Besotted Clinton bonds with his new Buddy

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The president of the richest and most powerful nation in the world scheduled an end-of-political-term press conference yesterday to expatiate on such weighty matters as the expansion of Nato, the Asian financial crisis, the stand-off with Iraq, the scandals in his own Democratic Party, and the state of the planet in general. But, tape-recorders aloft, lenses trained, cellphones at the ready, there was only one thing we really wanted to know - we reporters, that is, and upwards of 150 million Americans - the name of THAT DOG.

For the past 10 days, ever since the unconfirmed report that First Cat Socks was no longer to have sole prowling rights at the White House, the American public has been transfixed and the media at action stations. After all, it is not every day that the leader of the free world switches from a one-cat policy to a twin-track pet policy.

Nor is the chosen beast just any dog. It is, note, not a common or garden labrador, but a "labrador-retriever cross". And it is certainly not, as you or I might say, brown, but "chocolate-coloured".

What is more, you had only to see the First Photo to realise that the President, never one to wear his heart elsewhere than on his sleeve, was besotted. He looked at it and held it meltingly, just the way he occasionally looks at Hillary, always looks at Chelsea, and might look (dare one say) at a cherished girlfriend, or a teddy-bear. As the White House spokesman said of the first meeting: "Bonding occurred."

Since then, the chase has been on to find The Name. Every newspaper, television channel and Internet website worth its audience solicited contributions - but they hardly had to. The names were rolling in already: from Shoes and Sax (to pair with Socks), to Hershey, Nestle and other chocolate derivatives, to Reno (after the attorney general criticised for appearing over-loyal to her boss). Less kindly souls offered Impooch, Scandal or - in reference to the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives and Mr Clinton's one-time political sparring partner - Newt.

Television talkshows opened with dog quips. Television presenters not known for their soft touch offered home videos of their furry friends and reports from the front-line of Walkies to tutor the President in his new responsibilities. Thoroughly outflanked, the White House capitulated and invited suggestions from the nation. (You would have to be a political innocent to sniff at the 54 million votes represented by America's dog- owners, and Bill Clinton is hardly that.)

Still, though, the White House was in denial. As recently as Monday, the official spokesman insisted - O tempora, o mores! - that the President's new dog was not - repeat not - a media ploy: "He just wanted a dog". Pressed for the name, two White House spokesmen barked in chorus - "strictly not for attribution".

Still the drama was not over. Dangling White House reporters on the end of the First Lead, Mr Clinton told them (after trying to divert their attention by announcing a senior appointment that could sour his relations with Congress for months) that a name had been chosen at a family conference on Sunday. But no - well aware of how difficult it might be to attract a decent audience to an announcement about Nato in the last shopping week before Christmas - he would not announce it until Tuesday's press conference.

And the name? The presidential dog is called "Buddy", a friendly all- American name that also happened to belong to the President's recently deceased uncle, who bred and trained dogs for more than 50 years. Inevitably, the topic for last night's talkshows was what the great American public thought of the name. That's democracy for you.

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