Through the dark streets of Fairfax goes the cab, the driver, a Romanian, an electrical engineer, and blatantly, cheerfully illegal and I are looking for the university. Andrei is refusing to play the grateful immigrant, tears of joy, etc. “It’s a place,” he says, shining the flashlight on street signs. “the pay’s good. There’s a lot of bullshit.” Northern Virginia is really part of the far-flung dormer suburbs of Washington, but most of the towns here predate the inauguration of that revolutionary imperial capital. Roanoke is down the road, the first stab at a permanent colony in 1607, and Alexandria and the Georgetown centre of Washington predate the city itself by a century or so.

The streets are gorgeous Georgian arcades snapped up en masse by the Washington political class, and they’re the sort of places where you can get six kinds of antique chafing iron or a Vietnamese fusion take-away, but not milk. No capital, not even Canberra, is so differentiated from the daily life of the mass of people it represents. Even the gas station is done in red brick, with a white hexagonal spire.

The university has disappeared into the darkness and we are both grousing about the occasional outbreaks of public dysfunctionality in the States – small thing like the lack of signage, of integrated public transport, etc, little indications that public space is slowly evaporating – when we turn the corner and there it is, a towering, elephantine fauxlonial structure, brightly blazing into the night. Talk about your city on the hill. Perhaps the whole beacon-giganticism-facade effect is appropriate. We’re here to see Bill Clinton.

George Mason University looks like it was put up three weeks ago, but by, well, masons. The man’s statue is in the forecourt, and a random sample of half a dozen students has no idea who he is. Yet of all the second-tier founding fathers he probably has the greatest claim to shaping the modern form of the US, refusing to sign the Constitution until a bill of fundamental rights was attached to it – the eventual form of which was based on his draft of the Virginia constitution. Without the bill, America after Reagan and Dubya would be a puritan state with criminalised abortion, mass censorship and Guantanamos for American citizens from sea to shining sea.

So it’s kinda appropriate that Mr Clinton is here, cause not much ever stopped that bill from doing what he wanted to do. In the three storey atrium of what can only be described as a colonial-era shopping mall, the student body has gathered en masse, jammed in wall-to-wall, with faculty and trusties watching from the balconies, the secret service presumably believing that Bill isn’t going to get a head-shot from university staff, the service presumably having not considered the possibilty that a women’s studies lecturer might have a gun license.

Half an hour before the start date and the crowd is already surging and churning. People arrive early because they know they need to get through the metal detectors – this week there were three shootings on campuses, and the final one has barely been discussed. It’s a pretty white university, but even for that it’s a pretty white crowd – hard not to conclude it’s the safe crowd, kids who bought the official college sweatshirt, and know they shouldn’t but kinda like Nickelback.

“Five years ago this man came to my campus.” On stage, there’s a heavyset, close-cropped kid in a bottle-green suit, the universal uniform of the political chancer, somehow having levered himself up to be introducing the former President of the United States, and giving us his autobiography. He’s already halfway to an internship, working the VIP lounge set up behind a curtain. He gets off before the booing really gathers force, and even he can’t put a kink in the gathering excitement.

It’s not just the fact that it’s an actual (ex-)President, it’s the fact that it’s Bill. There’s an acoustic duo on, grinding through a series of tribal anthems Baby One More Time and ending with Living On a Prayer, which gets the crowd into a call and return to rival the Obama rallies. Most of these kids heard this cos their parents had it – it’s about as close as you get to white ritual, the sound of suburbia. Hard to deny the power of it, it’s a quasi-spiritual moment, but so is just about everything in America.

Then as the heat continued rising and a couple of people had fainted, the curtain parted and there he was, slick willie himself, “Hi, howe yall doing” on and started before the band got off the stage. The hair is white, the face is flushed, possibly he’s just been fluffed before he came on, but he’s up and raring to go. Heckling from a small claque starts immediately from a small and, it must be said, gutsy group waving hand-written posters saying “Hillary + 4 years =” and then a hammer and sickle. If only. “I’m glad you’re here,” he says, “but they came to here me not you” and the roar of the crowd wipes them all out. It’s the pure juice.

But boy can this bloke go on. Every other candidate is exhausted by now. Hillary’s husky, Obama seems to lose himself in the middle stretches of his stump, and McCain is starting to make a few too many slips for people not to get a little worried about it. Calling a friendly endorser the Governor of Vietnam was my favourite. Maybe he knows Holt.

But not Bill. He’s working as hard as any of them, and he’s still up and enjoying it as much as on day one. Day one 1991 for that matter. This is the mark of the true politician, the man who can think of nothing better than to be in a student union forecourt on a bold cold Monday night, talking to gormless sophomore about the reform of health care records keeping.

He needs to be. As results are coming in now from Virginia – the only state so far reporting – Obama is predictably killing Hillary 62% to 37% in Virginia. This was expected – at least in the last week or so – so much so that team Hillary is in Texas already, campaigning for March 4, an admission of defeat. DC has no exit polls and Maryland is keeping its polls open till 9.30 because of weather-caused chaos. But there’s no reason to believe that it will be any less than Virginia – and DC may be a real crusher for Hillary, trending up to 70% for Obama.

Make the vote large enough and Obama will have an absolute majority so far – ie even when the superdelegates are factored in, Obama will be leading. At which point the 250 or so superdelegates Hillary is counting on will be in play. How willing is she to take this to the wire and beyond? A slip up in an interview reveals all – “There’s still big primaries to come,” she said “Ohio Michigan … I mean Ohio and Texas”. No she meant Michighan – that she won because it was uncontested, delivering no candidates. She’s clearly contemplating an attempt to get those delegates seated, relying on the idea that the party would swallow their bitterness and get behind her. Her former press advisor Lisa Caputo signalled that this was on the cards in a slot on TV where she argued, against ridicule, that Hillary won Michigan and Florida.

Bill makes a good case for her – it better to be good, because the man was on for two hours, piling anecdote on anecdote in the classic Clinton style. Jesus I knew how Gennifer Flowers felt. You’ve been on your feet for 16 hours straight and Bill’s just getting his second wind. He wound up on one anecdote that went for 15 minutes, started as something about Iraq, detoured through a golf game, almost lost us – and then revealed that the caddie was a 9/11 fireman, a former Republican. “Hillary was the only one who was talking about the problems wed have from the smoke and fought for us,” this guy allegedly said. “She was the only one who knew what it was like to be me.” God it was good, slick as a coin trick, hooked and reeled us in.

They’re going to need every one of those to be in with a prayer. More Clinton staffers have just quit, a governor ally is throwing out the idea that America isn’t willing to elect a black governor, and it is getting very very ugly.

No less so for John McCain. The Huckabee at 47% in Virginia, is holding him down at 45% – expected but nevertheless a continuing embarrasment. Bad for McCain – who now thinks he may actually have to turn his guns rightwards and engage Huckabee – but great for Hillary, because the general view is that Obama would be a better bet to beat a strong McCain ticket. The lead is turning as I write – and would give McCain 60 delegates, winner-take-all – but it ain’t over yet.

But I think Hillary’s toast. It seemed clear last Saturday, and it seemed clear as the crowd drifted out of the hall – improbably but truly for a Bill Clinton venue, its name was the Johnson Centre – the vox pops turned up ‘Obama voter’ ‘Oh Im just curious’ ‘I came to get a taco and he was speaking so I hung out’ and ‘I dunno – I’m half and half for Hillary’ – The latter a not unusual comment – except for the fact that Ashleigh, the speaker, was carrying one end of a Hillary banner.

When it all wrapped up, Andrei was waiting for me on the rank. Did the spectacle of open democracy enthrall him? “I was thinking how the buildings look the same everywhere,” he said, bathed in the light of the monumental hall. “Still, here, they stay up.”

Whether Hillary will remains to be seen. In Texas she’ll either strike oil or the Alamo.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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