Once it only happened on truly serious occasions; as when the British burnt the place down in 1814, or when Harry Truman had to leave in 1948 because the building was collapsing around him - or, most recently, when Jacqueline Kennedy moved in. After Jackie, however, everybody has been at it. Indeed, doing up the White House has become a presidential rite of passage, a statement of character scarcely less scrutinised than an Inaugural Address.

Bill and Hillary Clinton have not been found wanting. After the Kennedys, the Reagans and the Bushes, the baby boomers from Little Rock have unveiled their vision of how the elegant old mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue should look inside. And some statement it is.

Anyone expecting restraint was bound to be disappointed. This, by his own avowal, is no status quo President. Despite his Texan aspirations, George Bush embodied old money and Yankee privilege. His taste in decoration ran to inoffensive beiges and prissy New England pastel shades, as bland and elusive as his core political convictions. Not so his successor. The 42nd President, who spent much of his summer vacation decked out in a vermilion shirt and salmon-pink Bermudas, is given neither to verbal nor decorative understatement. His preferred line in neckwear is King's Road-splashy. Bill Clinton may be a Yalie and a Rhodes Scholar. But his cultural matrix is a rednecked, gritty state whose official emblem was for a long time the fearsome bowie knife, otherwise known as the Arkansas toothpick.

The planning began shortly after Election Day in November last year, in the utmost secrecy. The job was entrusted to a fellow Arkansan, Ms Kaki Hockersmith, who runs her own interior design business in Little Rock. The First Couple, though, watched her every step. Hillary found enough time between sessions on reinventing the US health-care system to devour 40 books on White Houses past. As for her history-buff spouse, he is already legendary for the mindbendingly expert tours he is wont to offer guests at those elegant little dinner parties that are the Clintons' preferred evening entertaining. And they've been economical, too; the exercise cost dollars 396,429, paid for entirely by private donations. Back in 1981, Nancy Reagan ran up a bill of dollars 822,640.

In September, the first fruit of the Hockersmith labours - the revamped Oval Office - was unveiled to a breathless world. In fact, despite a bolder use of colour, the overall effect had not greatly changed. The most striking innovation is a deep blue 30ft rug, emblazoned with the presidential seal. 'It's so masculine,' was said to have been daughter Chelsea's first reaction. Replacing the pallid blue curtains of the Bush era are thick gold drapes. The off-white damask couches where Bush and his advisers plotted the Gulf war have been redone in striped burgundy-and-cream silk. A set of wicker chairs has been revitalised with a gold fabric in a pattern called 'Little Rock Diamond'. The idea, insists Ms Hockersmith, is to project 'a very stately, patriotic' room, in 'kind of red, white, gold and blue kind of a military feel'.

The real statement lies in the details. This President who would be Kennedy has brought back JFK's desk (incidentally, a gift to the United States from Queen Victoria in 1880), which for years had been languishing in obscurity upstairs. Prominent place goes to a small Rodin bronze of 'The Thinker' - proof, as the President told a recent interviewer, 'that there's nothing weak associated with thinking and pondering, trying to work through something'. Naturally, there are the busts of the incumbent's especially admired predecessors: JFK, obviously, Jefferson, the two Roosevelts, and the obligatory Lincoln, saviour of the Union. Intriguingly, and despite his alleged coolness with John Major, the world's most famous Oxford man has not quite discarded the Special Relationship. Standing on a small table by the window is a porcelain Winston Churchill mug.

So far, then, so good. But the Clintons and Ms Hockersmith did not spend weeks scouring the old White House furniture depositories for nothing. Upstairs she has run riot, and 10 days ago a select group of invited reporters was stunned to see her handiwork. Take the Lincoln Sitting Room, next to America's most prestigious overnight lodging, the Lincoln Bedroom. Before, it had all the character of the 'eight-star hotel', as Reagan once memorably described the White House. But the next time Barbra Streisand emerges from it, she could be forgiven for thinking Honest Abe is still there in person.

How art historians will record the style - Arkansas Boudoir? Little Rock Romantic? - only time can say. Whatever their verdict, though, Ms Hockersmith has created a Victorian extravaganza. The Sitting Room boasts a 19th-century stiff-backed chair once owned by Lincoln. Its carpets are of a heavy pattern of red, gold and green medallions that went out of fashion in the late 1870s, matched exactly by a trompe-l'oeil wallpaper on the ceiling. New crimson silk drapes are of such smouldering intensity that the lady from Newsweek dubbed them the 'Scarlett O'Hara Memorial Swags'.

The second floor Treaty Room, which Clinton, like Bush, will use as a private study, has been given an equal work-over. A soft green wallpaper has given way to red vinyl fake leather, setting off new walnut bookcases so huge the carpenters had to build them in situ. Centrepiece of this ensemble is the conference table on which the treaty ending the 1898 Spanish-American war was signed. There are urns, chandeliers, masses of gilt, even a model razorback, the half-wild pig that is mascot of the Arkansas football team. Plainly this is a room to accommodate every presidential mood. 'Their (the Clintons') taste is very today,' said Ms Hockersmith somewhat mystifyingly. 'They're not stuffy or pretentious, and neither is their home.'

But, as the Newsweek review suggests, critical reaction has been less effusive. 'An underlit Age of Innocence with a lot of make-up,' sniffed the New York Times. 'Very Clintonian,' the Los Angeles Times drily noted. Still the result must not be taken lightly. As the Washington historian Carl Anthony notes, the way the White House is decorated 'reflects the way the President and his family see themselves in the world'. But a return to 19th-century values is surely not the whole intended message from the Clintons. For final judgement, we must wait for a peek at the First Family's own private living quarters, also redone by Ms Hockersmith, and which include a cosy eat-in kitchen. 'If you walk into that kitchen,' said an aide, 'it could be any kitchen in America.' Any kitchen in America? What would Jackie have said?

THROUGH HILLARY'S KEYHOLE BY LOYD GROSSMAN

It gives, initially, the impression of being the sales director's office in a high-class funeral home. It's a room that combines unctuousness with morbid grandeur in an attempt to conjure up some atmosphere of authority: alas, the end result is just a bogus dignity.

This is almost inevitably the consequence of the archaeological approach to interior decorating, which is based on the supposedly scientific method of utilising paint scrapings and scraps of fabric in an effort to recreate a room as it 'really' was. Of course, rooms can't be brought back to life by this method.

Perhaps the room actually looked like this the first time Abe Lincoln laid down his stovepipe hat on the side table, but rooms change and evolve rapidly, they don't remain frozen - this one appears to have been hauled straight out of the deep freeze.

In general, this style of historicist decoration is more often associated with parvenu politicians eager to legitimise their regimes. This veers dangerously close to the Ceausescu chic that is customarily shunned by liberals.

Perhaps the Clintons should have used Franois Mitterrand as a role model: he hired the trendy Philippe Starck to give his rooms in the Elysee Palace a Post-Modern gloss. Unfortunately, this high Victorian style is remarkably out of step with current sympathies. The carpet looks more like lounge bar grandeur than guest-room decor. In spite of the immaculate attention to detail, it all looks forbidding - uncomfortable and self-righteous. I don't think honest Abe would have got a kick out of this.

(Photographs omitted)

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