Clinton Shines on World Stage

WASHINGTON -- As U.S. President Bill Clinton ranged across Europe last week, from the pomp of Buckingham Palace to a delirious welcome from the Irish people to a respectful salute from U.S. Army units in Germany, his aides couldn't stop grinning at each other.


They had rediscovered an old lesson they once seemed to ignore: For a president, being Leader of the Free World can be both fun and politically rewarding.


One of Clinton's top political strategists, James Carville, delightedly telephoned the White House on Thursday -- when network news programs showed the president cheered by thousands in Northern Ireland -- to proclaim it "the best day of television he's had since he came to the White House.


"The effect of those television pictures is to make the American people ask themselves: Why are all these people cheering?" said White House spokesman Mike McCurry. "They're saying to themselves that the guy must be doing something right."


On his five-day European trip, Clinton assumed a new role for a man who came to office promising a single-minded focus on domestic issues: the president as global peacemaker.


Part of his aim was to revel in an unaccustomed string of diplomatic victories: progress toward peace between Israel and the Palestinians, an unexpectedly durable truce between the Irish Republican Army and Protestant paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, and a U.S.-brokered deal among Serbs, Croats and Moslems in Bosnia-Herzegovina.


White House aides also hope that the reflected glow of those successes will make Americans feel better about Clinton's next -- and riskiest -- foreign enterprise: sending 20,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia to help enforce last month's peace agreement in Dayton, Ohio.


But there was a broader political goal as well: As U.S. voters see Clinton in his role of commander-in-chief -- and see him win a level of adulation from foreigners that he rarely enjoys at home -- his aides hope his overall image as a leader can only benefit.


"My father used to say that all politics is local," said former Massachusetts lieutenant governor Thomas P. O'Neill III, son of the late Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, who accompanied Clinton in Northern Ireland. "Now we'll add: All politics must be peacemaking."


Even the nominally Republican mayor of Los Angeles, Richard Riordan, was caught up in the spell.


"He's trying to be the peace president, and that's good from a political point of view," Riordan said in the Northern Ireland city of Belfast. "Clinton isn't a Catholic, but when people see him being cheered in southern Ireland, that can't hurt when Catholics make up something like 30 percent of the vote."


Last week's television pictures were intended for all voters, however, not just Roman Catholics.


Highlighting such a successful venture into the foreign policy realm helps Clinton across the board in two ways. One is the issue his political advisers call "stature" -- the lingering question in the minds of many voters of whether this 48-year-old president is up to the job.


The second is a problem Clinton has faced since Republicans seized control of Congress last year: finding a field where he can demonstrate that he is still a powerful political presence.


The GOP ascendancy robbed Clinton of his chance to enact any more of the massive domestic agenda he brought to Washington. Welfare reform is mired in partisan battle, health-care reform is dead, and the White House is fighting a rear-guard action to preserve at least a remnant of trademark Clinton programs such as national service and anti-crime efforts.


But once Clinton steps off Air Force One abroad, his presidency still radiates all the power of bygone days, commanding obeisance from foreign prime ministers and near-adulation from their people.