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Clinton makes things right with Britain's Major

Prime Minister John Major's trip to the United States provided a lot of political byplay and comedy. It could hardly be otherwise, seeing how hard it was on President Clinton to put him up in the Lincoln Bedroom when Major had done everything he could during the presidential campaign to deprive him of custody of the White House.

Other heads of state have had joint press conferences with the president, but indoors, in rooms with chandeliers and gilt chairs and everybody warm and dry.

Major's was held on the South Lawn in the snow. There was no microphone, so it was impossible to hear both principals. Those on the left heard Clinton; those on the right got Major. It was more disjointed than joint.

They both talked extensively about Bosnia _ a safe topic under the circumstances. They were completely at one about what had been done by NATO, the shooting down of Serb planes found in the no-fly zone. Alas, Washington has no no-fly zone over the White House, and much of the discourse was drowned out by the droning of planes overhead.

Neither plainly wanted to discuss the reason they were standing side by side in the snow while the temperature dropped, until a dank chill worthy of London had settled on the proceedings, and the reporters watched as their notes were smudged by snowflakes.

Major didn't seem to mind. The British are indifferent to creature comforts; they build houses that are cunningly designed to tap drafts.

The Americans were grumbling at being used as part of the ploy to put the Major visit in perspective. The British press, to Clinton's irritation, was playing the trip _ the visit to Pittsburgh, the White House sleepover _ as a gigantic apology for the blunder of the admission to the United States of Sinn Fein's spokesman Gerry Adams, who got in without passing the "Arafat test," the renunciation of terrorism.

Clinton had been trying to please Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., whose sister is ambassador to Ireland, but he almost finished off Major in the process. Major, whose approval ratings are at about 13 percent, was excoriated in the British press for allowing the "special relationship" to rot away. In Margaret Thatcher's time, thundered the British editorials, no American president would dare make a move on Ireland that was so strenuously opposed by the British government.

Clinton has no cause to feel kindly about Major, who gave aid and comfort to Tory brother George Bush during the 1992 campaign. But the president did not want to be seen as the man with the bloody dagger, should Major expire. He moved smartly to make things right.

Clinton could afford to be generous. His beleaguered guest is floundering in a miserable recession. The president, before giving Major breakfast in the White House family quarters, heard the glorious news that his economy was positively surging: a 7.5 percent annual rate in the last quarter of 1993.

Clinton can't rejuvenate Major's economy, but he could at least clear him of charges that he had blown the old friendship. During the press conference, he was distinctly heard, between planes, to speak of "the incredible depth and breadth of our shared interests and our shared values."

Major obliged by going lofty when a British correspondent, seeking recriminations, shouted a question about "future conditions for the readmission of Gerry Adams to the U.S." He only cares about looking forward, he said. That's good, because over the weekend Adams made a bad situation worse with a three-hour speech in Belfast that was entirely bereft of conciliation.

The outdoor press conference had one supreme advantage: It precluded prolonged discussion of such sticky subjects. Clinton got Major into the limousine with both egos intact. Clinton showed he can admit a mistake, if not in words at least in action, and that he is not vindictive.

Some Irish-Americans are trying to tell Clinton it was a victory in disguise: He proved that when the British lion roars, he doesn't snap to. Of course it says something about dancing to Kennedy's tune, but that can be explained on the basis of health care _ for which, Clinton made it plain this week by visiting Rep. Dan Rostenkowski in Chicago, he will do just about anything.

Universal Press Syndicate