Bill steps out of his way to be seen with Tony

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair yesterday achieved the near impossible. He made Bill Clinton look old and wise, discreet, and world-weary, every inch the statesman. Of course an injured leg helped. Nothing does more for a fellow's gravitas than to walk with a cane, especially the whorled, silver-topped variety sported by the President of the United States.

But what was it one Jack Kennedy, exactly our Prime Minister's age, 43, when he came to power, said about torches being passed? Rub your eyes on a dazzling spring day in Downing Street, and it seemed to be happening - from a becalmed and aimless American presidency to the coltish omnipotence of Blairdom. "I'd like to have a 179-seat majority," Mr Clinton said plaintively of a goal as unattainable as political rehabilitation for Alain Juppe, or a century for Mark Taylor. But if you haven't got a majority of 179, the next best thing is to rub shoulders with someone who has.

Thus yesterday's astounding reversal of roles. With the recent exception of John Major, amid the Gerry Adams visa row, there is nothing British prime ministers so adore as a trip to the White House, and an Appearance on the World Stage. But when did an American president actually go out of his way at short notice to press flesh in London - and even, as we are led to believe, extend what was initially planned as a stopover into a full day's visit? Right now, Tony Blair is the politician to be seen with

And, after a slow start, quite a meal he made of it too. "It's a beautiful day," was all the 42nd president could manage at first, at the obligatory doorstep photo-op, along with a limp wave of the hand. Uncharitable souls might have imagined his mind was elsewhere - perhaps on one Paula Jones and unspeakable courtroom embarrassment to come. But, as the cameramen were not satisfied, soon that "aw-shucks" Clinton grin flashed, "Once more with feeling, I guess." For minutes, it seemed, they clicked away.

And that was just the beginning. Inside, the presidential address to the Cabinet drew those sycophantic tributes new rulers instantly learn to heap upon their peers, capped by what was described as dignified banging on the table by the assembled Ministers of the Crown, indubitably dignified men and women all. But even that was mere billing and cooing, compared with the trumpet fugue of mutual admiration that would later pass for a joint press conference.

"Bill said something very important there," murmured young Tony at one point. "I'm not here to give advice, but to learn from new Labour ... I'm impressed by the optimism of Britain, and Tony Blair's government," old Bill had opined a few moments earlier, making a valiant stab to get into the first-name-only spirit of Blairism.

There was much uplifting talk about uplifting things like the radical centre, market flexibility, daunting challenges ahead, tough decisions facing new generations, and so on. The body language was idyllic - enough to bring on nightmares about a rebirth of the "special relationship".

Mercifully, the dread phrase escaped no official's lips. "Unique partnership" was the President's careful choice of words, while the Prime Minister restricted himself to "the strong bonds of history and heritage" - Britain, after all, is committed to Europe. But Helmut only speaks German, and Jacques is on the skids. A couple of weeks more of this and, God forbid, the special relationship will be up and running again. Yesterday, though, nothing could spoil the mood. There wasn't even a question about Paula.