God bless Bill Clinton, God damn the Republican Party

Peregrine Worsthorne says that he has abandoned the political allegiance of a lifetime

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HAVING SPENT all of my life as a supporter of the Republican Party - a teenage fan, believe it or not, of the pre-war President Herbert Hoover and, as a junior Washington correspondent in the 1950s, of the isolationist Senator Robert Taft - I have reluctantly decided to turn against them, in protest over what they are trying to do to Bill Clinton, who is, for good or ill, their country's Head of State. How can the Republican Party, which is the nearest thing America has to a Conservative Party, show so little respect, not just for the man, but for the high office he holds? When the Democratic Party were threatening to impeach President Nixon, I excused them on the grounds that, being a liberal party, they could not be expected to appreciate the crucial importance of conserving institutions, never supposing for a moment that the Republican Party, some 20 years later, would itself, putting partisan advantage before the public weal, show a comparable iconoclasm.

Not that today's British Conservative Party has a very much better record in the defence of the monarchy, our comparably pre-eminent and endangered institution. During the years of Prince Charles's self-inflicted injuries, for example, Mr Major discreetly kept his distance, leaving the Prince, with the dubious help of Jonathan Dimbleby, to paddle his own canoe. Even Mr Blair has been more actively and constructively pro-monarchist than that. In truth neither of the great British political parties is nearly as appreciative or protective of the monarchy as they used to be, any more than either of the great American political parties is any longer as appreciative or protective of the presidency as they used to be.

Mercifully, President Clinton is showing every sign of being able to take care of himself and therefore of his great office. (So, also, as it happens, is the Prince of Wales). The President last week in front of the grand jury was formidably "cool". Although the conditions were about as challenging as they could possibly be, he somehow maintained his dignity - remained, that is, presidential. That was no mean feat. You may object that it was merely a great piece of acting, but acting of that high an order - vastly exceeding the range of Ronald Reagan's - is itself a rare political art, the value of which should never be underestimated.

In any case this was more than just a great piece of acting. It was also undoubtedly a performance of conspicuous courage. Few ordinary mortals would have been able to take the strain without cracking. Bill Clinton must have nerves of steel, Herculean self-control, dauntless spirit - in a word, guts. When it comes to resisting a pretty girl, he may be a pushover, but he was no pushover when faced by a potentially lethal cross- examination.

In the bad old days of "trial by ordeal", suspected felons were put to some hideously cruel test and their guilt or innocence was determined by how they came through it. By that criterion, if by no other, Bill Clinton deserves to be declared innocent, and if his Republican enemies - few, if any, of whom under such circumstances would have done as well - had any sense of decency, they would now call off the chase. Nor, in my view, would this necessarily leave the President so lamed and crippled as to be unable to complete his term in style. For the way he is surviving his ordeal has not so much disproved his mettle as proved it. As it happens, he never had much moral authority to lose, certainly not on the world stage, and by the time he was re-elected such little shine as he may have had on his halo initially was already badly tarnished. So in that respect little has been changed by the Starr report.

What the report has shown, however, is the astonishing, almost super- human capacity of the man to fight his way out of a corner, to dig himself out of a hole, to defy adversity and never to say die. No, this may not be the stuff of moral leadership, but unquestionably it is the stuff of other qualities of leadership, and in my book Bill Clinton, who, before the Starr report, struck me as a man of straw, is now twice the man I gave him credit for. Canting editorialists may prefer to be shocked, but I suspect real opinion throughout the world tends to be impressed, rather than disgusted, by such a remarkable display of grace under fire.

So much for looking on the bright side. Everything could go horribly wrong and the Republicans could still get their scalp. And if that does happen, two 20th-century presidents will have been pushed out of office in disgrace in fairly swift succession - a record which bodes ill for the reliability of American leadership in the next millennium. Could it be that just as economically the strains of superpowerdom proved to be too much for the Soviet Union, so the political strains of that same mighty - some would say overmighty - condition are now belatedly beginning to prove too much for the American Union? Quite possibly. It would have been almost too good to be true if, after all the Cold War decades of unrelenting struggle, during which Uncle Sam was permanently on duty, he did not feel it about time to go a little haywire. And what more agreeable way for an undisciplined people to have some fun than by chasing a few presidents out of office? - a sport which might well prove addictive. I don't say it will, but it might. In which case what do we Europeans do? I know in my heart what we ought to do. We ought to press ahead with all deliberate speed to forge the new European superpower which has been in the making for 50 years or more and is now, just in time for the millennium, at the point of achieving take-off.

At the Third Way seminar in New York last week, with President Clinton under a cloud, Mr Blair understudied as the spokesman for the Western world with quite outstanding panache. It was an illusion, of course. For as Prime Minister of a medium-sized nation state in the process of dissolution he really counted for very little. But what if he had been the spokesman, as in the future he could well be, for the new United European superpower, enthusiastically throwing the weight of the Old World into the vacuum created by the exhaustion of the New?

How I wish young William Hague would think on these things. As it is, his only contribution last week, apart from banging on about his referendum on the euro, was to sound off about the Queen's head being removed from the pound notes, which matched the importance of the times almost as pathetically as that Tory MP who, at a critical moment in the Second World War, called for the replacement of Winston Churchill by the Duke of Gloucester. With the American political class and the Russian political class behaving like school children, this is no time for the Conservative leader to do likewise.

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