread. Maybe the Clintons will at last define what US cuisine is. Or which American cooking is most American. That would be no mean achievement.