You need charm to win the White House

'Clinton understands that a president's power lies in his personality, what Teddy Roosevelt called the power of the jawbone'

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It was back in 1991 that I came face to face with American Presidential politics, on a glorious early September day in Little Rock as I watched the governor of Arkansas appear before the old ante-bellum State House to enter the race for the White House. He was called Bill Clinton; we didn't know that much about him then, beyond the fact he was very bright, very charming, and was reputed to have something of "a zipper problem".

It was back in 1991 that I came face to face with American Presidential politics, on a glorious early September day in Little Rock as I watched the governor of Arkansas appear before the old ante-bellum State House to enter the race for the White House. He was called Bill Clinton; we didn't know that much about him then, beyond the fact he was very bright, very charming, and was reputed to have something of "a zipper problem".

Very soon, it will be all over. For eight years, Clinton has towered over American politics, "zipper problem" and all. In that time the landscape has outwardly been transformed. Then, we fretted about uncontrollable deficits; now the fear is only that the real world may intrude on the idyll, as the four-yearly rite of American democracy reaches its climax. Al Gore and George W Bush hold stage, arguing about how to spend the surplus. But over their shoulder you may discern Banquo's ghost - a sudden stock market collapse, caused by the Middle East, an oil crisis, who knows, but killing the Clinton boom, once and for all. The Fed will move heaven and earth to stop any such melt-down, but when the Dow closed the other day below 10,000, for the first time in months, you could feel the fear.

Otherwise though, nothing has changed. The usual accusations fly over media bias and negative campaigning (though I find this year's crop of ads relatively polite), together with the lament that the political process has been trivialised (though that charge too is less true this time). There is a clear, much discussed disagreement about the role of government. Gore sees it as an activist force for good; Bush wants a smaller government, performing only those functions that individual states and persons cannot. I can't think of a more fundamental, all-embracing issue than that.

And, as always, other specific themes have flashed across the skies - this year, prescription charges, education vouchers, most lately whether workers should be able to invest some of their social security contributions in special stock market accounts - only to vanish in a fog of conflicting and incomprehensible statistics.

The problem is that, unlike in Britain, the two major US political parties are vast heterogenous coalitions. Too often we forget that a president's domestic power is far less than that of a British prime minister, less still these days now that America is turning into a mosaic of single-issue, often local, pressure groups which defy any compressing into a single party straitjacket. That is one reason why a Republican or Democratic convention platform is so vague, when set against the specific promises of a British election manifesto.

So, like it or loathe it, the election is about personality, as American elections always are. On the wise and informed Georgetown dinner party circuit, they used to mock Ronald Reagan as "an amiable dunce", but Reagan won in 1980 because he came across not as the dangerous extremist that the Democrats tried to paint him, but as less uptight, generally easier to live with than the micro-managing Jimmy Carter.

Four years later Reagan was re-elected by a landslide, having simply convinced his countrymen he wasn't senile. In 1988 Michael Dukakis, another issues man, was destroyed by a photo that showed his head poking absurdly out of the top of a battle tank, and a clinical answer, deemed insufficiently "human", when he was asked in a TV debate whether a man who raped and murdered his wife Kitty deserved to be executed.

Bill Clinton won in 1992 not so much because of his undoubted command of policy minutiae, but because he charmed a dubious America into overlooking his obvious character defects. In office too, his finest hours reflected the broad sweep of personality. His worst came when he manipulated the details - as in "It depends what the meaning of 'is' is."

Clinton understood that a president's power lies in his personality, what Teddy Roosevelt called the power of the jawbone. What other recent American president could have gone to Memphis in 1993 and told black America to stop feeling sorry for itself and confront its failings head on? Nor will I forget how he shepherded the country through the trauma of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Again, that astonishing gift of finding the right words, and touching the right chords, at a hugely difficult moment.

Yes, issues matter, but they have to march in tune with personality. Bush's conservative waffle may yet prevail if he can persuade voters that he is a pleasant man who deserves a shot. All of Al Gore's omniscience will be worthless, if he cannot shake the perception that he is a cold and calculating opportunist.

So far neither man has succeeded - which is why the contest is both so uninspiring, yet so exciting. Never have the abstruse permutations of how to construct the required electoral college majority of 270 votes been such fun. Loyalties are loose. Almost a quarter of the electorate say they are undecided or could switch their vote.

Amazingly, even Democratic strongholds such as Oregon, Minnesota and Wisconsin, carried even by the hapless Dukakis, are toss-ups, while Bush can't even be sure of Florida, where his brother is governor. For the first time in four decades, we may seriously speculate on what happens if, for the first time since the 19th century, a candidate wins the popular vote but loses in the electoral college.

Yet the overriding sense is one of dissatisfaction - that neither candidate quite fits the bill, that the election is ultimately a choice of the lesser evil. As a result no one has, as they say here, "closed the deal with the American people", in the way Reagan, Bush and Clinton had done by this stage. It's a heck of a horse race, but something is missing.

That something is of course Bill Clinton. How many times have I heard already, apropos of the debates, that he would have demolished either contender; certainly he would never have indulged in those audible tut-tuts and condescending sighs that cost Gore so much; and surely one deft aw-shucks joke would have exposed Bush, goodnaturedly but lethally, for the chump he is. As it is, Clinton frets on the touchline, wondering whether he'll be allowed into the game for the last few minutes. He's bequeathed a terrific economy, the feel-good factor is enormous - why hasn't Gore put his opponent away weeks ago?

And here again, we come back to personality. The drama of this election lies in Gore's attempt to escape from the shadow cast by the virtues and vices of Clinton. You may loathe the 42nd president for his slipperiness and the squalor of his private life (any leader with the remotest sense of shame would have resigned over the Lewinsky affair); yet as a campaigner he has no equal. Gore desperately wants to be his own man, but can he win without calling on the boss?

I hope, if only for his own self-respect, that Gore can make it unaided. Yet I am equally certain that if they had not passed the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution in 1951 - which barred a third consecutive term - Clinton would have run again. Never has he looked more presidential than now, when his presidency is drawing to a close.

So what are voters to do? Let us create an imaginary, identikit candidate: someone, say, with Gore's mastery of the issues and experience, yet with Bush's gift for easy engagement, his likeability and air of being one of the boys. That sort of combination would have him in the White House in a jiffy. Come to think of it, there's someone like that there already: Bill Clinton.

* rupertcornwell@hotmail.com

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