America is not about to swear in Mr Nice Guy

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - The city is alive with expectation. It always is before a presidential inauguration. But this year the enthusiasm is a little special. From the looks and youth of the President-elect, to the gusty, snow-laden weather, there are echoes of that January in 1961 when storms failed to wreck John F Kennedy's inaugural knees-up.

A key ingredient of the American myth is the nation's ability to start over again, to recapture lost innocence. An important part of Bill Clinton's appeal is his conscious, cultivated Kennedy echo. As he tells it, a teenage visit to Washington and a chance meeting with JFK four months before his assassination turned him to politics. Later, his youthful governor's team in Arkansas was quickly dubbed 'Camelot'. The potent, ambiguous legend lives on, and for many Americans, it is not a matter to joke about. Next week, Mr Clinton will try to sound as patriotic and optimistic as his idol. The word 'hope' will be flashed in star shells over the Potomac while bands play 'When you wish upon a star'. (Yes, really.)

If the Clinton presidency is a success, the Son of Kennedy tag will stick. If not, it will be Jimmy Carter revisited - and remember that poor Mr Carter also encouraged JFK comparisons when he first arrived at the White House. For Mr Clinton, the parallels with Mr Carter are at first sight more striking than those with JFK.

Start with two southern Democrats who won on a 'Let's change Washington' ticket, promising to get on top of the country's formidable-looking economic problems. Neither was a foreign policy buff, nor a classic high-spender of the left: Mr Carter vetoed big public works bills and refused large increases in health programmes, while Mr Clinton promises a tough line on both the deficit and welfare costs. Both enjoyed the benefit of big Democratic majorities in Congress.

Both men offered a common style, miles away from the Republican glitz of Ronald Reagan. Mr Carter abandoned the limousines and strolled down the Mall to take his oath. He banned hard liquor from the White House, and turned down the thermostats there during a bitter winter to advertise the merits of energy conservation. Mr Clinton has planned a folksy, 'Americana' inauguration thrash. He greets guests with Coke served from the can and seems to dress mostly in jogging gear.

Both men were embarrassed by their brothers - cocaine dealing in the Clinton case - and both have tough wives. When Rosalynn Carter started attending cabinet meetings ('I'm much more political than Jimmy'), Washington was scandalised. President-elect Clinton has already said he wants his wife, Hillary, with a strong liberal agenda of her own, to sit in on cabinet.

So if, or rather when, Mr Clinton's popularity starts to slide, will Republican hostesses round the Georgetown dinner tables be devouring old Georgia peanut farmer jokes, reheated as Arkansas hog farmer stories?

I doubt it. Mr Clinton spends an inordinate amount of time trying to work out what Mr Carter would have done, and then doing the opposite. He is not, as the peanut farmer was, a real outsider. He is what Americans call a 'policy wonk', who became the favoured candidate of the brighter, righter Washington insiders. Nor is he as nice as he looks.

Can you, for instance, imagine pious, well-meaning Jimmy Carter boosting his electoral image by executing a murderer who had part of his brain missing? Who was so retarded he could not be made to understand what was happening when he was led away from his final meal for his lethal injection? (This sounds reassuringly clinical, but in the case of this man, it took 50 awful minutes to kill him.)

Mr Clinton is, says one Democratic adviser, 'a tough bastard'. He had a hard childhood and displayed astonishing determination in his rise. He took on, and beat, vociferous special interest groups during his time in Arkansas. Single-minded, certainly. Ruthless, too. He may even be as cynical, plausible and manipulative as JFK himself. Even close admirers say he has a penchant for telling small, but significant, lies. What he is clearly not, though, is a nave or bumbling outsider.

Nor, unless you happen to be on death row, is this necessarily a bad thing. There is a deep, but perhaps necessary, hypocrisy at the heart of US presidential politics. The people, with their historic and often justified suspicion of Washington, tend to want outsiders, 'regular guys', to sort the place out. Mr Clinton played to this, promising to sack thousands of bureaucrats. But real outsiders cannot cope. Jimmy Carter couldn't. And Ross Perot would have been a disaster.

Once in Washington, new presidents cease to be judged by the rhetoric of their campaign and, as soon as the fireworks burn out, are measured by new standards. The swearing of that oath will turn Mr Clinton from a local fixer to the most powerful man in the world. He will become the ultimate insider, appraised each day by other insiders (Congressmen, the television networks, the wonks) on his ability to play the power game.

The logical conclusion is that the United States needs a leader able to pose as an ordinary middle American, but who is really a ruthless, sophisticated Washington player. In Mr Clinton, they have probably got him. Not the fresh-faced symbol of a return to lost innocence who will be paraded before the world next week but a chilly, hardened ruler. Not so much Hope, Arkansas, as Experience, D C.