Clinton II - old scandals, new chances

Sequels rarely match the original, but this one may confound the sceptics, says Rupert Cornwell
Click to follow
The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - Alexander Lebed will be there (though at precisely who's invitation is a mystery). But la Streisand will not (allegedly because White House protocol bars her from sharing the Lincoln bedroom with her beau, James Brolin). There are a record 14 balls tonight, but a 10th of hotel rooms here are unbooked. Admittedly, hopes are high that the sleek, shimmering gown that Hillary has commissioned from the couturier Oscar de la Renta will provide the First Lady with a rare fashion success. But Bill's book of only last September, From Hope to History, originally priced at $16.95, is being remaindered off at $5 a throw as part of a bric-a- brac souvenir package. All of which is to say that when William Jefferson Clinton, 42nd President of the United States of America, is inaugurated today for a second term, a certain pizzazz will be missing from the Yankee coronation.

How different from four years ago, when a modern-minded young Southerner brimming with ideas retraced the journey of Thomas Jefferson from Monticello to Washington, and the capital dreamt of a new Camelot.

One reason for the lack of exuberance, inevitably, is that sequels are rarely as good as the original. The faces are the same, the policies mostly watered down, and the freshness of a wedding has given way to the drearier reality of married life. But that alone does not quite explain the strange mood.

The start of Clinton II is a moment of high possibilities but low expectations. On paper, the stars are aligned for bipartisanship as rarely before. Once again America's voters have opted for divided government, telling the two parties, in other words, to co-operate. The Republicans have retained Congress, but are a chastened bunch, very different from Newt Gingrich's overweening invaders of January 1995. The President, too, has learnt that success lies in moderation, in courting the "vital centre" rather than the strident core constituencies of his Democratic party.

But behind the soaring call for national unity and purpose that Mr Clinton will send forth from the steps of the Capitol today lies the rancorous reality of the controversy surrounding the Speaker, Newt Gingrich, which - on the House side, at least - has turned the 105th Congress into a snake pit before it has done a day of proper business. Then there is scandal - or rather scandals.

Some see hope in a "symmetry of sin"; that the ethical problems facing the Speaker and the President in a sense cancel each other out, and will prompt each side to seek a truce. Mr Clinton, after all, is looking for a place in history; Mr Gingrich for redemption. Both men say they want to balance the budget. Both have acknowledged, albeit in differing language, that curbs on middle-class entitlement programmes such as Medicare are essential to achieve this.

Both have spoken passionately of the need to tackle that most intractable of American problems, race relations. Few Republicans would quarrel with Mr Clinton's two other domestic priorities, of improving education and ensuring that the welfare reform Bill he reluctantly signed last year works in practice. These indeed are high possibilities - though probably even to achieve all of them would not turn Mr Clinton into a Great President. Only Washington, Lincoln and FDR are generally accorded that distinction, thanks to the huge challenges that history have given them: the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Depression and the defeat of Nazi Germany. Fortunately for Americans, Mr Clinton presides over less interesting times. But why are expectations so low, and why the vague foreboding that the best of Clinton has already been seen?

Part of the answer is history. Second terms are usually disappointments, from the arrogance of FDR (though he would magnificently redeem himself in his third) to the fumbling of Reagan and the bumbling of Eisenhower, and to the catastrophe of Richard Nixon. Clinton, runs the conventional wisdom, will have a brief window of opportunity this year to throw out his famous bridge to the 21st century. Then he will be rudely shoved aside by the 1998 mid-term election battle, and the 2000 presidential race immediately thereafter.

In fact, the lame-duck theory is less than wholly convincing. Ronald Reagan made his greatest historical legacy - the breakthrough encounter with Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, which led to reciprocal superpower summits and arms control deals that were the beginning of the end of the Cold War - in his second term, much of it amid Iran-Contra, a scandal of government far worse than any bothering Mr Clinton right now. And does he not, aided by Madeleine Albright, his forceful Secretary of State-designate, have at least an equal opportunity of shaping world history in his second-term: in the Middle East and the Balkans, with a post-Cold War accommodation between an expanded Nato and Russia, and perhaps even an understanding with China?

But this overlooks a crucial difference between the two men. Mr Reagan was trusted. Mr Clinton, despite a best-ever approval rating of more than 60 per cent, still is not. He remains a minority president, elected by the lowest turn-out of voters in three-quarters of a century, as the least bad of the options available, tolerated rather than loved. All of which makes the ethical clouds around the White House especially dangerous.

Probably none of them will drive Mr Clinton from office. At the risk of gross oversimplification, a bookie would set out the form thus. The Paula Jones sexual harassment suit, if the Supreme Court allows it to proceed, will be squirmingly embarrassing, but not a matter for impeachment. Nor do the various runners from the Whitewater stable, at least as far as the President is concerned, seem to carry "high crimes and misdemeanours" potential - although indictment of Mrs Clinton by the special prosecutor Kenneth Starr remains a small but hideous possibility, whose impact on the Clinton presidency would be incalculable.

Then there is "Indogate", the seamy Asian fund-raising by the White House and the Democratic National Committee. The Republicans will make hay in Congress, but failing proof of a policy quid pro quo, in other words a bribe, the controversy is likely to peter out. But then who would have said, four years ago, that Whitewater would last twice as long as Watergate, with no end yet in sight? Let Bill Clinton enjoy his day - and at least avoid the fate of William Harrison, the ninth President. He was inaugurated, made an hour-long speech in the rain, caught pneumonia, and died a month later.

Comments