So, as a Corona-interlude, or a WuFlu palate-cleanser, I thought we'd revisit the dawn of the Year of Monica. The years between the fall of the Berlin Wall, which went down almost as fast as Miss Lewinsky, and the fall of the Twin Towers came to be seen as the holiday from history, when the hyperpower squandered its advantage in a supposedly unipolar world, failed to nip new threats in the bud, and let the old one - the clapped-out utopianism of cultural Marxism - nest in its institutions as never before. Still, it had its laughs - and never had "the personal is political" found such a literal exemplar as Bill Clinton.
It began one morning in January 1998 when a certain California brunette became the world's most famous intern (indeed introducing that word to much of the rest of the world). Within a few days, most of the most quotable lines from the Clinton Administration had been delivered: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky", "a vast right-wing conspiracy", etc. It was a busy time for yours truly. On the first morn, Frank Johnson, then editor of The Spectator, who rarely called me from one decade to the next rang me up to say he knew it was my week off but he understood this was what the Americans called "breaking news", and if I wouldn't mind writing something, he'd be most awfully grateful.
For six days, Bill Clinton kept his head down, a position usually reserved for his womenfolk. But on the seventh the President ventured out - to Congress, for the annual State of the Union address. Last year, he had to share the spotlight with the O.J. Simpson civil trial, which, with exquisite timing, had chosen the President's big night to reach a verdict. The networks, torn between Clinton boring on about his bridge to the 21st century and O.J. getting taken to the cleaners, restrained themselves and went to a split screen, dutifully sticking with Washington in one corner while all eyes were on California in the other. ABC's star anchorman Peter Jennings had been warned not to use the word 'guilty' in connection with O.J.: in this second trial, the correct word was 'liable'. He almost got it right. 'Mr Guilty has been found liable,' he announced sonorously.
This year, the President decided to come as his own O.J., singlehandedly bridging last year's split screen. He has yet to pledge that he won't rest until he tracks down the real adulterer, but otherwise the approach is much the same. In lieu of Johnnie Cochran, Mr Clinton has the First Lady: just as the brutal murder of a battered wife turned out instead to be a racist conspiracy by the LAPD, so perjury about oral sex is apparently, according to Mrs Clinton on NBC's Today show, part of 'a vast right-wing conspiracy' by the Reverend Jerry Falwell and shadowy groups of Clinton-haters.
Both theories depend on a mind-boggling suspension of disbelief: How did the LAPD get the victims' blood inside O.J.'s locked car? How did Mr Falwell plant the young daughter of a wealthy Democratic party contributor inside the White House late at night? Mr Clinton isn't saying. His strategy on Tuesday was to replace the pants-dropping, frock-staining, phone sex-crazed fellatio junkie of the past week with the windy, platitudinous, butt-numbing yawneroo of old.
Traditionally, the State of the Union address begins at 9 p.m. Eastern time and wraps up just before 10 o'clock, after which there's a brief Republican response and then the network pontificators analyse the President's proposals on Medicare and defence spending until it's time to hand back to the local affiliate stations at 11 o'clock. This time, Mr Clinton stepped to the podium just after 9 o'clock, and began to talk . . . and talk. . and talk.
'If we join together, we can finish the work at hand,' he declared boldly. 'Preparing for a far-off storm that may reach our shores is better than waiting till the sound of thunder is overhead,' he continued. 'I say to you it is a journey we can only make together,' he added. Ten o'clock came and went with nothing more than a dull thud - probably a new intern, installed under the lectern, falling to the floor with lockjaw. But the President was only warming up: 'We must work together, learn together, live together, serve together . . . We are many. We must be one.
For a week now, commentators have been deploring Mr Clinton's descent into lawyerly English. 'There is no improper sexual relationship. . . ' What does he mean by 'is'? Is he saying that there was one? And what's an 'improper sexual relationship'? How does it differ from a proper one? On Monday morning, he was more emphatic: 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman.' But that only sent everyone scurrying to the dictionary: 'sexual relations - intercourse, copulation (esp. of a man and a woman); insertion of the penis into the vagina....' So does that rule out oral sex?
But Tuesday was a reminder that, when President Clinton stops being precise and evasive and becomes generalised and evasive, he's even worse. 'While we honour the past, let us imagine the future,' he droned, as the clock struck 10.20; 'An uncharted sea of limitless mystery', 10.25; 'The unbroken connection between the deeds of America's past and the daring of America's future.
He'd lost the room by now, but what did he care? He knew every network had a studioful of pundits waiting to talk about subpoenas and impeachment, and he ran 'em out. He sat down, the networks hurried away to the Republican response, and that left about three minutes for the 'Can this presidency be saved?' discussion. 'The President went longer than anticipated,' sighed Peter Jennings, signing off as ABC handed back to its local affiliate, and suddenly we were into heartwarming stories about how dairy farms were clearing up after the ice storm. Brilliant.
Monica Lewinsky isn't the only one sitting there open-mouthed. The President's understanding of the media is amazing: he succeeded in keeping the sex stuff out of prime time. Puffy-eyed and unusually stiff (in the Al Gore sense), he was nevertheless doing what he does best - boring the story into the ground, the approach that's worked so well for him over Whitewater, the FBI files, the Indonesian money men.... This year's Mr Guilty may yet be found liable, but the bland torpor of the State of the Union was the most explicit signal yet that he's prepared to do whatever it takes to cling on, figuring that even an oral sex scandal can't be dragged out all year: one swallow doesn't make a summer, as they say in Arkansas.
He may be right. Invited to compare this year's speech with Nixon's in 1974, as Watergate was raging all around him, the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin sniffed, 'Obviously, that was a much more serious situation.' Some of us disagree. With Mr Clinton, it's the very triviality that's so serious. There are no great mysteries to unravel - this time round, we all know who Deep Throat is - and the only unanswered question is: how did the most powerful office in the world shrivel away to this?
Clinton's presidency now resembles a deranged version of La Ronde, in which he staggers from one girl to the next without ever managing to shake off any of their predecessors: if his aides hadn't stupidly revealed her identity, Paula Jones wouldn't have sued; if she hadn't sued, he wouldn't have had to give a sworn deposition admitting to the affair with Gennifer Flowers; if he'd settled the suit, her lawyers wouldn't have taken testimony from Kathleen Willey, the woman who says he groped and fondled her on the day her husband committed suicide; if his lawyer hadn't trashed the reputation of Mrs Willey's corroborating witness Linda Tripp, Miss Tripp wouldn't have set about getting her revenge; if the President had only managed to keep his hands off Monica Lewinsky, they wouldn't have had to move her to the Pentagon, where she became friends with Miss Tripp; if he'd been able to steer clear of Shelia Lawrence, Miss Lewinsky wouldn't have become jealous....
The more worldly commentators bemoan the fact that America isn't like France, where M. Mitterrand was buried with both his wife and mistress in attendance. But, if Mr Clinton's funeral applies the same admission criteria, it'll be the biggest windfall for the nation's charter buses since the Million Man March. Mrs Clinton has done her best to surround her husband with only the most fearsome specimens of the fairer sex, from Madeleine Albright to Janet Reno. But you could nail a government health warning to the White House door - 'Abandon hope all ye who intern here' - and some impressionable young coed would always break through.
Even if you accept the White House line - that the Clintons are under siege from a bunch of psycho tramps under the direction of right-wing talk-radio kooks, gun nuts and redneck militias - there's still something missing. I remember the late Cardinal Bernadin in Chicago five years ago, accused by some guy of having sexually molested him. The Cardinal went before the press, denied it - 'I have lived a chaste and celibate life' - and answered question after question so directly and honestly that eventually every journalist in the room fell into a shamed silence. Mr Clinton cannot do that. Whether he settles for the formulation of 'proper' relationship, 'emotional' relationship or 'mostly clothed' relationship, most Americans already know the answer.
For his part, he seems genuinely to believe that oral sex is not adultery. I don't know about Arkansas, but, legally speaking, he may have a point. In many states, such as Georgia, it comes under not anti-adultery laws but anti-sodomy laws (the insertion of the penis into an 'unnatural' orifice) and is punishable by jail. His assertion to Arkansas State Trooper Larry Paterson that the Bible also supports his thesis is slightly dodgier: perhaps he's confusing the Book of Job with the Book of Blowjob. But, either way, after all the policies and principles he's abandoned over the years, it seems we now know Bill Clinton's one, solitary core belief.
Some of his more audacious friends are saying, 'Let Clinton be Clinton' - even though it's letting Clinton be Clinton that's landed him in his present predicament. But they might be on to something: suppose he comes on television, confesses to sex addiction (as his disgraced pollster Dick Morris had done), puts it all down to his abusive father and announces he's setting up his own Betty Ford-type clinic and checking himself in for treatment. After a year of Acting President Gore talking to them like kindergarteners, Americans would be only too willing to welcome Mr Clinton back. It's a risk, but an Oprahfied populace will buy most kinds of sociopathic behaviour as long as they're formalised into a proper disease with twelve-step programmes and so forth.
Last year, Mr Clinton said wistfully that he wished he'd been president at a time of great crisis, like the second world war, so he could show how he'd rise to the occasion. He has been fretting, since the inauguration, about his place in history. Alas, it seems the only occasions he'd rise to are now the subject of investigation. As for his place in history, even if he limps on for the rest of his term, his will be the only X-rated presidency, the one you can't teach in history - or at any rate not below junior high.
~from The Spectator, January 31st 1998