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Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 May 2006, 10:02 GMT 11:02 UK
Washington diary: Too close to Bill?
By Matt Frei
BBC News, Washington

Pity those living in the shadow of Bill Clinton!

It has taken one former partner six years to find a natural voice and excavate a sense of humour lurking under layers of insecurity starched with campaign caution.

Today the body language looks less robotic and the passionate kisses less stagey.

Al Gore waves to the crowd at Cannes, where his film was well received
Al Gore was right at home amidst the glitter of Cannes
The comparisons with Bill are no longer immediate and damning.

I am talking about Al Gore, of course.

Remember him? Al Gore, the former vice president, who now describes himself with a chuckle as "the man who used to be the next president of the United States".

This is a man who laboured first under his father's feverish ambition to plant a son in the White House and then under his boss's sneaky desire to see someone else planted there.

(The author Gore Vidal once told me that young Al was a very talented painter who was denied his calling by a senatorial father who insisted on a career in politics).

Free at last

But six years after winning the popular vote and losing the White House, Al Gore has been liberated by failure.

Al Gore has touched a nerve before the opinion polls and the focus groups told him to touch it

He spent years brooding in his own white house in Tennessee.

He put on weight and lost it.

At one stage he even grew a beard, prompting rumours of an imminent decline.

But the beard has gone and Al Gore has not become a hermit in a cave.

He has stepped out of the shadow of his former boss and espoused a new cause with genuine passion and an eager audience.

Al Gore with a beard after losing the 2000 presidential election
Bearded - and going to seed? People wondered about Gore
His film An Inconvenient Truth, about man's scorching of the planet, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to near universal acclaim.

Sporting foppish hair and a rakish smile, Al Gore looked the part on the red carpet.

His environmental cause no longer seems like the eccentric diversion of the politically destitute.

No-one pictures Al talking to his plants.

Soaring petrol prices produced by mercurial crude bubbling under equally mercurial regimes in the Middle East have alarmed America's car owners.

The warming of the oceans and the devastation of hurricanes with fetching names has conspired to make more and more citizens ponder the future of the planet.

Al Gore has touched a nerve before the opinion polls and the focus groups told him to touch it - and so rumours of his resurrection as a presidential candidate in 2008 have already surfaced.

Richard Nixon
Nixon got a second chance after losing to JFK in 1960
Democrats are of course far less forgiving of "men who used to be the next president of the United States" than Republicans.

Nixon failed the first time round only to be allowed to run again and triumph.

Barry Goldwater failed miserably against Lyndon Johnson but is still revered as an icon of the right.

The viciousness with which Carter, Mondale, Gore and Kerry were dissed by their closest allies and friends is a lesson in treachery.

It is inconceivable that John Kerry could run again so soon and win. He has yet to grow his beard.

And none of the Democrats I speak to are seriously talking about Al Gore, the sequel.

Although, who knows, that may change. We have after all 20,000 hours of TV cable air time to fill before the next election!

Hillary's conundrum

For now, Beltway blabber is dominated by "Billary", the hybrid, flex-fuel ticket of Hillary as president and Bill as "first man".

It is the reverse of the "two-for-the-price-of-one" nomination that was first flagged by Democrats in 1992 before it was ridiculed.

Bill and Hillary Clinton
How close is too close to Bill?
"Billary" sounds silly but it also sums up Hillary's conundrum.

As the New York Times put it this week in one of its many articles about the senator's chances in 2008: "The only Democrat who cannot look at Bill Clinton as an unalloyed asset in the campaign is his wife."

If he appears in public by her side it is bound to conjure up unpleasant memories of interns and blue dresses.

But America is a forgiving nation.

More damaging are the inevitable comparisons.

For instance, when both Clintons spoke at the funeral of Coretta Scott King in February, Hillary's eulogy was stodgy compared to her husband's warm and witty rhetorical souffle.

Hillary's handlers have apparently reduced the number of occasions when both appear on stage together to the minimum needed to proffer sufficient proof of their continuing marriage.

But if Bill is too absent from Hillary's public life this will prompt questions about the expediency of their relationship.

"Did she ever love him?" "Did she stay with him for his poll numbers?" Remember all those questions!

Unfair as it may be, Hillary came out of the Lewinsky affair looking almost worse than Bill.

He was slave to his libido.

Hillary, who stuck by her man and didn't storm out of the White House, was accused - by some - of being a slave to ambition.

Fear of flip-flopping

All that unknowable guff will be disinterred when she finally announces her candidacy.

Who cares? By all accounts the campaign managers do - and that's the problem.

Take a leaf out of George Bush's book - who is a master of flaunting his weaknesses - and you will never have to grow a beard, Hillary
In her attempt to calibrate exactly the right balance between being herself and being Bill's wife, Hillary is in danger of becoming hamstrung and awkward.

She could morph into an emotional flip-flopper and deliver the nuptial equivalent of the line that felled John Kerry: "I actually did vote for the $87bn before I voted against it."

So, Hillary, take a lesson from Al Gore and don't try to be the "non-Bill".

Just be yourself, rely on your accumulated years of experience as a senator from New York, celebrate the ups and downs in the White House and in your marriage.

Above all let the Republicans fall into the trap of second guessing your feminine instincts.

They are bound to sound like embittered male chauvinists. That will endear you to millions of swing voters who are women.

Take a leaf out of George Bush's book - who is a master of flaunting his weaknesses and who has an astonishing ability to be embarrassed by nothing.

Follow my humble advice, Hillary, and you will never have to grow a beard!




MATT FREI'S WASHINGTON DIARY

Matt Frei Troubled times
Rollercoaster ride as America wakes up to economic crisis

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