President's jet-set coiffure gets in people's hair

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WASHINGTON - Presidential problems over cutting the budget deficit are forgiveable, writes Rupert Cornwell. Less so are Bill Clinton's difficulties over two smaller matters this week: the brutal sacking of the White House travel staff, and the haircut from a Beverly Hills stylist that closed two runways at Los Angeles airport for 56 minutes.

Once again yesterday, America's weightiest newspapers were full of the two incidents. Tiny in themselves, they have come at the worst possible moment. The 42nd President is already acquiring an image of indecision. Now the man who would be seen as a 'Good Ol' Boy' with the common touch seems instead star-struck, prone to cronyism and of a self-indulgence bordering on downright selfishness.

The Clintons' showbiz connections are already legend; rarely have so many Hollywood luminaries seen the inside of the Oval Office in so short a time. But for many the summons to Cristophe, coiffeur to the stars, to minister to the President on board Air Force One was taking matters a little too far.

'What kind of man goes to a barber who charges dollars 200 a cut?' asked the Washington Post yesterday. Should Mr and Mrs Clinton appear to treat themselves so royally, when they were asking Americans for sacrifices on taxes and health care, wondered the Los Angeles Times.

Pundits were quick to warn of the perils to Mr Clinton, whose approval rating is already below 50 per cent. 'This is a political mistake and cultural myopia,' warned the conservative analyst Kevin Phillips, who predicted radio talk shows would make hay with the Los Angeles episode for weeks. It transpires the presidential mane had been given another 40-minute trim the previous day in New Mexico.

No more appealing an odour has been left by Wednesday's abrupt firing of the much-liked employees of the White House travel office. Their offences seemed vague, and the punishment meted out vindictive and out of proportion to any crimes that might have been committed.

Yesterday suspicions hardened further. A 25-year-old cousin of the President has been named to head the office, and an Arkansas travel agency, World Wide Travel (which contributed to the Clinton election campaign) was chosen without competitive bidding to make the White House travel arrangements. It further emerged that the aide who did the sacking has ties to World Wide Travel. Such is Arkansas' version of the old-boy network.