Middle America braced for deluge

IF YOU think that President Bill Clinton, after months of denial and self-delusion, may at last be getting with the plot, consider this from his contrition-laden speech in Orlando, Florida, on Wednesday. He said: "I hope that millions of families all over America are, in a way, growing stronger because of this". Pardon?

This is a nuance that was surely escaping most Americans yesterday as they awoke to newspapers and morning television shows that offered them nothing but gloom. If there was anyone left who did not already grasp it, back in Washington they were facing the worst constitutional crisis since Watergate.

While the latest evidence shows some softening in the numbers, the President's approval - for the job he is doing, rather than the nature of his private life - remains high. How much more distressing, therefore, to see the ground opening beneath him.

The lurid nature of the allegations evokes dismay. Few parents in America are grateful to Clinton for the slew of sewage which his actions have unleashed to the curious ears of their young children.

Now that flow is about to become a raging torrent. By the time you read this, much of what Kenneth Starr has uncovered may be available to all, minors included, on the Internet, courtesy of the House Judiciary Committee. Word from the publishing houses of New York suggests book versions of the report, doubtless with several steamy chapters, will be on our bookshelves by Monday.

Support is still high for Mr Clinton's record in office, especially his stewardship of the economy. If it persists, and if voters turn against Mr Starr, politicians on the Hill may yet shy away from impeachment proceedings.

But there are signs beyond the Washington beltway that public sentiment is moving away from Mr Clinton. Why else would so many members of Congress, on their return from the Labor Day weekend listening to their constituents, suddenly be stampeding from the President's side, Democrats included?

In Orlando you could almost hear a collective intake of breath in the packed little school hall where Bill Clinton on Wednesday night thanked the attractive local teacher, Susan Waldrip, for her introduction. "I wish I could take her to Washington for about a month," he said.

There was an uneasy silence. "It might change the entire atmosphere up there," the President quickly added, apparently referring to the bubbly personality of the teacher, known to her pupils as "Wacky Waldrip".

The uncomfortable moment at the Hillcrest Primary School revealed perfectly how President Clinton's image had changed. "Every time you look at the man now, you can't help but see him with his pants down," said Geoffrey Miller, 24, a local law student following the President's visit on local television in a bar.

But Mr Miller added that as a loyal Democrat, he would still support Mr Clinton politically, and would vote for Democratic candidates in November's Congressional and gubernatorial elections.

There is great concern over how Mr Clinton's actions may affect the elections.

After a pounds 4,000-a-head fund-raising dinner at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, outside Miami, on Wednesday, Mr Clinton apologised to Democratic supporters and asked for forgiveness. But he stuck to his leitmotif, that he may be a lousy husband and father but it hasn't affected the job of running the country. "I've tried to do a good job of taking care of this country, even when I haven't taken such good care of myself or my family," he said, biting his lip.

As always in his contrite moments, he slipped into that drawl white blues singers would kill for. But not everybody was buying. "Do you know where your daughters are tonight? Clinton is in town," was the message on one of the placards held up outside the Biltmore by 37-year-old Steve Hogge.

Next to him was a Miami Beach kindergarten teacher and mother, Myrna Armengol, who, in between chanting "Clinton, go home," told reporters: "I'm protesting the fact that we can't trust him ... Ask my three-year-olds who Monica Lewinsky is and they'll tell you she's President Clinton's girlfriend."

Ms Armengol waved a placard reading: "Hey, Clinton, I hope my kids don't want to grow up to be like you."

That was a reference to Mr Clinton's luncheon speech in Orlando earlier in the day, in which he said a little boy he had met at Hillcrest school had told him: "I want to be a president like you." But reporters who tracked down Marcos Encinias discovered he had said simply, "I want to be president." Mr Clinton appeared to have added the words "like you", not an insignificant distortion under the circumstances.

"I've met him, I've served him," said Olga Townsend, a 44-year-old Puerto Rican who works as a banquet captain in the Biltmore. "He should have told the truth ... but I still admire him as a president."

Claire Hoey, a teacher at the Hillcrest school, said voters were less interested in the President's behaviour than in local issues, notably a proposed change in the current law that forbids bars from opening within 1,000 feet of schools.

Outside the Hotel, local Coral Gables resident Carolyn Fuller hoisted a banner which read: "Lovers are better for the world than haters."

"I'm here because Clinton needs a laugh," she said.

"JFK did the same and all he got was a slap on the wrist," said Miami carpenter and night taxi driver Guy Montizello, 29. "And that was after he was dead, so he didn't feel a thing. Clinton's not a machine. He has the same urges as any other man."

But the voices of condemnation are multiplying. Mr Clinton has presumably seen the cruel placards that now greet him on the passing of his limousine whenever he ventures from the White House. "Impeach the Ozark-Caligula" was the message from one voter in Orlando.

At the last count, 30 city papers across the country had told their readers that Mr Clinton should resign, even before editorialists had seen the Starr Report.

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