Clinton sails in search of support

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THE CLINTON family emerged together from their holiday retreat on Martha's Vineyard yesterday to go sailing with the television presenter, Walter Cronkite, who regularly tops polls as "the most trusted man in America".

The carefully staged excursion came as the White House announced plans for Bill Clinton to take time out from his holiday tomorrow to attend a forum on school safety and juvenile crime in the Massachusetts city of Worcester.

While yesterday's foray sent the message of a united family, tomorrow's expedition appears designed to show Mr Clinton re-connecting with the American people. It will be an opportunity for the President to draw strength from his grass-roots support, as he has done so often when under pressure in the past, but also to gauge the harm inflicted by his admission of the affair with the former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky.

Mr Clinton's advisers are said to be divided about whether he should say anything more in public about this relationship. While there is a consensus that his televised admission showed insufficient contrition, opinion polls suggest that the United States public has little demand for more. His reception in Worcester could tip the decision one way or the other.

The gradual re-emergence of the President came amid growing speculation that the outcome of the investigation by the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, could be every bit as damaging to Mr Clinton as the most pessimistic forecasts. A lawyer close to the investigation was quoted as saying that prosecutors had assembled "a mountain" of evidence that Mr Clinton perjured himself over the Lewinsky affair and obstructed justice in trying to cover it up.

If true, these charges would make it extremely difficult for Congress to resist holding impeachment hearings.

It is believed that Mr Starr has evidence to back up not only the contention that Mr Clinton lied under oath when he denied an affair with Ms Lewinsky (which he has now virtually acknowledged), but that efforts to keep the affair - and other indiscretions - quiet entailed the silencing of others, whether by inducements or threats. Mr Starr is expected to present his report - which could run to 600 pages, half of which are already written - as early as next month.

Meanwhile, White House officials continued to present the Clinton family as engaged in a long-term "healing" process, working out their problems and engaging in quiet solitary or family pursuits rather than glitzy socialising.

The "healing - reconciliation - closure" language of officials, referred to dismissively by some reporters outside the White House press corps as "psychobabble", seems to be paving the way for a full-scale, if sham, reconciliation sometime before the First Family returns to Washington next weekend.

Such massaging of public opinion is apparently thought necessary to counter the continued barrage of media hostility towards the President, and the perceived fragility of his poll ratings. Polls from across the country show that Mr Clinton's hitherto irrepressible job-approval rating has slipped a little but, more significantly, his personal credibility rating is on a slide. One poll has it as low as 19 per cent, equivalent to Richard Nixon's at his nadir. The number of people expressing outright dislike for Mr Clinton has also risen.

Still more worrying to the Clinton camp may be insistent insider reports from within the White House apparatus and the administration, as well as Congress, suggesting the extent of disaffection among Mr Clinton's immediate staff and supporters.

As one of Washington's most influential commentators, Thomas Friedman, wrote in The New York Times yesterday, the question may not be whether Mr Clinton "should" be President any more, but whether he "can" be President. Unless Mr Clinton can repair the damage to his credibility, he said, "it is going to paralyse his ability to govern, whatever Mr Starr does".

The feeling among mid-level officials who have stuck with the President through all the vicissitudes of his administration could be summed up thus, Mr Friedman said: "What he did with Monica said to me that satisfying his own sexual urges was more important than accomplishing his own agenda."

Others returned to Mr Clinton's televised admission, noting unhappily that the first reason he gave for dissembling in January was not concern for his family, but the selfish desire to avoid "personal embarrassment".