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World bids farewell to a giant among leaders; As America bids farewell to its most popular president Ros Dodd examines Bill Clinton's enduring appeal.

Byline: Ros Dodd

It's said that when Bill Clinton walks into a room, everyone gets to feel the aura of warmth and charm that clings to him like a cloak.

What is so beguiling is that when the out-going US President says 'have a nice day', he seems really to mean it.

Maybe because of his unhappy childhood, Mr Clinton has a longing to be loved. As a result, he goes out of his way to win people's affection and trust - be they friends or enemies.

This desire to be liked is probably at the root of his philandering: just as he wants to be admired as a canny political figure and decent human being, so he craves affirmation as a sexually appealing man.

It is somewhat ironic that the two US presidents who will arguably be considered the greatest in America's 20th century history - Kennedy and Clinton - are those with the most chequered sexual history.

Although JFK managed to avoid having his dirty linen strung out in public, his extra-marital bed-hopping was legendary.

Mr Clinton will ever be remembered for his liaison with comely White House intern Monica Lewinsky.

Yet he not only survived the personal embarrassment of having his 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman' denial exposed as a lie and the political humiliation of the impeachment that followed, he retained his phenomenal popularity with the American public.

Even had his successor been more of an apparent presidential heavyweight than George W Bush, the people of the US - people across the globe, in fact - would have been sad to see 'Slick Willie' go.

His White House tenure has been dogged by a seemingly interminable catalogue of mishap and disaster - Lewinsky and numerous alleged affairs, Whitewater, failed health care reforms and so on - yet Mr Clinton has sailed through the lot. Had he been eligible to run for a third term of office, and assuming he would have wanted to, there can be little doubt he would have romped home as easily as he did in 1996.

So what's the secret of his success?

Personableness alone could not have carried him, although in times of trouble it has been his saving grace.

No, over the past eight years Mr Clinton has proved himself to be a giant among leaders. He has shone brightly and boldly at home as well as abroad.

On the domestic front, not even failed health reforms overshadowed the fact that during his administration the US has enjoyed the longest economic boom in the history of the country.

Patrick Martin, principal lecturer in politics at the University of Central England in Birmingham, says this has played a major part in keeping Mr Clinton's popularity buoyant.

'He came to power at more or less the right moment. The economy was in trouble, which is one of the main reasons he was able to beat the elder Bush. Then, after he was elected, the economy started picking up. America is now enjoying the longest period of economic growth since the war.

'How much Clinton can claim responsibility for this is a matter for debate, but if you're President when the economy is booming, people are going to think well of you.'

But Mr Clinton's appeal has been boosted by other factors too.

'American presidents have to get re-elected only once, and for Clinton this was in 1996, when the economic boom was at its height and when he was up against a rather weak Republican candidate,' explains Mr Martin.

The out-going President has also used his well-honed political skills to reinvent himself when the need has arisen.

After the Lewinsky affair, he made a huge effort to portray himself as a penitent sinner - an attempt to assuage the disappointed sensibilities of America's moral majority.

His political colours have also undergone something of a change during the past eight years.

'He came to power as a very liberal Democrat; in other words, left wing,' says Mr Martin.

'He brought in a quite expensive programme of health reforms, most of which collapsed fairly early. So he reinvented himself as a more moderate figure and gained a wider appeal among Americans.

'Conversely, he's managed to make his opponents seem rather extreme. Republicans in Congress, such as Newt Gingrich, tended to be perceived by many Americans as rather extreme right-wing. Clinton is a very able politician.'

On the foreign and defence policy front, Mr Clinton has shown himself to be clear-sighted, determined and as tough as necessary. Iraq felt the full force of his fury as the bombs rained down on Baghdad, while the Balkans were also given a taste of what US armed might can do.

While the Middle East and Irish problems have yet to be finally resolved, the American President's involvement in getting the warring factions to the negotiating table has been crucial.

'He's made an impact in that he has attempted to do things,' agrees Mr Martin. 'Neither the Middle East nor Northern Ireland have worked themselves out yet, but at least Clinton has tried to play a pro-active role, which has been good for America's image in the world.

'It will be very interesting to see if George W Bush plays as big a role.'

Despite his achievements, however, Mr Clinton will be remembered first and foremost as the President who cheated on his wife, lied about it, got found out and nearly lost his political head as a result.

A lesser character's reputation, even had he survived the maelstrom, would never have recovered.

But Mr Clinton bounced back: he kept not only his marriage but the people's respect and affection.

He himself considers his emergence from the Lewinsky scandal to be one of his major achievements as President.

'I spent a lot of 1998 trying to dodge bolts of lightening,' he said in a recent interview. '. . . I had to deal with what the Republicans were trying to do (force him from office).

'I still believe that the two great achievements of my administration were facing down the government shutdowns in '95 and '96 and then facing this.'

While Al Gore has probably paid the price for Mr Clinton's sexual misdemeanours, the departing President will walk away from the White House as favoured as when he walked in. The American public will see him go with regret.

But while we may be bidding farewell to Bill, perhaps we haven't seen the last of the Clinton magic. His formidable and equally engaging wife Hillary may well storm into the Oval Office next time around.

CAPTION(S):

Bill the peacemaker: Above, meeting Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams in Northern Ireland in 1998 and below, the President talks with Yasser Arafat and Egyptian President Mubarark during emergency peace talks in October of this year Bill the man: Riding the storm of the Monica Lewinsky affair (left), Clinton adopted the image of a penitent sinner If you're President when the economy is booming, people are going to think well of you
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 15, 2000
Words:1163
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