Is Clinton losing his marbles?

The annual White House Correspondents' Dinner is an occasion I always do my best to avoid: thousands of hacks and hackettes throng a big, sweaty hotel and consume large quantities of cheap wine and pre-cooked food. Even Vanity Fair, to its credit, boycotted the occasion this year. It's always sheer torture for the main guest, the US President - and especially so in the past three years for the Clintons, who have jointly had to endure much sniggering over the latest Lewinsky jokes. On the night of 29 April, Clinton made his farewell appearance, gritting his teeth, grinning and gamely pretending there was nothing he would rather do than spend the evening with a bunch of drunken hacks, hackettes and invited "celebrities".

In reality, like many politicians who owe their ascent at least partly to a supine press - Tony Blair comes readily to mind - Clinton now loathes the press and blames it for much of his troubles. But last weekend he knew, as ever, how to play the political game. He had had a video made sending himself up as the hopelessly lame-duck President he is actually fast becoming: giving a press conference attended by only one sleeping hack, running after his wife with the packed lunch she had forgotten, forlornly answering the White House switchboard, weeding its gardens, and so on. How the hacks roared.

Deep inside Clinton, I suspect, is someone who knows he is a slippery toad who has brought slime rather than substance to the White House. That is why he has been obsessed for years with how he will be seen by history; and why (incidentally) the word "legacy" has now been banned in the White House, lest the country's 42nd President leaves behind nothing but a whole new vista of jokes about oral sex. Yet Clinton still manages to muster impressive support: a majority of Democrats polled would rather see him as the next Democratic candidate than Al Gore, and 29 per cent of the US public want to see him standing for a third term (something that the 22nd Amendment of the US Constitution forbids).

But time is fast running out for Clinton. He meets Vladimir Putin next month for a crucial summit, but looks unlikely to pull too much out of that bag.

He may try to do something dramatic such as repeal the US trade embargo on Cuba that JFK started 40 years ago - little Elian Gonzalez may turn out to have had more than a walk-on role in history after all - because, with that, Clinton could claim finally to have closed the door on the cold war.

But short of a war (and let's never underestimate Clinton's ability to find, say, an expedient new foe this summer), America's 42nd President is fast becoming the parody shown to the hacks on Saturday in his own desperate counter-suggestible pre-spinning of history.

I suspect that power and its acquisition is such an overwhelming need in him, in fact, that - like, say, Winston Churchill, Harold Wilson and Ronald Reagan - life will lose much of its meaning for him as soon as he is out of office.

Even before Christmas, there were signs - as there were with these three before they, too, relinquished power - that he is beginning to lose his marbles. Early one Sunday evening, he instructed the Secret Service that he was going out: he went to a military golf course where he furiously hit balls around, all alone except for his bodyguards, in torrential rain. Physically, too, he is fast deteriorating: he suffers badly from gastro-oesophageal reflux disease, for which he takes daily doses of Losec. And, at 53, he now wears powerful hearing aids: potent symbols of a man aged beyond his years.

Why? To put it mildly, his two terms in the White House have been a disappointment. A panel of 58 historians polled recently put him 35th out of 42 in presidential league tables: that could be worse, but then there were some pretty rum characters there in the early days. He came to power in 1993 with Democrat majorities of 258-176 in the House and 56-44 in the Senate - only to see both majorities promptly reversed.

With the help of Hillary, he spectacularly botched healthcare reform, leaving a record number of 45 million Americans with no health insurance. He has done little or nothing about increasingly poor educational standards. The divide between rich and poor in the US has widened under his presidency. His list of non-achievements gathers pace depressingly quickly.

This means that the historians are likely to have little to talk about other than Clinton having survived impeachment and having had oral sex in the White House. He has only himself to blame, I fear: the product of his own political amorality, a faker whose cardinal principle in politics is to follow focus groups and opinion polls. If you spin it right you win, OK?

Indeed, the policies that he has practised have been pretty indistinguishable from those of his predecessor, George Bush Sr (except that, in discretionary public spending, Clinton has actually spent less than Bush); yet in the 1992 election, Clinton stole the moral high ground from Bush in much the same way that Blair did from John Major, as saintly champions of a new decency and freshness.

The self-mocking figure the hacks roared at last weekend is, indeed, a pathetic figure - but not in the way either the hacks or Clinton himself see it. He has become pathetic because, once he had achieved the most powerful political office in the world, there was no moral compass to guide him as to what to do: he had achieved all he had set out to do. You live by spin, you die by spin: a lesson Blair and Britain, I suspect, will learn one day, too.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The tiny group that controls us all