Rupert Cornwell: Bill is back – charismatic and totally on message

Click to follow
The Independent Online

For an hour or two at Burbank airport yesterday, America's political clock rewound a decade.

Laura Ling and Euna Lee came home in the seventh month of the age of Obama. But the stage belonged to the two biggest beasts of an earlier Democratic era – Al Gore, the former vice president for whose TV network the two journalists work, and above all, Bill Clinton, Al Gore's old boss and the man who brought them back from North Korea.

Burbank, a convenient few miles north of Hollywood, is where the movie stars like to keep their private jets. But not one of these luminaries can match the wattage of the 42nd president. Doing his best not to overshadow an emotional occasion, Bill didn't utter a word. But as usual, his mere presence stole the show.

The subtitle of the tale of the two American reporters imprisoned in Korea is simple: Bill is back. For these first six months of the current administration, he had kept quiet, by his standards indeed, all but invisible – doubtless to allow the wounds he helped open during the fierce primary battle between his wife and Mr Obama to fully heal. But this rescue mission, by special request of Kim Jong Il and the White House, has surely not only completed that job. It has reminded Americans just how much they liked Bill Clinton.

This time, he didn't act to type. The fear used to be that self-indulgent, undisciplined and lime-light loving Bill would cause endless embarrassment for Hillary as she learnt the ropes of being Secretary of State under the man who defeated her in 2008.

The Bill Clinton America has observed this week has been very different – grave, almost dour in his meetings with a beaming Kim, and totally on message. This the former president that team Obama has always wanted at its disposal – the eternally charismatic figure whose dazzle masks his diplomatic acumen, but who is a team player as well.

And his wife will probably also benefit. Yes, she has been eclipsed by her husband this week, her seven nation tour of Africa lost in the Pyongyang and Burbank hubbub. Indeed, as recently as last month, the chatter in Washington was that she had been quietly sidelined by the White House. But she dispelled that impression, first with a forceful trip to Asia, and then with an hour long appearance on a Sunday talk show that showed how formidable an operator she is in her own right, now that she has learned the ropes.

Every sign is that Hillary and President Obama have formed a strong working relationship. Opinions may vary on the merits of dealing with ruthless dictators like Kim Jong Il. But the rifts that plagued the national security team of the previous Bush administration are conspicuous by their absence. And now not one, but two Clintons have signed up for team Obama.

As William Cohen, secretary of defence during the second Clinton administration, put it yesterday, "It's a good division of labour."