First feline claws his way back to top

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While Bill and Hillary Clinton have had their ups and downs in the opinion polls in their three years in the White House, the First Cat, Socks, appears to have maintained his popularity while keeping a low profile.

Until the holiday season began, Socks, a black cat named for his white paws, hadn't been seen in public for a while. But the appearance of Christmas trees throughout the White House, festooned with glistening, dangling ornaments from across the nation - plus an influx of children who came to hear President Clinton read "Twas the Night Before Christmas" - have brought the famous feline into the open again. The children all wanted to see Socks, and he obliged by sitting on Mrs Clinton's lap and purring.

So far as could be seen, he didn't knock over any trees or break any ornaments. But White House ''insiders'', according to the less-than-reliable Weekly World News, say Socks is a menace to many of the nation's treasures. The cat, according to the tabloid, has destroyed antique furniture, paintings, china and historic documents worth thousands of dollars.

Suggesting that "this demon with whiskers" be turned into "a nice fur hat", the paper claims Socks's offences include clawing and urinating on a love seat brought from Paris by Thomas Jefferson in 1804; chewing the corners off a Persian rug given to Abraham Lincoln by the King of Siam in 1860; using the Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere's wooden leg as a scratching post; and eating three stars off the first American flag, made by Betsy Ross.

Perhaps it is all Republican propaganda, or disinformation by dog-lovers. After all, Socks gets fan letters from around the country, and sends out thank-you notes signed with a paw print. Washington shops still offer a variety of Socks items, including T-shirts, greeting cards, soft toys and books, though they are interspersed with Newt Gingrich paper dolls and such.

Socks became the first cat in the White House in 12 years when the Clintons moved from Arkansas in January 1993. He is known to enjoy chasing mice and taunting spiders, and is reported to have dug up a flower bed or two. In one of "his" early books, "Socks Goes to Washington: The Diary of America's First Cat", he "confesses" to breaking Nancy Reagan's china to relieve boredom.

With the holiday season winding down and the entertaining almost over, Socks can be expected to retreat to the private world he shares with 15- year-old Chelsea Clinton.

Gone, at least until the 1996 presidential election gets into full swing, are the days when he would venture on to the White House lawn (only to be besieged by photographers) or climb atop a podium bearing the seal of the President of the United States (a man who is allergic to cats).