Will Bill destroy her?

Hillary seems a shoo-in as the next President but rumours are flying that her husband is up to his old tricks with a secret lover. So will a newsex scandal wreck the Clintons' White House comeback, wonders David Jones

clinTHANKFULLY for Hillary Clinton, the road to the White House leads through many out-of-the way places. Obscure towns whose voters are more concerned with feeding their families and paying their medical bills than her husband's inventive uses for a cigar while dallying with Monica Lewinsky.

For Hillary, the latest stop is Fernley, a rural backwater in the Sierra Nevada mountains, 2,500 miles from the corridors of power, where she is trying to impress several hundred baseballcap wearing, tobacco-chewing farmers and their colourfully tracksuited wives, packed into the local school hall.

One thing she learned by watching Bill, though, is that grinning and waving can get you a long way. No-one seems to notice that her smile (brightened by expensive dental work) is frozen to her face.

The second thing she learned is to feign surprise at the warm welcome. Hillary's standard way of doing this is to effect an open-mouthed, pop-eyed expression, reminiscent of Cherie Blair.

I'm jolted back to reality by a remark from a middle-aged woman standing next to me. "Maybe she looks so uncomfortable because she's afraid someone's gonna ask what old Bill's doing while she's stuck out here," she says.

A taste of things to come

When it comes to Hillary Rodham Clinton, there are no half measures. Americans either love her —- or despise her.

The U.S. supermarket tabloids have already given a taste of the nasties to come, should Hillary win the Democratic ticket.

'Shocking details of drug use during Hillary's secret trysts with an exlover are coming back to haunt her,' trumpeted The Globe recently, reviving an old cannabis story dating back to 1969. Mrs Clinton, for her part, flatly denies ever using drugs.

Another new slur holds that Bill is cheating again. This time his mistress is rumoured to be a wealthy divorcee who lives near his home in upstate New York.

Maybe, maybe not. As long as Hillary remains in the fray we can be sure the flak will continue to fly. And yet, as she knows all too well, her husband can make her, as well as break her.

For all the shame he heaped on the Oval Office, most Americans are ambivalent to his alley-cat morals. Dazzled by his charisma, they prefer to regard him as a roguish but wellmeaning son-of-a-gun. Two-thirds of the electorate believe he would be more helpful than harmful to his wife's presidency.

"Bill is a mixed blessing," one veteran Republican activist told me this week. "On one hand, he's an enormous asset to her because of his brilliance as a political strategist and his huge personal charm, a quality Hillary lacks. The Clinton name also gives her instant recognition, an advantage none of her rivals have.

"On the other hand, he comes with enormous baggage, and as Hillary starts to come closer to the White House you can be certain Republicans, and also the Washington press corps, will subject his personal behaviour to minute scrutiny. Bill will be watched everywhere he goes.

"No matter what he says, leopards never change their spots, and sooner or later his enemies are convinced they will catch him with a woman.

"Hillary would then have to decide what to do. Does she stay with him a second time and risk losing all respect? Or does she divorce him, and embroil herself in another sordid scandal which would be a step too far, even for her loyal supporters? That's the sword of Damocles hanging over her."

Political marriage

A theory holds that Bill Clinton is backing his wife's campaign more out of guilt than anything else. After all, Hillary, his intellectual equal, sacrificed her own political ambitions to support him for 30 years. He repaid her by having oral sex sessions with Lewinsky, but now he has one last chance of atonement.

Now recovered from a life-threatening heart attack, the newly-slim Bill has become a sort of poor man's Nelson Mandela, jetting around the world on a mission to wage war on every social ill, from Aids to global warming to childhood obesity.

Despite intermittent protestations of undying love and devotion, and Bill's occasional appearances at his wife's side on the stump (invariably when her poll ratings start to dip), it is widely accepted that they remain married largely in the knowledge that they are stronger, politically speaking, together than apart.

Whatever the truth, image experts agree that she strikes just the right balance between feminine and firm: a potentially crucial factor at a time when Americans want to climb down from Bush's war-mongering aggression without appearing to have 'gone soft'.

The fact that she is a woman also works in her favour -- and, with typical expedience, Hillary plays it both ways as the occasion suits.

Thus far into the campaign, Hillary has played the Bill card sparingly but has let it be known that under her presidency, her husband would be handed a unique new role.

Charged with restoring America's badly tarnished international reputation, he would become a sort of 'global public relations envoy', doubtless adapting the disarming intimacy with which he seduced young women to win over hostile foreign leaders.

At least, cynics remark, such a role would keep him well away from the next crop of White House interns.

As for the more immediate question — whether Bill can keep his pants on, at least until next November — the jury is divided.

According to one unconfirmed report, Hillary is so concerned that some new scandal might destroy her dream that she has made him sign a sort of post-nuptial agreement, under which he will grant her an immediate divorce and compensate her financially in the event that he strays.

According to one well-placed Washington source, however, Hillary's greatest hope of a scandal-free campaign rests with the Clintons' long-suffering daughter, Chelsea.

Now 28, she intends to marry soon — and she is said to have warned her father that her forgiveness for his past indiscretions will run out, should he do anything to sabotage her plans for a lavish White House wedding.

However much he has betrayed his family, Bill Clinton has remained an indulgent parent, so surely even he will heed this final warning.

This very dysfunctional couple are so confident of victory that they are already thinking of a suitable title for Bill. His Scottish friends have suggested that he become the 'First Laddie'. Others prefer something more formal, such as First Spouse.

Given his track record, though, wouldn't it be more appropriate if Bill Clinton were to waltz back to the White House as the First Ladies' Man?

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