For Clinton, sorry seems to be the hardest word

All the spin doctors, legal counsels, advisors and voice trainers can't hide the fact of faking it

NOT APPROPRIATE. What coy words to describe bouts of adulterous oral sex between the most powerful man in the world and a foolish and besotted young woman. It must have taken the combined brain-power of the White House elite hours of deliberation to come up with that one. Here is an understatement so smooth as to render the President's public confession almost innocuous, which was, of course, the point of the whole exercise.

But "not appropriate" is Eliza Doolittle shouting "Come on Clover, move your blooming arse" at Ascot opening day. It evokes social embarrassment rather than a moral lapse, let alone a mea culpa. Where it does have a sexual overtone, it is a shy one. It is the right word to use when we drink too much and tell the man/woman in the next-door office they have lovely eyes. It is singularly inadequate to describe the priapic spurts of desire Bill Clinton expressed for Monica Lewinsky in the study adjoining the Oval Office.

No word, comma or pause in Mr Clinton's account was unweighed, and the use of this weasel word to describe his relationship with Miss Lewinsky (upgraded from "that woman" in his earlier denial of carnal contact) fitted the grand scheme of wrapping up the tiresomely dogged investigations. The simple, indeed appropriate word "sorry" was missing from Mr Clinton's address, represented by its bloodless stand-in "deeply regret". To be sorry entails a recognition that you have done wrong, whereas the presidential statement, if you read it closely, manages to rank as a confession without ever explicitly accepting guilt. He is always sorry for the effects of his actions, while maintaining, absurdly, that his earlier denial of a sexual relationship was"legally accurate".

When you consider that the President must have been coached for this session with the sort of thoroughness that the more repressive Romanian gymnastic coaches apply to beam routines, it is extraordinary how many false notes remain. Perhaps we should be relieved that the finest spin doctors, legal counsel, elocution coaches and stress control gurus money can buy, still can't hide the strain of faking it.

The phrase, "I misled people, including even my wife", stands out. Besides the nervous grammatical lapse, the phraseology suggests that the betrayal of others was as important as the betrayal of Hillary. This may well be a true reflection of the relationship - one pact among the many that an ambitious politician makes.

While the chat shows on both sides of the Atlantic will have a long jabberfest of the "Can she forgive him?" variety, the marital relationship between the Clintons has long been placed in the service of the maintenance of Mr Clinton's presidential career, and Mrs Clinton's equally enjoyable role of feisty First Lady. It is a failing of the late 20th century's imagination to imagine that emotional fulfilment is the height of aspiration between some partners.

Pacts between husbands and wives for the sake of power are as old as time. In Robert Graves's novel I Claudius, based on Suetonius's account of the marriage of Augustus and Livia, she saves Augustus the trouble of awkward assignations by providing the Emperor with young Syrian women, the better to concentrate on the really important business of advancing the interests of her son Tiberius, and their dynasty.

Eleanor Roosevelt, as the files revealed last week in insouciant details, kept her lesbian lover, while FDR seduced Eleanor's secretary. But they defended each other like wildcats, much as Jackie Kennedy did her faithless husband, and Hillary has done Bill. The basic rule of this kind of alliance is that the partners, having moved beyond causing each other conventional emotional pain, should spare each other embarrassment.

This explains the calculation behind Mr Clinton's circumlocutions. It does not very much matter that they are illogical, as long as Hillary can keep up her facade. False innocence must be preserved - otherwise the whole contrived edifice would come tumbling down.

The first soundings yesterday implied that Britain is a lot more shocked about the President's statement than America is, not least because the President's home crowd have lived with the slow drip, drip, drip of allegations of sexual misconduct against him for so long, that they just want someone to turn off the damn tap.

But Britain also sedulously nourishes its myths about America. Goggling at Jerry Springer and confessions of lust and perversion from the Bible Belt, we conclude that Americans are more naive and hysterical than us veterans of the old country and the old hypocrisies. I very much doubt that this is true.

America knows exactly what the deal is with this President. Ardent Republicans foam at the mouth and wonder in their puritanical journals why the God- fearing do not march upon the White House demanding the replacement of soiled goods with a brighter, cleaner incumbent. But, in their hearts, they know that the presidency, the greatest political prize in the world, is such a glittering jewel that the ambitious will do anything to retain it.

Bill Clinton, with his easy courtliness and his Jesuitical meanderings on the nature of what is and is not sex, would have been a perfect 19th- century president, while Hillary has updated the serviceable historical model of tough political comrade-in-arms. But the Clintons cannot entirely escape their generation, and the Sixties that produced them was, in one important way, different from the decades that preceded it - namely in its strong indulgence of an a kind of romantic, unforced love for children.

Chelsea Clinton was named after a Bob Dylan song, testament to the sentimental era of her conception. She is, quite obviously and genuinely, the focus of parental affection that is natural and strong. It cannot be transformed, even by power, into something else. The President has brazened out his misdeeds. But there was shame in his eyes as he spoke - the shame of a lousy husband who is, I suspect, a good father.

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