Matthew Norman: The story of Rupert and Hillary (and Bill)

The state of the Clinton marriage continues to fascinate America
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The Independent Online

In one of the most touching, high-profile rapprochements the world has seen for a very long time (since last week, in fact, when the United States resumed diplomatic relations with Libya), Mr Rupert Murdoch is graciously pleased to announce that he will host a fundraising party for Hillary Clinton in July.

Given the extreme hostility of Mr Murdoch's papers towards her in the past, news of this soiree deeply intrigues students of American politics. When Hillary was at the point of declaring her candidacy for the Senate, the New York Post seemed less than keen. "Don't Run" was the front-page headline, and, when this injunction was ignored, the title was relentlessly vicious about her on an almost daily basis.

Here we are, six years on, and Mr Murdoch, who increasingly resembles Davros, the creator of the Daleks, will be donning the tuxedo to greet the worthy, the wealthy and the plain weird in the cause of boosting the coffers earmarked for a senatorial re-election already regarded as a shoo-in for Hillary.

The fundraiser has not delighted all her fans, in truth. Large chunks of America's liberal left (the neo-Thatcherite centre right, in our own terms) are taking umbrage at this time-honoured Murdocho-Faustian pact. Hillary disdains this analysis. She has accepted Rupert's kind offer, so she says, because he's a constituent of hers who believes she is doing a fine job.

I trust we can all enjoy this image of the owner of News Corporation and neo-Con Fox TV (with whose top executive Hillary recently spent quality time) as Joe Schmo, the archetypal abrasive, wisecracking New Yorker waiting impatiently in his senator's outer office for hours, like any normal constituent, to catch two minutes of her surgery time to moan about street lighting, the lack of English of immigrant taxi drivers, and the declining quality of lox.

Others read more into it, reasoning that while Mr Murdoch still loathes Hillary, and everything for which she increasingly affects not to stand, her realignment on issues such as military spending and even abortion has been adroit, to say the least - he has never shown a phobia for backing winners. With barely 18 months until the next US election campaign properly begins, he appears to be having a decent each-way punt on Hillary.

And no wonder. According to William Hill, Hillary is 2-1 favourite, and if these odds are partly based on her unrivalled recognition factor with American voters, they also reflect the growing feeling that, after eight years of the idiot, America will feel that the Republicans could use a rest; and that no serious Democrat rival figures on the horizon.

There were high hopes for Barack Obama, the ridiculously good looking and charismatic half-Kenyan Illinois congressman, who wowed the Democratic convention with some dazzling oratory after September 11 (having taken a herbal remedy, which tends to blur the vision, that night, I spent an hour confused as why people were waving placards for Osama). But he and other rivals are long shots now, and few analysts anticipate Hillary failing to win the nomination.

The far bigger question, of course, concerns her chances of restoring Bill to the White House with the inaugural and ironic-sounding title of First Gentleman. It is in the gloriously ambiguous character of William Jefferson Clinton, needless to say, that both her best shot and her greatest obstacle appear to lie.

On the one hand, his persistent popularity is such that, but for the amendment restricting presidents to two terms, he would still be Commander in Chief, and, given his aversion to cretinous foreign-policy mistakes, the world would be a less gruesome and dangerous place. If they can't have him in the Oval Office, maybe enough Americans will suffer Hillary to have him wandering around the West Wing, chastity belt neatly padlocked, pulling the strings.

On the other, Hillary is hardly anyone's puppet. Her maiden name of Rodham seems oddly fitting for a woman perceived as seldom backward in galloping forward, swishing the cane, after the fashion of the late "Professor" Jimmy Edwards, when her husband's overgrown schoolboy misbehaviour calls for corrective therapy.

After her famous faux pas in scorning the moral of Tammy Wynette's Stand By Your Man, she reversed her position in what now looks a forerunner of the many policy readjustments she continues to make to ditch that pesky liberal tag. Even so, stand by him though she did, and does, the state of the Clinton marriage continues to fascinate America, and to be deployed by fearful Republicans as the most effective weapon in its arsenal of malevolence. This week, the New York Times did what, until recently, Mr Murdoch's Post would have done much more crudely. It devoted its front page and 2,000 words inside to an investigation into the state of this union, and concluded by implying that the marriage is a sham.

Anyone who has read Primary Colors, Joe Klein's brilliant fictionalised account of the first Clinton presidential campaign, will suspect that this paints too simplistic a portrait of a complex and sophisticated relationship. But even if the two loathe each other, and can tolerate being in the same city only through a shared addiction for power, you wonder how much this will damage her prospects.

The huge advantage Hillary holds over all other would-be candidates is she is immune to the sort of media prying into her past that destroyed the likes of Gary Hart. Everything there is to be known about her, her family, her friends and her business dealings was exhaustively exhumed long ago, and even if, much like that woman Ms Lewinsky's blue dress, her dirty washing hasn't exactly been dry-cleaned, it has at least been thoroughly aired. Hillary has come through it all little scathed, and, on the old "what doesn't kill you" principle, seems stronger than ever.

An overtly tough, independent and opinionated woman, and the voters of the Bible Belt don't sound like the cosiest of electoral bedfellows, Hillary certainly has her flaws - not least a clumpingly leaden, forensic style in the starkest of contrasts to Bill's "Ah know the pain y'all feel" southern preacher. And yet, and yet... time and again, the Clintons, whatever their dealings in private, have come together in public to exhibit a supernatural ability to overcome more worrying problems than a little negative polling in the mid-west. With Bill at her side, schmoozing away on her behalf, and with Hillary cutely triangulating away all the beliefs she's espoused since the two met at college, who'd be bold enough to back against her now? Not, to name one shrewd old punter, Rupert Murdoch.