Clinton finds a natural touch at last

John Carlin in Washington discovers a more positive President heading for the hills

Even though it was well over a month ago that President Bill Clinton decided to spend this year's summer holidays in Wyoming, he has stuck to his plans.

Yesterday he began a 17-day break - by far the longest holiday he will have had since assuming office - in the picturesque mountain retreat of Jackson Hole. He will not be taking the usual presidential retinue of 300 with him, contenting himself with a mere 75 staffers and security personnel. And as for his plans, he confessed: "I'm going to lie down. I'm tired."

Whisper it, but it could just be that Clinton the over-eager puppy is beginning to grow into his presidential role. Four months ago he plumbed the depths of callow adolescence when he declared at a press conference, pitifully plaintive, "I AM relevant."

But all of a sudden he is looking more confident, more single-minded. The image of dithering confusion he has communicated to the American public during most of his 32-month tenure has resulted largely from his desire to be all things to all people. His liberal instincts have pulled him one way. His election pollsters, anxious not to antagonise America's conservative rump, have pulled him another.

It looks now as if the Hamlet president has thrown off the shackles of indecision and determined to himself be true. First of all, he has taken a position on affirmative action that flies in the face of conventional political wisdom. The Republicans won the last congressional election, and hope to win the next presidential one, to a large degree because of the vigour with which they have peddled the argument that employment policies favouring women and blacks have discriminated against white American males.

Last month, after long prevarication, Mr Clinton discarded the customary fudge and declared that affirmative action was a good and necessary thing.

Then last Thursday he grasped the cigarette nettle, speaking forthrightly as he revealed plans to curb advertising aimed at the susceptible teenage market. Mr Clinton took his stand in the full knowledge that the powerful tobacco lobby could be expected to redouble its campaign contributions to next year's Republican candidate and that, in the view of the Washington chatterers, he has written the redneck South out of his re-election plans.

The following day he announced, to the dismay of America's Cold Warrior constituency and the embarrassment of Britain and France, that the US would henceforth put a stop to all nuclear testing.

On Bosnia Mr Clinton has been warily hesitant, aware that the prevailing view in Middle America is, "what the hell's it got to do with us?" During the last two months of unrelenting crisis he has been happy to take a backseat to his European allies. Suddenly, in the last week, the US has emerged as a more visible player, urging a peace initiative which, however flawed, displays a new American determination to play an active role.

For all this, it would be as premature to conclude that Mr Clinton will sustain his authoritative, properly presidential mien as it would be a mistake to infer that he has thrown caution to the winds and abandoned his quest for re-election. On polling day in November next year Americans will be casting their votes for the candidate who taps most convincingly the myth of president as commanding paterfamilias on a horse. When Mr Clinton does his John Wayne turn in Wyoming's Big Country over the next couple of weeks the media, depend upon it, will be invited for the ride.

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