Clinton treads careful path in `sorrow and joy'

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The Independent Online
ONE OF Bill Clinton's strengths as President has been his capacity to catch the national mood, to enunciate the right words at the right time in precisely the right way.

It seemed briefly as though that skill might have been eluding him when he said that he felt "like a kid with a new toy" in anticipation of his first meeting with the new Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Barak, last week - and found himself negotiating a minor diplomatic incident with amazed and offended Israeli reporters.

Yet with the disappearance, and presumed death, of John F Kennedy Jnr at the weekend, Mr Clinton's touch was as sure as ever. Yesterday, he had to straddle two quite opposite moods: the US women's soccer team, World Cup winners and acclaimed as new models for America were due at the White House for a victory reception; on the other hand, JFK Jnr, the image of gilded youth, was dead.

Rather than cancel the reception, Mr Clinton chose to link the two. "At times like this," he said, "we can come together as a national family - in sorry or joy - if it reflects the values that we honour most." His preface lightened the atmosphere and allowed the celebration to proceed without any sense of guilt.

As a 16-year-old from Arkansas, Mr Clinton was a member of a national boys' dele- gation received by President Kennedy at the White House,just a year before the assassination. The meeting spurred his presidential ambitions. At the time, the Kennedy family lent their political support and have done so since. The JFK Jnr drama was not just a national event for Mr Clinton as President, but a personal one too.

For 48 hours, until the US Coast Guard announced on Sunday night that its "search and rescue operation" for Kennedy's Piper plane was shifting to a "search and recovery", Mr Clinton could afford to be neither too optimistic nor too despairing. Through the weekend, he stayed at Camp David out of the public eye but emerged on Sunday afternoon, just hours before Mr Barak's state banquet.

He walked slowly across the White House lawn, looking dejected, before giving a brief statement that referred to the "continuing search". He talked pointedly in the present tense, but paid tribute to the 40 years during which the Kennedy family had "suffered much, but given more" to America's national life.

The statement seemed designed to lift the shadow of JFK's disappearance from the banquet. But the Coast Guard announcement coincided with his speech. Mr Clinton said it was "a good day for affirming the eternal friendship between Israel and the United States. It is also a bad day for those of us who are Americans.

"We are reminded again," he said, before returning to prospects for Middle East peace, "that life and its possibilities are fleeting, that we mortals are obliged to be humble and grateful for every day and to make the most of every day."

A Clinton oration honouring the heir of the first JFK could be a fitting start to the close of his own presidency - and to the Kennedy legend.