Oh, heck. Why not just have Bill Clinton back?

The President
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The Independent US

The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, arrived in Washington yesterday for talks with the President of the United States. The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, is expected at the end of the week. Bill Clinton is embarking on another emergency mission to bring peace to the war-racked Middle East. But no one notices.

The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, arrived in Washington yesterday for talks with the President of the United States. The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, is expected at the end of the week. Bill Clinton is embarking on another emergency mission to bring peace to the war-racked Middle East. But no one notices.

Washington DC, frenetic focus of global power, the most competitive political capital of all, finds itself suddenly the quiet centre of its own madly turning world. The place is on hold, waiting, watching, whispering, to know who its next suzerain will be. The city towards which the rest of the world gravitates for political solidity is hollow. Power has fled Washington. Capitol Hill is deserted; Congress is in a special election recess, returning to complete its term's business in a week; but few are confident it will.

The President is commuting between his house in New York and the White House, trying to give the impression that there is a steady, and neutral, hand on the ship of state's tiller, but watching and waiting like everyone else. "I'm a fascinated observer," he said this week, "just like the rest of you."

With his Vice-President, Al Gore, and the governor of Texas, George W Bush, trading opaque lines of the Constitution in their quest to succeed him, Mr Clinton was preparing to host a glittering banquet to commemorate that world-famous symbol of presidential authority - the White House, whose 200th anniversary fell last week.

It was a terrible irony of fate that among the invited guests were three of the four past living Presidents: Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter - and George Bush, who is reliving his own electoral fight against Mr Clinton eight years on through his eldest son. The other two past denizens of the White House accepted invitations to stay overnight. Mr Bush declined, saying he had "scheduling conflicts".

There was a question yesterday whether he might not bow out altogether, the etiquette of such an occasion being as far beyond precedent as everything else. If - as is reliably reported - the atmosphere between Al and George W is just a mite tetchy - imagine the table conversation between George Snr and Bill.

With Capitol Hill and the White House effectively in suspension, so too were all the institutions that attend them: the congressional offices, the lobbyists, the think-tankers, the legion of lawyers.

"'All over federal Washington," said Ken Ringle of The Washington Post, "people have been telling their spouses, their lovers, their children and their creditors that nothing can be dealt with until after the election. Except now that election may never end."

One lobbyist said she could not pretend it was business as usual in this post-election hiatus. "Time has stopped until this thing is resolved."

Among the subventions in limbo was the National Budget, temporarily renewed until after the election. As of now, the whole federal government is operating on borrowed time. Where is it now? employees asked plaintively.

In the streets, the usually rushing hordes displayed an unaccustomed interest in the newspaper boxes, searching intently - and in vain - for what Americans like to call "closure".

"Bush barely ahead of Gore in Florida" ( The New York Times), "Nation Braces for a Long Count" ( The Washington Post), "Bush-Gore Cliffhanger" ( USA Today), "Bush, Gore, a Nation Waits" ( Baltimore Sun), and, horror of all horrors, the New York Post's "We've Just Begun".

Not just in Washington, but in Nashville and Austin, the so-called "Plum Book" of political appointments was pored over by current staff and campaign workers seeking their first or next perch on the political ladder. But their heart was not in it. How can you compete for that next rung, if you have no confidence that it is "your guy" who is riding to power?

The only people fully occupied and confident of their immediate job prospects were those fine-print masters, the Constitutional historians and lawyers. Already fat from the proceeds of Monica Lewinsky and impeachment, how could they have dreamt that their services would be at a premium again so soon?

Welcome back to the small screen, Jonathan Turley of George Washington University, Doris Kearns Goodwin, historian, and all those bottle-blonde former prosecutors who lined up for and against Mr Clinton.

How the "Big Guy" must be smiling. The New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, was far from alone when she mused aloud: "Oh, heck - let's just keep President Clinton."

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