DRIVEN ROUND THE BEND
Philip Delves Broughton on how Bill Clinton's remorse and jealousy of his wife are pushing him off balance
New York IT was meant to be a night for his wife. Broadway had laid on a show for Hillary Clinton's 52nd birthday and, to wrap it up, the President was to introduce her. Robert De Niro gazed up from the fifth row of the stalls, as did the rest of New York's French-cuffed Democrats, all waiting for the woman they hope will be their Senator. But when Bill Clinton stepped into the spotlight, he did not want to leave.
His silver-rinsed head bobbing, he Pleaded, 'I've tried to do my best for this country', and then explained how. Several minutes and much audience bottom-shift- ing later, he made way for his wife. While she spoke, the President leaned in towards her, as though he were walking into the wind, hungry for the limelight now bathing his wife.
With just over a year to go in his presi- dency, Bill Clinton is sliding into a deep, dark funk. He is irascible, frustrated and remorseful, jealous of his wife and vice- president because of the political fights they have ahead of them, and staring down the barrel of an unwanted retirement. The flip-side of his back-slapping and public gregariousness has always been a foul, accusatory temper. Coupled now with a presidential twilight, it is resulting in some very odd behaviour.
Last week, while in Norway for another round of Middle East peace talks, he was reported to have requested that the Amer- ican embassy in Oslo make every effort to track down a Norwegian woman he had met as a student and never forgotten. Sadly for him, they failed.
The Norwegian media had their moment, however, when Mr Clinton spent a heavy extra couple of seconds shaking the hand of Ingeborg Heldal, a 26-year-old teacher who had pushed to the front of a rope line. 'A pretty, dark-haired girl in the crowd catches the President's eye and extends a hand to him,' wrote the newspa- per Verdens Gang. 'Haven't we seen some- thing like this before?'
At press conferences, Mr Clinton lashes out nastily at his opponents. When the Republicans in the Senate killed his Com- prehensive Test Ban Treaty, he let rip with a Blairian assault on the forces of conser- vatism. He clumsily compared the main factions in Northern Ireland to two drunks trying to leave a bar. His aides have told members of the White House press corps that the President has been discussing his melancholy in private.
At a recent White House barbecue for journalists, he lost his rag with a reporter from the Investors' Business Daily who asked him about the flow of Chinese money to the Democratic party. Flushed and waving a pork rib, Mr Clinton said, 'Yeah, the FBI wants you to write about that rather than write about Waco,' and banished him from the White House.
A few Sundays ago, the Associated Press 'I said we're living in the n iddle of a communication explosion.' flashed this headline: 'Clinton Golfs Alone Under Rain and Darkness'. Under black clouds in the late afternoon, the most pow- erful man in the world stood on the driving range of a suburban course in Washington, DC, water dripping from his nose, burning up his tension by hitting balls into the rain. With his daughter away at university, his wife on the campaign trail and a no-girl- friend rule since Monica, there are not enough distractions at the White House these days to cure those Sunday-night blues.
Campaigning has always been Bill Clin- ton's favourite part of politics, just as his lovers say he prefers seduction and fore- play to sex. Everything else, including ide- ology, values and morality, has come second to winning, to charming people into forgiving him his flaws. Throughout his career, he has either been running for office or else creating dramas for himself in office, which require a kind of fresh cam- paign to overcome. Now that he has run out of campaigns, it is driving him round the bend. The prospect of life beyond the White House, as a senator's husband and warm-up act, is almost too awful to con- template. And when it is not making him angry, it is making him nostalgic.
Last Saturday, he returned to Hermitage, a small town in his home state of Arkansas.
He was there to promote public-private business ventures at a tomato factory. Standing before a backdrop of tomato crates, brought in specially as the tomato season had come and gone, he reflected on how years earlier when he was Arkansas' attorney-general he had resolved a housing dispute in the town. 'The school was shut down, the school band played for me, we had a parade down the main street,' he said mistily. 'I was just euphoric. I'm still excited about it 22 years later.'
Earlier in the week, he gave a breakfast television interview in which he discussed his wife's political ambitions. 'It's so funny, because our roles are almost completely reversed now,' he said. 'All the things that she did for me over more than 20 years, all the encouragement, reminders, helpful sug- gestions, everything... And I'm enjoying it. I'm trying to do a good job in my new role.' In another recent speech, however, he said, 'I'm not running for anything, and I hate it.'
Adding to his irritation, when Al Gore distances himself from him, Mr Clinton must defend him. Asked during a press conference with the President of Nigeria last week if he thought he was a liability to his vice-president, Mr Clinton stared coldly at the inquiring reporter. 'You know, I think a lot of people who may not like me may hold it against him,' he said. 'But I don't think mature people hold one person responsible for another person's conduct.'
It is pathetic that this is still, a year on, the only subject on which people want to quiz the leader of the Free World, and he knows it. It is enough to make a proud man hit golf balls in the rain.