Campbell's Washington job swap just a load of ****!

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IT IS an image to strike fear into America's most determined investigative journalists: President Bill Clinton with Alastair Campbell, Britain's sultan of spin, by his side.

"May I ask the president about Miss Lewi ..." "Don't give me that crap. Go take a walk."

The thought of Tony Blair's abrasive spin doctor translated across the Atlantic to stand between President Clinton and his tormentors is a beguiling one. And it seems to have beguiled the President.

It emerged yesterday that Mr Clinton had given Mr Campbell a signed photograph of the two of them together and had suggested that Mr Campbell do a job swap with the then press secretary at the White House, Mike McCurry, who left the job last Friday.

Downing Street confirmed the report last night but added that Mr Clinton had handed over the photograph and made the remark more than a year ago, before the Lewinsky affair had broken, and that the "job offer" was "a piece of lighthearted banter".

But many a true job offer can be spoken in jest. Washington journalists noted yesterday that Mr Clinton was mightily impressed by the way that Mr Campbell stopped the American press from asking Mr Blair any questions about the Lewinsky affair when the Prime Minister visited Washington earlier this year.

Some White House officials are also increasingly enamoured with Westminster's lobby system in which Mr Campbell can brief journalists off the record.

At the White House the briefings are on the record, televised, libel- free and scrupulously polite, - not the British way at all. One British lobby correspondent, who watched Mr Campbell in Washington, said: "Alastair kept the press away from Blair and stopped them asking him anything about Clinton and Lewinsky. He just shut down any questioning on that theme. He is a big guy and he can be a bully when he wants to be."

In true British style a spokesman for Mr Campbell - a spokesman for a spokesman, refusing to be quoted directly about the man who refuses to be quoted directly - stressed yesterday that Mr Campbell would not be leaving, even for a job swap.

Mr Campbell meanwhile was unable to dampen the speculation with his usual forthrightness. He was on a plane to China with Mr Blair, his boss ... at the moment.