Clinton clan still center of media obsession

They're fascinating: from Bill's Pacific diplomacy to Chelsea's Oxford snogging.

Say what you want about the Clintons, but there's no denying their staying power.

From graduate student Chelsea, posing at Oxford for the June issue of Vanity Fair, to mom Hillary, object of perpetual speculation about her presidential – or vice presidential – aspirations, to dad Bill, on his first assignment as an ex-president for the Bush White House, once again it's coming up Clintons in the media.

Part of it is the drive of the former first family itself. But let's face it: Lots of people still need this ambitious and complex trio – and not necessarily because they like them.

For the media, the name that generates polarized reactions is just so much more interesting than the predictable, all-male Bush dynasty – although the last few days of the 9/11 blame-game at the White House have reporters pumped again.

For the Democrats, the Mr. & Mrs. pack a powerful political punch, with the former president greatly sought after for advice, and the senator impressing critics and supporters alike.

As for the conservative right, there's something unresolved about the Clinton scandals that still eats at them – even though the former first couple has been cleared of Whitewater and the president escaped impeachment.

"It's like OJ," says Lucianne Goldberg, the flame-throwing Clinton critic. "Say that you swiped that stuff from the White House! Say that you did this, that you did that! And then we'll forget about them. But as long as they don't fess up, we're just left hanging...."

But would the right really forget? No way. It serves a political purpose for right-wing conservatives to preserve their favorite punching bag, says Joe Lockhart, former spokesman for the former president. "From a purely political perspective, the far right will do everything they can to keep them around. It's what enrages, then energizes, their base," he says. Look no further than conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh, who is still pounding away at the Clintons, says Mr. Lockhart.

On Friday, Ari Fleischer took a swipe at the former first lady, saying he was disappointed with her politically divisive reaction to the hijack-warning issue. He said she should have called the White House to get to the truth behind a New York tabloid headline, "Bush Knew," instead of taking the issue to the Senate floor.

Meanwhile, the media is doing its part to perpetuate the Bill & Hillary story.

"From a journalist's point of view, the Clintons are just a better story, even post-presidency, than Bush will ever be. And I understand everything that sentence means," Lockhart says knowingly.

But strip away the delicious political and media intrigue, and what's left is the Clintons themselves: two highly energetic "policy wonks" with a third one in training. Since he left office, the former president has been unable to sit still.

Expounding on the national and international lecture circuit, he's jetted to 30 countries and racked up an estimated annual speaking income of as much as $15 million.

Today, he's in East Timor, leading a US delegation sent by President Bush to celebrate as the island becomes a nation. It's a modest assignment, but an important indication that the former president's scarlet letter is fading, says presidential historian Henry Graff.

Mrs. Clinton, meanwhile, is working hard at being New York's senator.

Mostly, she stays appropriately in the background as befits her junior status, but she's also brought home billions of dollars of Sept. 11 federal aid.

She consistently puts down the notion that she'll run for president in 2004, and that goes for the recent suggestion – reportedly made by her husband – that she would be a better vice presidential candidate then.

"Go away," her spokeswoman, Karen Dunn, told the New York Daily News, inquiring about the veep rumor. "It just sells papers."

As for Chelsea, who made a splash chronicling her personal 9/11 experience for Talk magazine, this student of international relations remains a potential political force – and a mystery.

She was willing to pose for photos for the June issue of Vanity Fair – but denied the magazine an interview. Though it didn't get much further than her Oxford classmates' observations that she does a lot of public "snogging" (kissing) with her boyfriend, the magazine still found a way to dub her "the new JFK Jr.," setting off speculation she'll run for office someday.

The Kennedy analogy stirs Ms. Goldberg: "To say she's our new JFK Jr. – excuuuuuse me! She has some work to do."

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