Clinton returns home to honour US dead come home

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT Bill Clinton returns to Washington early this morning after cutting short a three-day cross-country trip planned before the embassy bomb attacks in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. He will chair an anti- terrorist summit at the White House and be at Andrews Air Force base near Washington tomorrow for the return of the bodies of those who were killed.

The coffins will be accompanied back to Washington by the US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, who leaves for the US base at Ramstein in Germany today. Eleven bodies are being repatriated; the 12th victim, Jean Dalizu, was married to a Kenyan and is to be buried in Kenya. The US has offered a $2million (pounds 1.25m) reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the bombings.

The aftermath of the blastswill show Mr Clinton at his most sombre and presidential, at a time when his personal difficulties had threatened to swamp the US media in the run-up to his grand jury testimony. The result is a political climate described by some as "surreal", where the very height of high politics and the depth of low politics come together in one figure.

Mr Clinton's curtailment of his trip at any other time would have been hailed as proof of his unerring instinct for political leadership. But not this time.

On one level, the planned three-day swing through Kentucky, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Wisconsin was a classic Clinton fund-raiser, hopping from grand hotel to private residence where individuals paid thousands of dollars to be there. A combination of loyalty to friends and party, and Democratic Party poverty militated against cancelling it. Less than three months before the mid-term congressional elections, the party needs all the friends, and cash, it can raise.

The whispering in the ranks of the White House press corps, however, had been that Mr Clinton's three-day tour was mostly about escaping Washington in the hiatus between Monica Lewinsky's testimony to the grand jury last week, and his own testimony next Monday.

It seemed barely believable that Mr Clinton would leave town at such a time. But he did, just as during his first presidential campaign he eventually shunned the hostile national media and retreated to provincial forums. And it is in the provinces that he presents himself so effectively as a son of the grass roots.

The events may appear manufactured - a health policy forum in Louisville, a clean-water event in San Francisco - but the crowds still turn out. At both events, Mr Clinton was greeted with rapturous applause, as though the audience wanted to express their personal, as well as political, solidarity.

Behind the police barriers outside the Chicago Historical Society, where Mr Clinton attended a fund-raising dinner on Monday, a crowd many hundreds strong waited two hours to see the President emerge and to wish him well.

"I just wanted to say I'm behind him," was a common sentiment. By and large, these people, waiting for a clearly tired but beaming Mr Clinton to shake their hands, were from the ranks of America's have-nots: the people you do not see in smart business districts and sleek suburbs. They see Mr Clinton as "their" president.

Mr Clinton, for his part, appeared to draw strength from their support. He is spending longer on the hand-shaking, but seems more careful: less hugging, more shoulder-patting. As he presses the flesh, the tiredness seems to fall away, yielding an expression of almost bemused wonder that people should still turn out to see him.

And, for two whole days, Mr Clinton was able to go without hearing Monica Lewinsky mentioned in public. His only acknowledgement of his "other life" was a brief and oblique allusion to "all the mean things they can say about me and the rest of you [Democrats]" in his fund-raising speech in Chicago.