London hails the return of the Comeback Kid

A cosy inquisition, then a public frenzy: <i>Cahal Milmo</i> watched the World's Most Powerful Man (retired) turn on the charm
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In previous years, his visits to Britain for long sessions of hand-shaking over polished tables had been about forging peace from intractable conflicts and fostering global economic stability.

In previous years, his visits to Britain for long sessions of hand-shaking over polished tables had been about forging peace from intractable conflicts and fostering global economic stability.

Yesterday, Bill Clinton was back. His schedule was just as hectic, his public no less adoring, the secret agents equally twitchy and the wattage of that easy Southern smile undimmed.

But this time the purpose of his visit was not philanthropic. Instead, the famous Clinton charisma and energy was dedicated to another cause: his bank balance. With all the razzmatazz and carefully choreographed publicity that the World's Most Powerful Man (retired) can muster in 24 hours, Mr Clinton had come to push sales of his autobiography, My Life.

From a session on the cosy sofa of those feared political inquisitors Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan at 11.30am to a star-studded soirée at London's Guildhall at 7pm, it was a day of high-profile glad-handing and highly accomplished pocket-lining by the Comeback Kid.

As one harassed aide put it while awaiting Mr Clinton's arrival at Waterstone's in Piccadilly for his only British book-signing on a two-day whistlestop tour: "It takes all the organisation of a political summit. He's genuinely delighted to be here. He has a lot of affection for Great Britain. But at the end of the day this is about business - Bill's here to sell the book."

The 57-year-old political maestro, whose life story has so far racked up 1.3 million sales in his homeland, arrived at Heathrow in his private jet at 2am from his previous engagement in Berlin. He was met by a convoy of armour-plated Range Rovers and by 3am was safely ensconced in his suite at the Ritz. Within five hours the gourmand politician was perusing a breakfast menu offering items from eggs benedict to American pancakes with maple syrup and fruit compote.

Not that he had much time to eat it. By mid-morning he was preparing to follow in his wife Hillary's footsteps by submitting to questioning on Channel 4's Richard & Judy Show. Having already been quizzed on BBC's Panorama about his record on issues from the Northern Ireland peace process to his impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair, this was a different type of interview. As Finnigan put it beforehand: "We hope to concentrate on what he's like as a man, rather than a narrow interview just about politics."

Mr Clinton, ever the consummate politician, ducked the difficult questions about his personal life and concentrated on the problems of his friend, "Prime Minister Blair", over Iraq.

In the meantime, anticipation was building about half a mile from Mr Clinton's hotel suite at Europe's biggest bookshop as sniffer dogs completed a final sweep of the first-floor signing area and the queue outside swelled to 1,500 people. By midday - one hour before the former president was due to arrive - the line stretched back from the door of Waterstone's to the upmarket grocers, Fortnum & Mason, about half-way along Piccadilly. Ultra-polite minders in black suits and black shirts crackled into their walkie-talkies: "It's reached Fortnum's. It's still growing."

Inside the shop, excited staff resorted to recalling the crowds at previous signings to gauge the size of the occasion: it was certainly bigger than David Blaine (300); it exceeded Hillary Clinton (500); it might even overtake David Beckham (350 invited guests plus a screaming crowd of several hundred). A spokeswoman for the book store, which first "pitched" for the event in April but only had Mr Clinton's attendance confirmed two weeks ago, said: "This is certainly the year's biggest signing. The only thing it compares to is the launch of the last Harry Potter. The queue for that reached the Ritz."

What the line snaking past the shirtmakers and perfume stores of Jermyn Street lacked in wizards and magic, it made up for in its erudition and grip on geo-politics. While one secret serviceman, unconvincingly disguised in a Waterstone's staff jacket, surveyed the crowd for undesirables, snatches of conversation emerging from the queue revealed earnest discussions on the comparative tax policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations, the Arab-Israeli conflict and debt relief for the developing world. If there were any troublemakers among these highbrow groupies, then they were more likely to lunge at Mr Clinton with a barbed question on anti-terror policies prior to 9/11 than a concealed 9mm.

Jeremy Cohen, 32, a business consultant from Finchley, north London, had taken a half-day off and started queuing at 7.30am to ensure he got the Comeback Kid's signature on his copy of My Life. He said: "I have followed his career for years. In terms of his foreign policy, whether it was the Middle East, Europe or Northern Ireland, I just wish he had had a few more years in office to complete his changes."

Others, however, were motivated by less lofty ideals. Kofeh Jilbaya, 21, a politics student from Portsmouth, who had got up at 4am to get an early spot in the queue, said: "He's a world figure, but once I've got the signature I'm putting it on Ebay. I reckon it'll fetch at least two hundred quid."

By the time Mr Clinton's motorcade pulled up at 1.15pm outside the rear entrance to the bookstore amid tight security, at least 200 people, who had been ordered to discard the black Waterstone's bags holding their copies of My Life, were squeezed on to the first floor. As the doors of the lift opened to reveal the grinning figure of the former president surrounded by his secret service bodyguards, the crowd burst into spontaneous applause.

Whether it was for effect or not, Bubba, as the famously loquacious Mr Clinton is apparently known in Washington, was momentarily lost for words. Asked what such a welcome meant, all he could manage was: "I am very gratified to be here. To come here and see this crowd is very nice." Recovering slightly to make a reference to his days as a Rhodes scholar at Oxford in his 20s, when he famously did not inhale, Mr Clinton added: "I had a lot of good days here when I was a young man."

Wearing an immaculate grey suit, blue shirt and pink tie, he then stepped smartly to a large wooden table to begin the main business of the day - signing his name in a bold blue scrawl on copies of his 957-page opus. A senior aide said: "He's done 17 book launches and in that time he's signed 23,000 books." To encourage sales Waterstones had dropped the price of the book by £4 to £21.99. Cut-price or not, it was not long before the Clinton charm started to work its magic. A procession of dazzled and satisfied customers was soon staggering away from their brief encounter with the world's most beguiling and efficient autograph machine, sat just a few feet from the shop's display of erotic and gay literature.

Most grinned, one or two buried their heads in their hands, while two-year-old Chelsea Tabachnik, wearing a large Democrat sticker, grinned obligingly for the massed ranks of photographers as she was hugged by a consummate baby-kisser. Mr Clinton cooed: "Ah, she is beautiful, you are so beautiful."

None of those brandishing the book expressed concern at the mixed reviews it has received. The New York Times savaged it as "sloppy, self-indulgent and often eye-crossingly dull - the sound of one man prattling away, not for the reader, but for himself and some distant recording angel of history". For Rachel Byrd, 23, from Bath, who is writing her masters thesis on Mr Clinton's Middle East policy, there were no such concerns after queuing since midnight to pop a question. Flushed with excitement, she said: "I asked him why the Camp David talks [with Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat] had failed. He gave me a really long answer. If I can remember what he said, it will make my thesis."

Martin Shanahan, 41, a gardener from north-west London, had started queuing outside Waterstone's at midday on Sunday to be the first to have his book signed. The veteran of 560 U2 concerts said: "It's the gig of the day - he's so charismatic, he's bordering on rock star status. As far as I'm concerned, he's the real president."

By 2.50pm, more than 1,000 people had shuffled past the desk, and the former president, who had been fortified during his signing extravaganza by two bottles of Coca-Cola, both diet, emerged from the store at 3.15pm. With his appetite for meeting the public, and a decent photo opportunity, undimmed, Mr Clinton then conducted an impromptu 20-minute walkabout while his daughter, Chelsea, who graduated from Oxford last year, looked on from an armoured Chevrolet.

Despite the launch party at Guildhall being billed as one of the year's most glittering events, the reality turned out to be different. Mr Clinton arrived at 8.15pm, more than an hour late, accompanied by Chelsea, who had her own guest list. Promises of the "A-list" attendance also failed to materialise. Alongside excuses sent by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Hollywood actor Kevin Spacey and Madonna spurned their invitations to the book launch. Instead, the former president wined and dined with celebrities ranging from Mr Blair's former spin-doctor Alastair Campbell and the BBC's director of drama Alan Yentob to Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan.

With the Clinton roadshow due to continue today, before heading to Amsterdam on Wednesday, will he be allowed at least a few moments of respite? His organisers gave assurances that burn-out was an unlikely prospect. An aide said: "He'll do other things. He likes to go out to eat and do some shopping."

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