Rocket in the sky is beyond a joke

THE DIARY
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I'M WRITING this at 36,000ft over the Atlantic on the way to Phoenix, Arizona. This is my 18th flight this year. By the time I've flown home, and then done a return journey to Belfast, I'll have notched up - God willing - 21 air journeys.

The best way I could lose weight would be to refuse all airline food. It's not as though what you get on a plane is vaut le detour. Shuttle food (except for the brown rolls) is usually ghastly, with the tea and coffee particularly dire. At the expensive end of planes everything on the menu these days is seared, marinated or drizzled. Today I'm offered ubiquitous rocket leaves and "wilted" spinach. I suppose most of us would wilt after two minutes in a microwave.

Two solutions beckon. If I'm going to eat at all perhaps I should follow the example of my friend Jacob Rees-Mogg (William's youngest son). Jacob packs his own sandwiches for a plane journey; indeed, I strongly suspect he takes a hamper - wicker, white napkins and silver thermos flask.

Alternatively, I should fly Korea Airlines. The only food I really hate is kimchi. Even the smell of that ghastly melange of fermented cabbage, garlic, red peppers and ginger is enough to put me off food for days. But will Korea Airlines agree to start a Belfast shuttle?

Kimchi is pretty well the only thing I dislike about Korea. It's one of the most notable Asian success stories, full of beautiful women and hard-drinking men. At the end of the Korean War, South Korea was in ruins, much poorer than post-colonial African countries like the Congo. Today it's one of the most competitive industrial economies in the world.

One of President Kim Dae Jung's advisers told me that when he set off in the Sixties to take up a scholarship in the US, he bought at Seoul airport a product of up-to-date Korean technology, a pair of nail scissors. They broke the second time he used them. Korea is now near the top of most technological league tables.

South Korea has started to recover from the Asian crash. Its democratic government had the moral authority to carry through tough reform measures. Some other Asian countries, like Thailand, are similarly placed. This is one reason why I'm more optimistic than most about Asia's future. But back in the mid-Nineties I found myself the odd man out at conferences, arguing that there wasn't an Asian economic miracle. The herd hadn't come to hear anyone crying wolf. My remarks were about as welcome at those networking gatherings as - to put it in a Wodehousian way - the arrival at a party of a Scotsman with a grievance.

Nowadays, the conventional wisdom on Asia has turned full circle. Everyone's in favour of openness, transparency (a vogue word, rarely defined), the rule of law and even democracy. Except in China. When the shoe drops in China as it will do, probably sooner rather than later, all those conference- hopping Davos men will be queuing up to meet Wei Jing-Sheng to tell us they were not really taken in by all that Marco Polo talk about the riches at the end of China's rainbow. But we're not there yet, and for the time being we can look forward to more humiliating Western retreats over China's worsening human rights record and more Western corporate losses as China's economy struggles to escape from its present mess.

The Times' Peking correspondent, James Pringle, deserves a mention in dispatches for his excellent reporting last week from China's border with North Korea. He filed some chilling accounts of the starvation that's brought death, disease and disaster to the last of the Stone Age Stalinist tyrannies. Will North Korea's government let us do more to help those who are suffering?

North Korea is a rogue state in free fall. The next big Asian story could well be its implosion. We should be making preparations to deal with the consequences, reflecting on Amartya Sen's argument that famines don't happen in democracies.

WHEN I turned off the television in my hotel room in Los Angeles two weeks ago, one of the House prosecutors, Representative Lindsey Graham, was in full flow in the trial of the century. I switch on in Phoenix and it's as though I'd hardly missed a nano second. But the drama has now drawn to its predictable close. What will we do now, exhausted by all the tawdry twists and turns?

Last September, without much claim to originality, I said that the President would not be impeached and that whatever people thought of his behaviour it was in America's best interest to find some way to express its condemnation of his conduct and then to turn the page. Bill Clinton was never going to resign and it was unlikely there would ever be the votes to get rid of him - partly because too many of his opponents wanted his scalp too badly.

What is it about this man of protean political talents that makes some people hate him so much? I suppose it's partly what appears to be the relentless victory of style over substance - that is, principle, vision and character. But that's not really fair. There are from time to time magnificently articulated visions - loads of substance. But these ideas seem so malleable, plasticine to be moulded by focus groups and political expedience.

What made this Clinton saga possible was the economy, stupid. Some people say that even if the main credit for the American boom should go to the Fed chairman, Alan Greenspan, at least President Clinton didn't screw it up.

Anyway, he'll survive while America prospers. What will we remember of this period? Maybe not primarily the way the President was prepared to put America's political system, national interest and constitution through all these horrors, but the way he behaved as a man. The more I watched Lindsey Graham, a right-wing Christian populist, the more I sympathised with his condemnation not of the tumescent rumpy-pumpy in the Oval Office, but of the subsequent trashing of Monica Lewinsky and anyone else who stood in Clinton's way. The next President will be Bush, Gore or Bradley. None of them will behave like that and even if Mr Greenspan isn't around to work his magic America will be all the better for a change at the top. You see, what most matters in the leadership of a liberal democracy is character, stupid.

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