Clinton accused: Conquering hero sees his triumph turn to ashes

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This evening the US Congress reconvenes to hear President Clinton deliver his annual State of the Union address. It is supposed to be the setpiece account of achievements and plans that marks the start of the new political year. But what a difference a year (or even a week) can make.

This time last year, Bill Clinton was hailed as a conquering hero. He had just become the first Democrat to be elected to a second term since John Kennedy, and his victory was convincing. His progress through the ceremonial hall was a slow crescendo of adulation. He basked in the glory, head held high. After such a reception, the address was an anticlimax: an amalgam of abstractions and good intentions that disappointed.

This year was supposed to be the same, but better. Riding high in the opinion polls, Mr Clinton had introduced a new and activist policy agenda over the Christmas break, catching Republicans unprepared and quashing speculation that, after defeat on the "fast-track" trade bill, he had become a "lame duck" and was running out of ideas.

During the congressional recess, Mr Clinton had proposed changes in medical benefits that would provide some state health coverage for people who retire early. He had proposed a "bill of rights" for patients enrolled in so-called "managed care" health programmes that have been criticised for "rationing" treatment. He had earmarked extra spending to almost double the "Peace Corps" programme that sends Americans abroad on voluntary service, and he had offered tax reductions for small businesses.

He also set out two major spending initiatives: one to subsidise nurseries and childcare programmes for low-income parents, the other for schools - to reduce class sizes and repair rundown buildings.

Mr Clinton was able to broach such spending programmes partly because of his successful conclusion last autumn of agreement with Congress on measures that would balance the federal budget by 2002 and banish the image of Democratic presidents as irresponsible spenders. Indeed, the flourishing state of the US economy was expected to provide the justification for the programmes to be set out by Mr Clinton this evening, and he was expected to take full credit for it.

This evening, though, it will be a diminished President who appears before Congress, overshadowed by the week-old allegations that he had an affair with a White House trainee and asked her to deny it. Before greeting him with rapturous applause, Congressmen on his own side must consider the presence of the cameras. With mid-term elections scheduled for later this year, how wise is it for a Democratic Congressman to be seen by his constituents applauding or holding his hand out to such a President before, or unless, he has cleared his name?

In such circumstances, it is scant consolation for Mr Clinton that this will be the second time that the State of the Union has been obscured by something quite other. Last year, Just as he was getting into his stride, the verdict in the civil case that was to find OJ Simpson liable for his wife's death was just coming in from the court in California.

This year, the whole drama will be on Capitol Hill, but the television viewers will search his every word for the answer to the one question that now matters: did he do it?