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Bill Clinton's clothes - 6 November 1992

On Monday, the day before the election, I had business to do with two British news organisations – a rather clumsy way of defining one newspaper and one broadcasting company. I wanted to deal with their New York offices, their correspondents here. And there is no better time of the year, no better time in four years, to catch any foreign correspondent in New York than at the time of presidential election, when New York becomes the news capital of this nation, if not of the world. The networks are here and their staff from around the country, who have been traipsing or bussing or flying with the candidates not only with the presidentials, but with the people running for the House and the Senate.

So I dialled my friends' New York offices and in one of them, a caretaker replied, "nobody here". In the other, the answer was substantially the same, "Oh no, nobody here – they've all gone to Washington". In the end, I had to call the paper's managing editor in London. "Why," I asked him, "are all your correspondents in Washington?" which on election night is the deadest news city in the United States. He was a little startled, he couldn't really say. Was it, I suggested, perhaps because Washington is the capital city of the United States? Yes, he guessed so. The only people left in Washington I should say are the two-thirds of the Senate who are not this year up for re-election. The 435 members of the House are all back home panting nervously in their grassroots waiting for the returns.

Well now, one of the most astute and famous of Washington pundits, a friend of mine, decided for a change to stay home in Washington. After all, he can watch on the telly the New York headquarters of all the networks, but this was the opening paragraph of his post-election column. With the reporters on campaign beats covering the reception of returns in Huston and Little Rock and with the New York Times's Washington editors all up in New York putting together the election issue on election night, the New York Times's bureau here in Washington was like a morgue. He wandered in search of a friend. Where did he go for comfort or brotherly sympathy? To another man who stayed home, his polar opposite politically. My friend is a conservative and in this election an anti-Bush voter. The friend he sought is a liberal Democrat and leader of the nations largest industrial union.

Thirty-two years ago! Goodness, 32 years ago, I had the honour of saving the BBC from this gaff. In those days, there were only three correspondents here, one in Washington, one in New York, one at the United Nations. They did the work of 20 reporters today and, may I say – yes, I will say – they did it as well.

On the eve of the election, they all planned to descend on Washington. Why not, I said. "Because all the results are coming from the networks election headquarters in New York, one man should be there. A second man should be in California watching Mr Nixon bite his nails and the third should be up on Cape Cod ready to pounce into the Kennedy's home and record a regret or a note of triumph". They so acted and received the reluctant congratulations of editors of London papers who had kept their men in empty Washington. There is a moral in this little tale to which is a tale based on a regular foreign assumption, which is that because Washington is the political capital of the country, it must also, be the hub of American life.

When I was appointed chief American correspondent of a paper whose mission way back then was to prompt and guard the thinking of one city, Manchester, I was slightly disturbed at the thought that I was going to have to move myself and my family from New York to Washington. Of course, that's where all the chief foreign correspondents are based. My editor, a small canny spiky-haired bespectacled imp of a Lancastrian and apart from that, an unforgettably great editor – he wrote to me. (We wrote all the time in those days even one sentence letters, we didn't chat up the company's bills on the telephone so much.) He wrote and he said quite simply, "No, I don't want you to go to Washington, I don't want you to report Washington except from time to time – I want you all the time to report America, New York is the best news base and the best home base for travel." That wise and wireless sentence is one that might not only be passed on to editors of papers around the world, it would serve a useful purpose if it could be engraved or done up needlework framed and hung in the lobby of the main entrance to the White House. It would remind every president of a truth, which every president especially in his second term is in danger of forgetting that the White House is not home, his stay is temporary and for the time being he's the man in charge of a central switchboard in constant touch with the people of 50 states.

You'd have to have been in the White House several times, I mean as a guest, revelling in its elegance and stylish comfort like some venerated old monarch in luxurious exile to feel the benign truth behind the phrase coined, I believe, as a warning coined by Arthur Schlesinger, "the imperial presidency". He was referring I believe to the White House. I almost said the court of Richard M Nixon and certainly there has been no presidency in our time or perhaps in anytime when the White House more resembled a Royal Palace. I don't mean physically, Mrs Kennedy did the place over into an exquisite small mansion more elegant than most royal palaces, but I mean in the folderols of a monarch's office.

Mr Nixon actually created a sort of palace guard he had for ceremonial occasions – a row of trumpeters in uniform, I don't know what of, with tight white knee britches looking for all the world like the palace gardener. Was it Rupert of Hentzau*, with Ronald Coleman and Madeline Carroll? Of course that was absurd and enough people said so to have these yeoman of the guard disbanded. But Mr Nixon revealed in exaggeration a dangerous feeling to which a president after a year or two is in danger of succumbing that he is in charge of a nation and that the word is handed down from the White House not up from the people.

Of course, you might well say every prime minster probably feels the same in his official residence. I doubt it! I once at a White House dinner sat next to the son of a British prime minister who was at the moment the president's guest of honour. The son had been received as everyone is by a young marine officer in a spanking dress uniform, his lady companion took the marine's proffered arm, they were led through a small suite with a small orchestra playing waltzes by Strauss. Every beautiful room or gallery they past through was ablaze with gilt and glass, on into the main reception room more marines, more impeccable manners the reception line. The shaking hands with the king, and I mean the president and the first lady, cocktails and smiling chatter and on into two linked dining rooms and a splendid banquet sparkling with 100 candles and a soothing fountain of music from another room. Home, said the prime minister's son, was never like this.

But apart from this beautiful shell in which you live, there's the constant human situation in which you are surrounded by people who defer to you and pass on to you every day their own view, which might be as blinkered as yours of what is happening, what is being felt and thought on the great outside. The outside is the United States and its people. And only in the past month or so did Mr Bush attempt to listen to them and their troubles to emerge from his cocoon of strong belief. Yes, there are people having a bad time, but the economy's growing: 93 million at work, things are getting better all time. This reminded me of the fatal 1932 assurance Herbert Hoover issued from the White House to millions living in tar paper shacks by the rivers and to the quarter of the working people of America who had no work: prosperity is just around the corner.

Some of you may have expected me to talk about the numbers, the issues, Perot, the failures of the Bush campaign. This morning and yesterday and for many more mornings to come, the papers are full of reasons and excuses and explanations by Republicans in and out of the campaign about failures of technique. He should have had sharper figures and diagrams and he should have been more insulting earlier, he should have used more women, he should not have vetoed the family leave bill, he should have hired the mean man who invented the infamous Willie Horton television ad last time that was about the Massachusetts black man given parole by Governor Dukakis who promptly raped a woman. One bitter intimate who could enjoy the frankness of having left the administration, came a little closer to the central truth when he moaned, "He surrounded himself with second-rate talent and clones. He was only comfortable with the damn white bread crowd, a bunch of white, male protestants and number crunchers".

I can sympathise with that man's view, I am – my generation are – probably more at home with WASPs and a Catholic friend or two than with the polyglot white, black, Latino, brown, Asian, multicultural society that America has increasingly become. But Clinton reached out to it, listened to it. He's at home with it, or at least his generation is a conscious link with it. This was never clearer than on Thursday morning, when the New York Times carried a front page photograph of the President elect with his mother and pals at a friend's house. Clinton in jeans, worn jeans of course, a check wool shirt unzipped windbreaker bulging Reeboks. Mostly young pals in laughing bunches similarly dressed or undressed not a suit, not a neck-tie, not a button-shirt in site. "Well," I said to my wife, "can you believe this, there is the next President of the United States and his buddies." I wasn't suggesting that Mr Clinton was putting on an act as poor Mr Bush has to do when he tries to dress like a baby boomer at play. "He," said my wife sternly, "is the President of those people and he dresses like them." Quite right. Along with the passing of George Bush, we shall see I fear the passing of the blue blazer.


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