Clinton gives Florida a taste of his old magic

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The Independent Online
IN A visit that was closely scrutinised as a test of his authority, President Bill Clinton yesterday made his first excursion into the big wide world outside Washington since the Monica Lewinsky affair broke five weeks ago.

The trip, sandwiched between briefings on Iraq and a planned fund-raising visit to California, took him to Florida to inspect damage from Sunday's tornados and console victims of the state's most costly natural disaster since Hurricane Andrew five years ago.

While Mr Clinton had made other fund-raising trips and accompanied the Prime Minister, Tony Blair to a school in the Washington suburbs, he had been constantly chaperoned and kept away from the wider public. Yesterday was the first time he had been let loose to do what he has always done so well: communicate with ordinary Americans, especially Americans in trouble, and "feel their pain". And he did not disappoint.

The Florida trip, with its potential for dramatic television pictures of devastation at the Ponderosa trailer park, articulate victims already well-rehearsed in telling their stories in front of the cameras and heart- warming accounts of individual heroism and good fortune, was an ideal test ground for Mr Clinton's re-emergence. In such circumstances, the White House must have gambled, it would somehow be unseemly for reporters to quiz him on the exact nature of his relationship with a White House trainee. The gamble paid off.

Mr Clinton, who took a helicopter tour of the damaged area before alighting for a walkabout and money-promising address, was in his element. His facility as the great communicator was clearly unimpaired by the events of recent weeks - which left the question of why he, or his advisers, had been so wary about his leaving the White House. After all, the American public had seemed entirely sanguine about the allegations against him.

While Washington politicians and the media agonised about his credibility as President, his approval ratings in the country at large soared. The public seemed happy to draw a line between Mr Clinton's sex life (a matter for him, his wife, and the "other" woman/women) and his performance as president - with which they were well pleased.

What all the polls also showed, however, was that if Mr Clinton did lie about his relationship with Ms Lewinsky, or put pressure on Ms Lewinsky to lie, public approval could fade quickly.

By last week, however, with the Iraq crisis reaching its climax, Mr Clinton's absence from the public arena was starting to be felt. Clinton supporters talked wistfully about what might have been if he had led the Iraq discussion at Ohio State University, rather than the lacklustre trio of his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen, and National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, whose performance was widely judged as unconvincing.

The risk of keeping Mr Clinton out of harm's way was starting to seem greater than the risk of setting him loose. He had to get back on the road.