Out of the West: Oxford bags top place as Republican bogey

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - Let us fantasise for a moment - though it may not entirely be fantasy. A group of men in button-down shirts and beige raincoats are stalking the streets and student lodgings of north Oxford.

They are Americans, hired guns of the Republican Party's feared Opposition Research Department. Their quarry is Bill Clinton. Finally they hit paydirt, and word is passed to the arch-conservative, anti-Clinton Washington Times newspaper.

Hidden in a dusty attic between the Woodstock and Banbury roads, our indefatigable gumshoes have discovered a yellowing sheet, typed on an ancient Remington and written in the stilted language of one whose native tongue is not English.

Dated 1969, it purports to be from the Central Committee of the North Vietnamese Communist Party to Clinton, the young Rhodes Scholar and suspected anti-war agitator, urging him and like-minded expatriate liberal Democrats to keep up the pressure for an American withdrawal from the Vietnam war.

The front page story in the Washington Times is devastating to Clinton. No matter that the 'Ho Chi Minh letter' (for so it is instantly christened) is a shameless forgery. That only emerges months later. George Bush has his October Surprise, and secures the biggest upset victory in the history of US politics.

The above, I must again emphasise, is merely the idle imagining of a single Oxford graduate (although some Clinton supporters swear that something of the kind is under way). Were it true, however, it would be a curiously fitting climax to a campaign in which an important supporting role has been played by none other than my old alma mater.

Not to put too fine a point on it, in these desperate days, Oxford-bashing has become a staple of George Bush. To hear the 41st President of the United States tell, the old place is a nightmare vision of Sodom and Gomorrah, Weimar and Moscow rolled into one, inhabited exclusively by mad professors, unpatriotic libertines and sundry left-wing subversives.

In fact, George Bush did not launch Oxford as a campaign issue. That distinction belongs to Pat Buchanan, in his notorious television diatribe to kick off the Republican convention in Houston. Where was Clinton, wondered the erstwhile candidate, when young Americans were laying down their lives in Vietnam? Why, 'sitting up in a dormitory in Oxford, England' wondering how to dodge the draft.

'Oxford, England'; I can still hear the sneer with which those words were uttered. And for the transatlantic reputation of the dreaming spires, it's been downhill all the way ever since.

Is Bush running scared of Clinton by avoiding scheduled presidential debates? Not a bit of it, says the President, just that he's not a 'professional Oxford debater'. Then take the economy. If elected, Bush insists, Clinton would indulge in an orgy of taxation to turn the US into a giant welfare state.

And how does he know? It is quite simple, he explains to every campaign trail crowd. His opponent and a number of his advisers, 'those liberal guys that were hanging out with him at Oxford', were busy learning about such sinister 'social engineering' in the odd moments when they were not punting, smoking marijuana without inhaling or polishing decadent forensic skills, 'when some of you were over there fighting in Vietnam'.

Happily for Oxford, the gambit isn't paying off. Not that the projected image doesn't strike a chord: Oxford, in so far as ordinary Americans are aware of its existence, resonates like a foreign super-Harvard. Painting an opponent as unpatriotic and out of touch with the common man is the hoariest trick in the American political book.

Indeed, in 1988 the tactic worked like a dream: Bush the East Coast patrician, member of the men-only Skull and Bones club when he was at Yale, quite preposterously managed to portray himself as the regular guy, and Michael Dukakis, son of humble Greek immigrants, as the privileged Ivy League elitist.

Clinton, though, is a far tougher target. Yes, he went to effete and feckless Oxford, but when Clinton decides to play the rednecked good ol' boy, Bush is hopelessly outmatched. And worst of all, when attacked, Clinton fights back. So what is left for the Republicans? Short of a 'Ho Chi Minh letter', Oxford is not going to win them this election.