He seized his opportunity, then he threw it away
POWER is the only currency that matters in Washington. It is an object of cult worship, and a shrine at which President Bill Clinton has worshipped for most of his life. Getting, using and holding power are the black arts that define success. But while he has proved a past master at the first and about average on the second, he has been, ultimately, a disaster at the third.

Power in a representative democracy is not like a uniform or a mantle: it cannot simply be slipped on or off. It derives from numerous sources: from the people's choice: from the selection of staff; from connections, information and the control of ideas; from an actor's timing, a sportsman's sense of tactics, a soldier's grasp of strategy. As the furore surrounding his behaviour escalated last week, President Clinton was watching that power slip away.

The post which is, in theory, the most powerful in the political system, relies for its successful operation on both a delicate balancing act, and the maintenance of an aura of power. And - because the only thing that power respects in Washington is power itself - that aura has all but disappeared.

It is not just the revelations about his private life, damaging though they are; nor the charges brought against him by Kenneth Starr. It is the broader indignities: the debates over a videotape, the demeaning images of him as a witness and suspect in a case rather than the Commander-in- Chief, the sheer embarrassment of watching him deal with Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic and Nato expansion, when the only thing the press wants to know about is sex and lies.

His staff, as they explain themselves and the President on live television, or in unsourced quotes in the newspapers, speak in clipped, bitter tones. He has lost respect, he has lost mystery, and with them go power.

The daily routines carry on. The President wakes each morning to the highly classified daily briefing provided by the CIA. He travels in the Marine One helicopter to Andrews Air Force base where Air Force One takes him to wherever he chooses: last week, Cincinnati and Boston. The panoply of power - the Secret Service, the Oval Office, the secure communications - still attend him. Yet each of these has been in some way tarnished: the Secret Service officers who gave testimony about moments when they caught him unaware, the office where he romped, the telephone lines that were used for phone sex.

This is a man who swept into power in 1992 on a wave of energy and enthusiasm, and was re-elected for a second term in 1996. He had judged his moment carefully and had been planning it for years. I remember meeting him in 1987 in London, when he was touring various countries to promote, in theory, Arkansas. He was full of dynamism, a magnetic and powerful personality who filled a room, who could, almost without effort, talk high policy one moment and indulge in casual banter the next.

Would he, we asked, run for office in 1988, when Ronald Reagan would leave office, to be succeeded by George Bush, his vice-president? He was, even then, rumoured to be a contender; and the conventional wisdom was that Mr Bush was highly vulnerable. No, he said, he would not. The time was not right for a Democrat. What about 1992? Well, yes, that was a possibility. He was correct: Michael Dukakis emerged as the candidate in 1988 and was not just defeated but publicly eviscerated. The Democrats squabbled and disintegrated. The time was not right.

But it was right in 1992. "Saddam Hussein still has a job: do you?" read a popular bumper sticker. The economy was all wrong, even though the Cold War and the Gulf War were over, and Mr Bush had a claim to have succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the American foreign policy establishment. "It's the economy, stupid," was Bill Clinton's mantra. His tools were a revitalised Democratic Party, public scorn at Bush's patrician ways, good staff work, the ability to bounce back from defeat. What defined him as the successful candidate was his energy, his ability to connect with people and turn them into voters.

It was, whatever you thought of him, a remarkable success. He was young, he had run the poorest state in America, he had fought some of the most established names in his party, he had fought a Republican party that was accustomed to power, and he had won, albeit without a majority of the vote. Getting power: 8 out of 10.

He first stood for office in 1974, the year of Watergate, when he ran for a Congressional seat in Arkansas in the most Republican part of the state. He received 48.5 per cent of the vote (more than in 1992) but lost. What he achieved was to establish himself as a contender. "Clinton did something during that campaign that I don't know how to explain," said Bill Simmons, who was Associated Press bureau chief in Little Rock at the time. "He achieved an aura of inevitability. It became a foregone conclusion that he would hold a state office soon."

But that aura has never stood up so well to the realities of wielding power. Within four months of taking office in 1992, the administration was all over the place - on the budget, on gays in the military; it set its sights on health care reform and lost badly. It is easy to blame Congress: but for the first two years of his administration, it was in Democratic hands, and he found himself confronting allies as much as enemies. After 1994, he was fighting Newt Gingrich, the Speaker in the House of Representatives who took control away from the White House and brought it back up to Capitol Hill.

But he fought back, restoring his authority through the budget battle, by sending troops to Bosnia, and by tactically outflanking the Republicans at every stage. He raised huge sums of cash (by means which are now the subject of legal inquiry), and adopted the strategy of "triangulation" - standing between the Democrats and the Republicans, targeting both where necessary. By 1996, his victory against the older, slower Robert Dole was predictable, and he won handsomely - even though, in his first term, little had been achieved. Getting power, again, 8 out of 10: using it, after four years, just 4 out of 10.

Every president faces a hard task to keep power: to maintain momentum and drive, especially at the end of their term. Yet Bill Clinton has frittered it away in the past two years, failing to mount any really effective campaigns for legislation, and squandering it on smaller, often admirable, but ultimately piecemeal ideas. The wholesale reform he had promised back in 1992 seemed to evaporate.

He lost credibility in Congress long before his sexual escapades took it away completely. Though the driving force of the economy kept him popular he seemed becalmed. His fightback over the Starr report paralysed the White House; while his handling of the Lewinsky affair, and the catastrophic confusion between legal and political issues, looked at best ill-co-ordinated. Using power, 4 out of 10; keeping it, a bare 2.

Clinton knows power very well; but what he knows is how to get it, not use it or keep it. Washington has contempt for him; it did, in large part, even before it learned of his personal habits, before it came to see him as an habitual liar. Though he has enormous skill, it is not the expertise this city admires. The political establishment - politicians, consultants, journalists and lawyers - is into power capitalism. It accumulates it with care, and disburses it as it invests on the stock market: cautiously, strategically but to win. Mr Clinton looks too much a riverboat gambler, raking in the chips, then scattering them where they fall and losing his pile again.

Some consider him merely lucky - in his Republican opponents, in the economy, in the timing of his elections. His defenders would say it was ill-luck: the Republican majorities, the absence of a single defining issue like the Cold War. But in politics, you make your own luck.

He made it all of the way up the steep cliff that led from Little Rock to Washington, finding the footholds and making the right traverses. And he has made it all the way down the other side, from inauguration day in 1993 to the moment when an angry, flustered and evasive man, his power visibly ebbing away, is broadcast on every television channel in the nation to the people who trusted him with the highest post in the country.