Life at the top will be lonelier for Clinton

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BILL CLINTON returned to presidential duties in Washington yesterday after his 10-day Balkan trip, to find that life at the top was about to become even lonelier than before.

Only hours before he arrived back at the White House, his wife, Hillary, had announced that she would be moving to New York full-time as soon as the new house in Chappaqua was ready. She was "scaling back" her role as first lady, she said, to concentrate on her Senate bid. In prospect is the first-ever presidential "commuter marriage".

The Vice-President, Al Gore, meanwhile, had put it about that he now regarded his run for the presidency as more important than his position as Vice- President. "Running for president of this country," he told The Washington Post last weekend, "is far more important than being the best vice-president I can possibly be."

While it is a fact of presidential life that senior members of the administration, however loyal, depart in pursuit of their own interests as their president's time runs out, the loss of his two most trusted lieutenants a full year before the end of his presidency leaves Mr Clinton deserted as few American presidents have been this century. It is 80 years since, as The New York Times delicately put it, "a president lived in the White House without a wife". That was Woodrow Wilson, who remedied the situation by marrying his second wife in 1915, during his first term.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie Kennedy kept separate residences that they used from time to time; Bess Truman upped and left Washington, preferring to stay at the family home in Missouri, and, it was noted yesterday, it was customary for first ladies to leave Washington during the sultry southern summers. But there is no precedent for a first lady leaving the White House to pursue her own career, and Mrs Clinton's announcement on Tuesday that she was curtailing her official duties as first lady to campaign full-time for the US Senate seat for New York was seen by some as tantamount to abdication.

It was not clear, however, to what extent the announcement was personal and to what extent political. Both Clintons insist that they will see each other at weekends, presenting the arrangement as no different from the "commuter marriages" of thousands of American couples separated by their careers.

It is true, however, that President Clinton and his wife have spent very little time together in recent months. On their latest foreign travels, they flew out and back separately, linking up only for a few days in Turkey and Greece and at the weekend meeting in Florence where Mrs Clinton was a speaker. She returned two days earlier than her husband, in part, it seemed, to stem the growing speculation about her Senate campaign.

With his Vice-President and wife increasingly absent, Mr Clinton has started to cut a lonely and somewhat sad figure. A couple of months ago, he was reported to have spent an afternoon playing golf by himself, in the rain. Earlier this week, there were poignant photographs of him, alone with Chelsea, visiting an otherwise deserted Parthenon. Not even his dog, Buddy, has been much in evidence of late. Inevitably, the questions are being asked: is the presidency a job that can be done alone? And how will a man who so clearly thrives on company adjust to his new isolation? Both he and America are about to find out.