Clinton visit is greeted with pomp and protests: There were mixed feelings over the US president's honorary degree 24 years after dropping out of Oxford. Steve Boggan reports

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The Independent Online
PERHAPS it would have been better if he had inhaled after all. Twenty-five years have passed since Bill Clinton didn't really smoke marijuana at Oxford, but the moment is still used as a metaphor for the man.

'He'd have had more credibility if he had smoked it,' said Martin Land, a history student still at Oxford. 'Hell, if you're going to buy drugs, you might as well enjoy them.'

Mr Clinton came back to Oxford yesterday to pick up what he left behind in 1970 - a degree. During a ceremony at the Sheldonian Theatre he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Civil Law by Diploma - the university's highest honour - for his contribution to world peace and for his domestic political achievements.

Presidents Roosevelt, Hoover, Eisenhower and Truman, have been given honorary degrees by Oxford, but Mr Clinton is the first to be honoured while still in office. It was a day full of pomp, warmth and astonishing levels of security. Mr Clinton had lunch at his old college - University - and took his wife, Hillary, to tea in his old room at Helen's Court.

However, the award was unpopular with many students, particularly as Mr Clinton did not complete his degree course, choosing instead to drop out of his studies at Oxford.

Hundreds staged a sit-down outside in Gate Street to protest about rent rises of up to 33 per cent to be introduced at Oxford colleges next year. It was a demonstration of which a young Bill Clinton would have been proud.

'Twenty-five years ago, Clinton would have been out here with us,' said Simon Bowmer, a Keble student who is facing up to a 12 per cent rent rise next year.

Members of the Anti-Nazi League were also there in numbers, objecting to Mr Clinton's decision to dine last week with Gianfranco Fini, leader of the Italian MSI party, who is on record as describing Mussolini as the century's greatest statesman.

Mr Clinton's award attracted less of the personal bile that was directed at Baroness Thatcher when she was being considered for an honorary degree. Hers, of course, was not forthcoming.

Instead, there was a tendency for Mr Clinton not to be taken seriously. Even among American visitors to the city yesterday, the idea of academia bestowing gifts on Bill Clinton seemed incongruous.

'Oh, sure, he picked up a book, but he didn't read it,' said Carol Kiernan, a 37-year-old teacher from Canton, Georgia.

'This is second in hypocrisy only to him speaking at D-Day. He is a political genius but, let's face it, he isn't one of the great minds of the twentieth century. The only truly smart thing he ever did was to marry a woman smarter than him.'

Jeff McCall, an insurance assessor from Atlanta, was more scathing. 'He didn't get his degree when he was here last time, so why the hell are you guys giving him one now? This is one of the most prestigious universities in the world. If you want a degree from this place, you should earn it.'

William Jefferson Clinton was at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar between October 1968 and June 1970 studying politics, philosophy and economics. His contemporaries describe him as a popular, amiable and able student, active in politics but increasingly concerned about being drafted into the war in Vietnam.

While at Oxford, he attended demonstrations and campaigned vigorously against American involvement - actions that have haunted him politically before and since his election - and he used family contacts to pull strings on his behalf.

He succeeded in deferring the draft by being accepted by the Reserve Officer Training Corps but then made himself eligible again purely, as he wrote to the head of the ROTC, 'to maintain my political viability within the system'. He left Oxford without completing his course when he was offered a place at Yale to study law.

An intellectual giant he may not be, but Mr Clinton's library record is certainly impressive - if revealing. Among the books he borrowed were philosophical and political works by Dunn, Galbraith, Locke, Babbitt, Jouvenel and Hobbes.

On the list are Herring's Presidential Leadership: the Political Relations of Congress and the Chief Executive; Locke's Second Treatise of Civil Government and a Letter concerning Toleration; and Jouvenel's Power and Sovereignty.

There was the irresistible feeling yesterday that University College was blowing its own trumpet as much as Mr Clinton's. John Smith, the procurator, reminded anyone who wanted to know that the college had a knack of spawning heads of state and government. Among them are Harold Wilson, Earl Attlee and Bob Hawke of Australia.

Before 160 fellows and dignitaries sat down to a lunch of smoked salmon and spring lamb, surrounded by portraits of Lords Wilson, Beveridge and Goodman, Mr Smith said: 'We like to welcome back old students and when one is the President of the United States, it is certainly good for the college.'

On the noticeboard opposite, the college proctors had posted a note complaining of 'unacceptable behaviour' at the end of examinations in recent years. Throwing, pouring or applying substances in the middle of the road was, they said, banned.

When the ceremony was over, Mr Clinton chatted to contemporary Rhodes scholars but other American students were left out.

One of them, Jonathan Kaufman, 22, a cultural anthropology student at Wadham College, tried unsuccessfully to get in. 'I think it's nice that they've invited him back,' he said. 'But this does show that there's no meritocracy any more. He didn't pass his exams, so he shouldn't get a degree.

'Mr Clinton isn't viewed very favourably here or in the States. He isn't exactly an intellectual genius. Still, he isn't as bad as John Major.'

(Photograph omitted)

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