The Clinton farewell tour, now on the road in Ireland, is proof of what all the craziness of the past few months has been about - and why it was worth it. The moment Air Force One touched down on the Dublin tarmac, the waves of Clinton charisma rippling outward, you could see why the White House is still the biggest prize on the planet, why it's been worth haggling over, even for 36 legalistic and rancorous days.
For an American president can still make an enormous difference. Bill Clinton may have sipped Guinness in Dublin and tapped his toe to Danny Boy in Dundalk for his own reasons - as he joked earlier in the day, there are 45m Irish-Americans back home and the president likes keeping them happy - but that takes nothing away from the impact he makes wherever he goes. Whether it's filling Ireland's once-hostile communities with pre-Christmas cheer, or watching as Ethiopia and Eritrea sign a conflict-ending accord - as Mr Clinton's chief diplomat, Madeleine Albright did in Algiers yesterday - the mere presence of the United States can make the difference between war and peace.
Late yesterday both Al Gore and George W Bush waited to hear which one of them would inherit that responsibility. Perhaps they flicked through the cable channels, pausing to see the live pictures from Ireland which briefly interrupted the news vigil outside the US supreme court, wondering if they would ever have the chance to work the same magic. Will I, they might have asked themselves, be able to lead like that?
The plain answer is no. The campaign made clear that neither man has the political gifts of the president they sought to replace. Bush doesn't have his brains, Gore lacks his warmth - and neither has as much of either quality as Clinton has of both. As Peter Mandelson said of the outgoing president yesterday, "I think he is a one-off. He is a cross between a thoroughly charming, charismatic human being and a political computer." Coming from the political calculator himself, that was praise indeed.
But personality is not the whole story: Clinton, too, was once seen as callow and unfit for the job. What makes a mere politician look presidential? Becoming president. If Bush had secured a clear win on November 7, people might now be praising his subtle, creative intellect. If Gore had been the instant victor, it would have been a matter of days before observers praised his ability to connect with people.
No, the prime problem confronting the next president is not his own limita tions, so much as the terrain he inherits. For all the opportunities a US president has to play globe-trotting peacemaker, his prime task is to lead the American people. And it is that job which looks much more daunting now than it did when Clinton took over eight years ago.
For the United States is fast looking like an oxymoron. It is currently disunited, split in every institution through which the nation expresses itself.
Start with the presidency. By now the healing alchemy of the transition period should have done its work, magically turning the partisan victor of November into the national head of state by January. Instead the president of 2001 will raise his right hand while half the nation shakes its fist - angered at what they regard as a stolen election.
Or stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue to Congress where you will find Republicans and Democrats separated in the House of Representatives by just five votes. Walk along the corridor, where the senate is split exactly 50-50. Out in the country, state legislatures are equally divided: of the 50 states, Republicans control both chambers in 17, with 16 in the hands of Democrats. All the rest are deadlocked.
Even the judges are split. Florida's highest court ruled for Gore last week by four votes to three, only to be rapidly overturned by the US supreme court which divided 5-4. Add them up and you get 16 senior judges, split exactly 8-8.
This has left many Americans with a sense of despair, as if every institution they have is divided against itself, usually on tribal, partisan lines. That pessimism may be a tad excessive. All seven members of Florida's supreme court were appointed by Democratic governors - yet three of them sided last week against Gore. Equally, two of the four Washington supremes who went against Bush last Saturday were appointed by Republican presidents - one of them by Bush's father.
Still, even if partisanship is not yet an all-consuming disease, the division is real enough. November's was the closest election in US history, not just in Florida but everywhere. Gore's final victory margin in New Mexico was less than 400 votes; his edge in the entire country just 300,000 out of 100m votes, three-tenths of 1%. The country was genuinely torn - reflected by a Washington that is more split than at any time since the 1870s.
But here lies the riddle. America's previous periods of great political division were matched by vast cultural rifts. The nation was split not just by electoral arithmetic but in hard, bloody fact. So the photo-finish election of 1876 was an after-shock of the civil war of a decade earlier. The same is true of the impeachment crisis of that same period, which saw Abraham Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, survive an attempt to remove him from office by a single senate vote.
In our own time, the symptoms are identical - impeachment rapidly fol lowed by a bitterly contested election - but what is the disease? What cultural divide will future historians blame for the institutional rupture of today?
It's a puzzle, if only because Washington's institutions were much less split during periods of far greater civil unease - say the McCarthyite wars of the 1950s or the generational, sexual and racial upheavals of the 1960s - than they are today. What great gash is it that tears America apart in these peaceful, prosperous days of the early 21st century?
The answer may be in what the failed, rightwing candidate Pat Buchanan calls the culture wars. For today's America is indeed a land of two nations. One favours gun ownership, opposes abortion rights, seeks the pre-eminence of Christianity, thinks America should do less in the world and lives mainly in the South and the countryside. It wears a stetson hat and looks like George W Bush.
The other seeks gun control, wants women to have the right to choose, celebrates ethnic diversity, looks beyond America's shores and lives mainly in the cities and on the continent's east and west coasts. It has gay friends, watches Seinfeld and voted for Al Gore.
The interminable election campaign that began in July 1999 and ended last month revealed almost none of this: both candidates lavished all their attention instead on the handful of "swing voters" who live in the middle, sandwiched between the two Americas. But the 36-day post-election campaign, with all its partisan bile and distrust, has revealed it all too clearly. America is a land divided; and not even the supreme court, in all its wisdom, can hide that now.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2000