Faith & Reason: Memo to the President: put that bible away, Bill

Bill Clinton has to choose between being pious and presidential. It is his attempt to have it both ways that has got him into such a mess
ONE OF the dafter undergraduate observations of the Nixon era was the fact that Spiro Agnew (one-time Vice- President) was an anagram of "grow a penis". In those days, however, such inky-fingered ribaldry was for private consumption only. Now it has become the stuff of public discourse and the President of the United States, no less, has given us all a licence to discuss oral sex, DNA material, "inappropriate behaviour" etc, etc, with as much candour as we can muster. To such an extent that explaining the Clinton and Lewinsky affair to our suddenly attentive children after the early evening news has become a delicate balancing act.

Lubricious gossip aside there have been other surprising features about this whole saga. In particular the way that the President's religious seconds seem almost to have been rooting for him between rounds - from the Rev Jesse Jackson to the Thomas Merton lookalike (complete with scapular) looking beatifically on as Bill and Hillary left Washington's Foundry United Methodist Church before the public confessing began.

Pardon me, but given the conspicuous presidential church-going, bible- carrying, and trumpeting of wholesome family values shouldn't one of them have said something, er . . . prophetic? It was as if they were subscribing en masse to the late Malcolm Muggeridge's view of the Ten Commandments. The Sage of Robertsbridge, you may remember, had once opined that these were best likened to an examination paper prefaced with the rubric "Only eight to be attempted" (the presidential preference inclining presumably towards the omission of numbers 7 and 9).

Not that one would expect one's allies to be the first to put the boot in. Ministers, after all, are there to offer pastoral support in times of need. But why has it been left to politicians and secular commentators to lead the moral charge? Doesn't the church to which the leader of the free world so publicly belongs have something distinctive to say about this? Shouldn't it have something distinctive to say?

And then there was all that highly publicised praying shortly before the President gave his testimony. We will never know how Messrs Jackson and Clinton addressed the Almighty nor what precise prayer the two of them offered up, but to the cynical it seemed like an 11th-hour request for something pretty damned miraculous to get somebody off the hook.

Don't get me wrong. I'm all for prayer. I believe it does soothe the troubled heart and can get you out of a tight corner at times. At times. Not every time. And often when you least expect it. That, too, is another matter.

No, what is hard to take is the public display of private devotion in a way that instantly invites a charge of hypocrisy and tars other struggling churchgoers with the same brush, giving ammunition to every militant atheist and bar-room philosopher in the land to sneer with derisory incredulity at the transparently shifty ways of the faithful.

Taking refuge in carefully drafted legalisms was not guaranteed to impress a public hoping (against every indication and precedent, it has to be said) for honesty and genuine contrition from the TV confessional. And what does it tell the world about Christianity and sex? Not much that's edifying that's for sure. About all it does say is that it's possible, if you'll pardon the phrase, to get off on a technicality. After all, this particular piece of "inappropriateness" could not be classed as adultery because it could not be classed as sex at all. Oh yeah? Try telling that to a partner who isn't a lawyer.

The Clinton affair has coincided neatly with the publication of a book that has become a surprise best-seller in New York; the collected epigrams of the 73-year-old former baseball star of the New York Yankees, Yogi Berra. The wit and wisdom of this unlikely wordsmith (the model, it's said, for the cartoon figure Yogi Bear) have felt uncannily apt this week. His much-quoted "It's deja vu all over again" could have been tailor-made for this latest high-level revelation. But better still is the advice he once gave a stranger asking for directions. Deployed in a different context it had the authentic ring of the White House spin doctor schooling an all too fallen president in the art of obfuscation. You can almost hear a smart presidential adviser quoting it verbatim. "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

Didn't the Southern Baptists teach him that the truth would set us free? Of course such towering simplicities are fine in principle. Those charged with running a country or confronting the realities of political power may find them harder to put into practice. And even a halfway educated or experienced electorate would have every sympathy with that.

They can forgive an occasional (if sometimes spectacular) fall from grace. What is harder to stomach is this hybrid of admission and denial which seeks to make Clinton's behaviour palatable to two mutually exclusive constituencies but succeeds in making it acceptable to neither.