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President's fixer with the soothing manner

IF THE tiresomely-named 'special relationship' is as bruised as it is said to be, few are better suited to nurse it back to a semblance of health than the bespectacled ex-diplomat, Cambridge man and gentleman farmer who now occupies the cramped West Wing office of the President's National Security Adviser.

The Clinton era, to put it mildly, has not been a halcyon period between Britain and the United States. Conservative Party help for the Bush campaign in 1992, and more recently Bosnia and the flaming row over the Gerry Adams visa, have made the billing and cooing of the Thatcher-Reagan era look like prehistory.

Now however comes a chance to put things right. For Mr Major's visit next week, the President is pulling out the stops: a sentimental journey to the steel-mills of Pittsburgh, where the Prime Minister's grandfather and father once worked, a cosy dinner followed by a trip back together on Airforce One to Washington, where Mr Major will spend the night at the White House. A smaller gesture was Tony Lake's interview this week with a group of British correspondents.

W Anthony Lake may be one of the most powerful men in town, but he does not dress that way. A tweedy suit and sensible brown shoes are anything but standard Washington attire. As he rehearses the soothing words which will be heard again and again over the next few days, he resembles the softspoken professor of international relations he was for 11 years before returning to Washington to serve Bill Clinton.

The relationship, he says, is 'very strong', its strongest feature 'a shared confidence, an ability to disagree and work through the disagreements as only those who trust each other can'. He cites Bosnia, where the two sides have come together in the Nato air strikes ultimatum. It was 'absolutely not so' that Britain's agreement was only secured by a US threat to pull out its troops from Europe.

The Adams affair of course is touchier still. Dr Lake doggedly maintains it was not a mistake to grant the visa. Tellingly though, the US 'has no follow-up in mind'.

Indeed, the notion of a US special envoy has been shelved, and a visitor's impression is that Washington, having put its toe into the scalding waters of Northern Ireland, has no wish to repeat the experience.

Bill Clinton, he says, 'is looking forward to Pittsburgh'. The two are firmly on 'Bill and John' terms, according to Dr Lake. But the 'monthly phone call and numerous letters' suggest a less intimate relationship than during the Republican years.

Dr Lake, however, does his best to make up. One button on the telephone unit behind him is a direct line to Roderick Lyne, his opposite number at 10 Downing Street. 'I've talked to Rod two or three times on each of the last four or five weekends.'

Not that Tony Lake has had a smooth ride. When US foreign policy seemed in a special shambles last October after the Somalia debacle, there were mutterings for Lake's head.

But if he ever were forced out, Dr Lake would not be inconsolable. His delight is the herd of cattle on his farm in Massachusetts. When he returned to foreign policy-making here, someone asked why. 'I did it,' he said deadpan, 'because the price of beef is down.'