Leading Article: The President's man in Walworth Road

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The Independent Online
In Joe Klein's racy novel Primary Colors, the presidential candidate figure is returned thanks to the efforts of a young aide - whose duties include serving a nightcap to the First Lady. (After she drinks it, she doesn't behave like one.) The character is said to be modelled on George Stephanopolous, President Clinton's assistant. The novel's assessment of him is less hyperbolic than in real life, where he is variously described as electoral whiz-kid, election winner and polling guru. And now - Cherie, beware - Mr Stephanopolous is over here, or at least he is telling correspondents in Little Rock that his plans could include a stint advising Tony Blair and Labour.

The news seems to have inspired something close to panic. The manipulators are at hand. Our politics is about to succumb to Svengali. Vance Packard (The Hidden Persuaders) is about to be vindicated.

All of which is exaggeration and clear evidence that watching The X Files does soften the brain. Mr Stephanopolous is a clever operator, no dispute, but it wasn't him that won it for the President. To explain Bill Clinton's victory satisfactorily involves the US economic cycle, Newt Gingrich's miscalculation and Bob Dole's age - for a country with an age structure as comparatively young as America's to elect another Ronald Reagan would have indicated an extraordinary deference to age.

Bill Clinton also won because he proved amazingly resilient, because he was able to cohabit successfully with a Republican Congress, and because he made astute choices among campaign tactics and staff. American voters did not select some phantasm created by psephological boffins; they voted for an all-too-human candidate with the resources of incumbency plus a great gift for empathy, and the ability to communicate on the box almost as convincingly as he does in the flesh.

Bill Clinton pursued political office since he was a student: he is a professional politician. Tony Blair is a lawyer only as a courtesy title - politics is his vocation. Ditto John Major and the rest. We can and ought, in a democracy, to say we expect those who seek office to hold to certain values, to see clearly that good ends do not justify bad means. But that does not amount to some endorsement of amateurism in the pursuit of office. We have seen enough of Westminster's failures to dismiss the Eighties' assertion that somehow the public interest would be better served by people lacking the skills of leadership and persuasion which make for success in democratic politics. And professional politicians have every right to reach for professional advice - on the workings of the mass media, on polling, on measuring and moving public opinion, on what we call, for want of a better term, "image" - the layered perceptions of personality and party.

Too often, still, people conceive democracy in simplistic terms, as if we were Athenians standing on a hill sticking up our hands. New techniques of projection have to be mastered. Politics is an accomplished business. What is surprising is not that there has grown up in recent times a body of people practised in it, but that we should be so sniffy about their contribution.

So Mr Stephanopolous, if he comes to Walworth Road, is welcome. But the idea that even this former Rhodes scholar can master, in months, the British politico-media system is unlikely: "smarmy" does not even exist as a word in American English. Besides, the homespun spinners are, some of them, pretty good at the game, too. It suits Peter Mandelson, to pick a name more or less at random, to be called Mephistophelean - but we should not be persuaded that he is in truth an evil spirit. A little wicked at times, maybe, but not a force of darkness. All leaders need eyes and ears and hitmen. Mr Mandelson attracts controversy not so much through his effectiveness, but because he symbolises the changed constitution of the Labour Party.

No - the real problem is not spin-doctors, strategists and their like: it is what Lord Nolan identified yesterday as the declining value of politics that should really alarm us. Look at this paper's story yesterday morning, showing that 2 million eligible people, for one reason or another, will not even be on the voting register. Some of that is circumstance, but a lot of it is dismissive despair. No one can be entirely comfortable with the state of British democracy, and that is before worrying about the functioning of the House of Commons. But the public's antennae seem nowadays no less finely attuned to exhibitions of insincerity or incredibility by politicians. An army of spin doctors are not going to be able to obscure basic issues from the public view. It may suit both parties to try to hide the looming question of European Monetary Union, but no amount of smoke will obscure the daily evidence of (favourable to the Tories) economic revival or (unfavourable) social dislocation and wasted human potential. Perhaps, to cite this week's trivial example, some people some of the time might be put off voting Labour because of Tony Blair's hair, or his stage manner. An image-maker might make some difference to that. But most of the people cannot really be fooled most of the time: they assess trivial and profound factors all the time, but they make their own proper sense of what politicians, including their image-makers, are up to. We should not worry unduly about the effect of Mr Stephanopolous, nor our home- grown versions. We should worry, instead, about electors' increasing disaffection on one side, and the questionable behaviour of MPs accompanied by their declining political influence on the other, and ponder how far these two developments may be connected. PR folk can spin their webs, but they cannot obscure the shadier corners of our shabby constitution.

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