AMERICAN ELECTION: Bill brings consensus and wistful air to his Big Night party

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The Independent Online
The streets rocked with myriad cheering lungs, the fat lady sang - actually it was Jessye Norman leading all of us in a humming rendition of "Amazing Grace" - and President Clinton strode on to the stage before Little Rock's illuminated Old State House to thank friends and voters.

It was pizzazz and it was Hollywood that climaxed in a shower of fireworks. But the mood was more subtle than all the stage management and the high- fiving suggested. On Tuesday night - and still yesterday - it was one of wistfulness.

"I rang Daddy and told him not to worry about me, because I still have a job," confided one of the President's speechwriters, who was among a throng of campaign staff members and FOBs - Friends of Bill - who made up the "honoured guests" at the foot of the stage beneath the State House. At the microphone, President Clinton likewise spoke to his mother, who died midway through his first term. Looking skyward he told us: "My beloved mother is smiling up there and said: `I never had a doubt'."

For Mr Clinton, there was wistfulness for manifold reasons: his taking of a place in history as one of only 13 US presidents to win two straight terms, his knowledge that he had just completed the last political campaign of his life, and the realisation that he done it all after being "born in a summer storm to a widowed mother in a small town" in a remote corner of the state.

Nor was his speech the spellbinder that he delivered on the same spot four years earlier. Then he, his campaign and all of Little Rock were rapt by the notion of the ousting of the Republican incumbency and of almost revolutionary promise. This was a more measured - and rather more long-winded - Bill Clinton, offering a theme of consensus and bipartisanship in Washington over the four years to come. It was a pledge to "work together, meet our challenges, put aside the politics of division and build America's community together".

Nodding in the crowd was George Stephanopolous, Mr Clinton's closest aide in the 1992 campaign. "So few presidents in history have had the opportunity that he now has, and he recognises that, and he won't waste a moment," Mr Stephanopoulos suggested, offering the additional hint that the President is searching to place some Republicans in his new cabinet.

The President received sustained applause when he asked for the crowd's appreciation of his defeated Republican challenger, Bob Dole, for "his lifetime of service to the United States".

Only minutes earlier, many of us on the lawn had had eyes fixed on the monitors on the network platforms that were showing Mr Dole delivering his concession speech in Washington. "Did he cry?," everyone asked. No one could quite see.

Mr Stephanopoulos was one of the supporting stars here on Tuesday night, darting from one interview to another and passing briefly through the hottest of the election night parties. Called the "War Room" bash, it was hosted in the downtown office building that in 1992 housed the Clinton campaign, where he and his friend James Carville fought so famously to protect their candidate from the serial crises of Gennifer Flowers, cannabis inhalation (or not) and the dodging of the draft.

What now for Mr Stephan- opoulos? "I'm going to the beach," he said. He has made it known that he will withdraw from the White House, along with such colleagues as the Chief of Staff, Leon Panetta.

Others present, or rumoured to be present, in Little Rock for Bill's Big Night, were Batman, alias Michael Keaton and Barbra Streisand. Milling discreetly were a few from British shores: a representative from the embassy in Washington and, from Tony Blair's entourage in London, Phillip Gould (doubtless taking notes).

If one detected a slight adrenaline deficit among party members, the exception was surely Al Gore. "Here beginneth Campaign 2000," murmured one reporter as Mr Gore joined the President on stage.

In recent weeks and again here, Mr Gore has shown that he is now shedding the automaton image for which he is so infamous and demonstrating that he can be as confident and as energising a speaker as his boss - and perhaps, in four years time, as skillful a campaigner as well.

"Under Bill Clinton, the United States of America is not just better off, it is better," Mr Gore intoned at the end of his oration, before introducing President Clinton as the "man from Hope, who tonight becomes the man from history".