The Clintons: America's top-rated soap

Entertainment values could swing US voters

Bob Dole, the Republican presidential candidate, has proposed that as part of this year's election campaign his wife Elizabeth and Hillary Clinton should engage in a nationally televised debate.

There are two ways to look at this. One is that, regardless of who wins on 5 November, the First Lady will be a woman of impressive political acumen: Mrs Dole, a successful lawyer who occupied high office in the Reagan administration, would no more be prepared to play the simpering White House wife than Mrs Clinton has. The other way is that the contest for the presidency of the most powerful nation on earth is in danger of being reduced to pop-culture entertainment, like a TV game show.

The most recent indication that this is the direction in which things are headed was provided by Bob Woodward, one of the Washington Post reporters whose expose of the Watergate scandal brought down the Nixon presidency. His latest book, The Choice, will be remembered more as an exercise in peeping-Tomism than heavyweight political investigation. The one newsworthy revelation it contains is that Mrs Clinton, encouraged by a "New Age sorceress" she befriended, habitually holds imaginary conversations with Mahatma Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt.

The celebrated Mr Woodward, it seems, has been taking lessons from the Princess of Wales's biographer, Andrew Morton. Which is perhaps not so much a reflection on Mr Woodward as on a Washington environment where theatrics take priority over governing. Within the rules of this year's electoral game, as laid out by both the President and Mr Dole, the revelation that Mrs Clinton derives comfort from "channelling" is not without its importance.

It goes to the heart of the all-important "character" question on which the US electorate will decide which of the two candidates is best fit - or least unfit - to govern them. The most high-minded political professionals in Washington are obliged to concede that whether Mr Clinton loses his large poll lead over Mr Dole during the four months leading up the election will turn not on the issues, on how each intends to address the economy, for example, but on whether the Republicans accumulate sufficient dirt on Mr Clinton to persuade the electorate it is time for a change.

The claim in a book which came out on Friday that Mr Clinton engaged in secret trysts with an unnamed celebrity is likely, even if it is never substantiated, to have more impact on the electoral outcome than his positions on health and social welfare reform. For the allegation has the ring of plausibility. A market-research company in California came up with the finding last week that a well-aimed joke at a political figure will determine, more than a dozen policy pronouncements, how he or she is viewed by the American public.

Denis Miller, who hosts a late-night programme on the HBO channel, joked last week: "Clinton is so far ahead in the polls that he's thinking of starting dating again." The audience laughed readily, because Miller was tapping into the belief that has most widely defined Mr Clinton's presidency: that he is a man unable to restrain his libido.

Thus has the White House spectacle come to resemble the one at Buckingham Palace. The Clintons have become figures in a soap opera.

The tone was set during the last presidential campaign by the Gennifer Flowers drama and Mr and Mrs Clinton's decision to respond by going live on television, holding hands and reassuring the nation that, notwithstanding the temptations of the flesh, they had a perfectly happy marriage.

Immediately after the election, Mrs Clinton got what some drama-cum-politics critics interpreted as the pay-off for her loyalty when her husband put her in charge of healthcare reform. This did not so much generate debate on a complex issue of great national importance as fix in the public eye an image of Mr Clinton as a hen-pecked husband, and analysts say it was one of the chief reasons why the so-called Angry White Males turned against the Democrats, handing Newt Gingrich's Republicans a resounding triumph in the mid-term congressional elections of 1994.

And then, of course, there have been the scandals: Travelgate, Whitewater, and, most recently, the FBI files. Travelgate concerned Republican claims that Mrs Clinton abused her influence to dismiss the travel office staff the White House inherited from President Bush, replacing them with old cronies from Arkansas. The reaction of the American public, in so far as there was one to an issue so arcane, appeared to be that the Clintons, like a new hierarchy taking over a company, could hire and fire as they pleased. The more lasting impression the incident created, however, was that Mrs Clinton was one of those Joan Collins characters who can terrify a grown man by arching her magnificiently scuplted eyebrows.

No one, beyond the bubble of introspection that is Washington, understands Whitewater - for the simple reason that no television newswriter has yet come up with a formula to convey the significance of the story in one minute and 15 seconds. The reason the Republicans have banged away at the issue is that they hope, by sheer repetition, to generate enough of a whiff of corruption about the Clintons to undermine the President's chances of re-election.

What the Republicans pray for is the magic breakthrough: not that Mr Clinton himself will have to suffer the legal consequences of crooked land deals perpetrated 15 years ago by people he knew in Arkansas, but that Mrs Clinton will be indicted for failing to hand over to the judicial authorities some papers related to the case.

The Republicans know that all the elderly Mr Dole has going for him is an image of restrained dignity. Six months have passed since the Republican primaries began and Mr Dole has yet to define what he stands for, how he differs on the issues from Mr Clinton. This is partly because the only thing Mr Dole knows for sure is that he desperately wants to end his political career in the White House and because Mr Clinton, steered in the White House by an ex-Republican consultant called Dick Morris, has hijacked most of the Republican positions, be they on balancing the budget, homosexual marriages, school uniforms or curfews for teenagers.

Mr Dole's gamble is that if he just stands still and waits, Mr Clinton will implode. The Republican challenger would have felt his patience had been partially rewarded when the news surfaced that the White House requested FBI files three years ago on the private lives of more than 700 Republicans, some of them prominent figures in the Bush administration.

Here was a scandal more easily digestible than Whitewater. Mr Dole's joy was complete when it emerged that the fall-guy identified by the White House, Craig Livingstone, was a rotund former bouncer whom Mr Clinton had appointed at the age of 34 to the sensitive position of chief of White House security.

And now there is the story of the secret tryst with the celebrity, following hard upon the latest development in the lingering Paula Jones case. Ms Jones is suing Mr Clinton for sexual harassment, following her claim that one day in 1991 the then Governor of Arkansas summoned her to a hotel room and dropped his trousers. It emerged last month, on Memorial Day, that in his anxiety to seek postponement of the court case beyond the November election Mr Clinton had invoked the claim that, as Commander- in-Chief of US armed forces, he was on active duty, and therefore too busy for such trifles. The draft-dodger was in the army now. The irony was not lost on the American public, and the Republicans milked it dry.

Against this backdrop, Mr Woodward's revelation about the kookiness of the First Lady, a notion compounded by her claim last month that at 48 she wanted to have another baby, has inevitably provoked much speculation as to the nature of the First Marriage. Time magazine began a purportedly serious political cover story about Mrs Clinton last week with what might have been a spoof of the Daily Express covering the Prince and Princess of Wales. "Some unions may be more opaque than others," it said, "but all marriages are mysteries born of chemistry and Providence, self-sharpening, soul- scrubbing."

Neither Time nor any other mainstream news publication in the US, save for those with a declared right-wing agenda, has paused solemnly to ponder whether the Clintons are actually fit to be in the White House. The question will be answered by the electorate, who so far, according to the polls, have shown no sign that they mean to kick out the incumbent.

If there is any logic here in the light of the accumulated scandals, foibles and peccadilloes, it is this: intuitively, Americans understand that, since the passing of the Cold War, the power and influence of the presidency has diminished. So, given how minimal the impact of the White House appears to be on the everyday lives of average Americans, why not vote for a roguish charmer and his interesting wife, who they know will continue to provide a diverting TV spectacle, rather than a solid grey man with a solid grey wife, who they know will not?

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