A lucky kinda guy

Profile: Bill Clinton; At his lowest ebb, a reporter asked Bill Clinton: `Are you still relevant?' Soon afterwards, the Oklahoma bomb put the reins in his hands, writes Rupert Cornwell - and he hasn't let go
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The Independent Online
This, he swears, "is my last campaign". But watch him blow over a crowd like a force of nature, and you can't believe the man will not be out there in the year 2000 on Al Gore's behalf, or running for UN Secretary-General, for head of the county school board, or for whatever office, elective or otherwise, that may be contested by a youthful and vigorous former president of the United States of America.

Campaigning is not in Bill Clinton's blood, it is his blood. The vision of him idle is as improbable as the thought two years ago that he could now stand where he does: barring an act of God or a late swing in the voters' mood unprecedented in American history, on the brink of seemingly certain re-election, perhaps by a landslide. Not since Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 and 1936 has a Democrat won two in a row; not since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 has the party been able to dream of a triumph of such dimension. And neither was coming back from the politically dead.

Consider for a moment Clinton's plight in that wretched November of 1994. A couple of months before, he had been humiliated as his healthcare plan, the intended cornerstone of his domestic presidency, did not even make it as far as a congressional vote. Then the forces of Newt swept the land, seizing back Congress for the Republicans for the first time since the Eisenhower era. Democrats fell like flies; not a single Republican incumbent was defeated. The action was on Capitol Hill and, even worse than being hated, Clinton was ignored. A journalist's question at a White House news conference only twisted the knife: "Sir, are you still relevant ?" As events have since shown he is - for the two reasons which in conjunction will save any politician: he knew his trade, and he was lucky.

Never, never, never underestimate Bill Clinton. He had been written off before, when he lost the governorship of Arkansas in 1980 after a single term, and when Gennifer Flowers and his Vietnam non-draft threatened to destroy his presidential candidacy in February 1992. In early 1995, he again seemed doomed. But once again, he rescued himself by willpower and an ability to learn from his mistakes.

Helped by the same political consultant who featured in his home state comeback in 1982, the now infamous Dick Morris, Clinton in 1995 and 1996 similarly moved back to the political centre. And somewhere along the line he learnt his job. The turning point may be dated to 19 April 1995, the very day after his relevance was queried, when a terrorist bomb exploded in Oklahoma City.

Clinton has a vacuum cleaner for a mind, and a razor for an intellect - but perhaps his pre-eminent political quality is his ability to empathise with others. It showed when he mesmerised Newt Gingrich in their early encounters, as the Speaker would later ruefully admit. It showed last week as he spent precious minutes of a crowded campaign day convincing one woman why he was right not to outlaw bitterly controversial late, or partial birth, abortions. And it shows in the way he can clothe tiny ideas in inspirational rhetoric. But in the national tragedy of Oklahoma City, Clinton became a national leader, in grief, compassion and resilience. Instinctively, the people looked to their President, and he did not fail them. At that moment, the proverbial "bubble" that seals in the aura of the office at last snapped tight around him.

And then there has been sheer, damned luck. Who could have predicted that Gingrich and his young Turks in Congress would so disastrously overreach, imposing two massively unpopular government shutdowns in the name of a revolution that the country did not want? More easily predictable was the nomination of the Republicans' elder statesman, Bob Dole, even though the ineptness of Dole the campaigner has exceeded the direst fears of his own supporters.

But luck allowed Clinton to avoid the bloodletting of a primary challenge from within Democratic ranks, and luck kept General Colin Powell, his most dangerous potential opponent, out of the 1996 Republican field.

In foreign policy, too, where presidencies are rarely made but easily destroyed, he has been fortunate. During his first term, no American soldier has died in an American war. Saddam Hussein has been an irritant easily squashed. Russia has not fallen apart. By luck or judgement, Clinton made the right call in Haiti, and a pax Americana of kinds has been imposed on Bosnia. If in the Middle East and Ireland he has laboured with scant success, failure cannot be pinned on him.

But his greatest ally has been the economy. As he plotted the business cycle, the Almighty must have had Bill Clinton in mind. The recovery from the 1990-1991 recession showed up three months too late to save George Bush. If finally the recovery is running out of steam - as the very latest figures seem to suggest - it is doing so too late to help Bob Dole.

In between, everything has gone right. In almost every speech, Clinton intones the litany: 10 million new jobs, the budget deficit at its lowest in 20 years, interest rates low, and inflation contained.

Justifiably, too, he may claim that his $500bn deficit-cutting package of 1993, for which not a single Congressional Republican voted, was partly responsible.

"It's the economy, stupid," was the mantra of 1992. So it is now, and so it will always be. Short of military humiliation abroad, or devastating scandal at home, so solid an economy makes a sitting president all but invincible.

As a result, moreover, public optimism has blossomed, as a majority of voters declare the country to be "on the right track". The tranquil mood is confirmed by polls showing that no one issue is uppermost in people's minds. Crime, education, health care, jobs and taxes all have their devotees, and Clinton is on the right side of most of them. Adroitly - and here the skilful politician resurfaces - he has co-opted every popular Republican policy idea, be it law and order, welfare reform, or a balanced budget. What is left for his opponents, White House spokesmen label "extremist". All of which has made it impossible for Bob Dole to convince Americans that a change is required - not when the country is prosperous and at peace, at home and abroad.

And so, by a process of elimination, we reach the famous question of "character", both of the man himself and the White House he leads. It is, beyond dispute, a very good question indeed.

Few doubt that Bill Clinton has strayed from the marital bed, and books have been written about Whitewater and related shenanigans in Little Rock and Washington. A proclivity to be all things to all men and a craving to please are not ingredients of moral constancy. Even now that the presidential bubble has closed around him, Clinton can appear slippery and shifty, the "Slick Willie" of old, as hard to nail down as a jelly to a wall.

Few administrations have attracted such ethical controversy, be it over the firing of the White House travel office staff or the plundering of confidential files from the FBI - and, most recently, campaign contributions as dubious as they are large, from Indonesians, Buddhist nuns and others.

"Where's the outrage?" asks a bewildered Dole, reciting his own litany of 30 Clinton associates and administration officials under investigation, indictment or in jail. Bill Clinton may have no convictions, the joke runs, but you can't say that about his friends.

But once again Republican politicians misread the people. Ever since George Bush was sinking to defeat four years ago, they have tried to make the Clinton character the defining issue. But constant hammering makes a man hard of hearing. Americans know full well that Bill Clinton is no angel. But four years of congressional hearings, muckraking journalism and special prosecutors have failed to produce damning proof of anything.

The populace, in short, has better things to worry about - as the second candidates' debate in San Diego proved. Despite repeated invitations from Bob Dole, not one of 20 questions from the audience addressed the matter of Clinton's character.

Maybe Whitewater will mar his second term. Maybe Hillary will be indicted. Maybe even, as Ross Perot proclaims, 1996 will be a rerun of 1972, when an incumbent president re-elected by a landslide was forced from office by scandal.

More prosaically but more probably, if the rule of re-elected presidents holds, his second term will be a disappointment. But that is for tomorrow. This is Bill Clinton's last election, and he's going out in style.

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