It's hard to swallow how trivial American politics has become

CONTEMPLATING AMERICA this week has been like watching a gigantic edition of The Jerry Springer Show. But instead of the usual procession of dysfunctional representatives of the US underclass, falling over their own blubber and ponytails in an attempt to knock five kinds of theatrical crap out of each other, we have - up on stage (a big hand folks!) - Bill, Monica, Ken Starr, Hillary, Linda Tripp and as many others as can be conceivably subpoenaed.

Nor is the audience made up of the usual mischievous voyeurs, who enjoy nothing better than to yell "whoarrr!" in mock horror whenever a fight looks likely. No, this special show is being conducted entirely in front of a hand-picked audience of sober-suited media commentators, columnists, political journalists, presenters and editors. The strapline at the bottom of the screen reads, "They Had Sex. Or Did They?"

This event is (unlike the alleged sex itself) both salacious and exhausting. And clearly, for those in the audience, it is addictive. For what is truly remarkable about the Monica Lewinsky affair is how the American people themselves say "it isn't that important", and how most journalists seem to come up with ever more ingenious arguments for why it is, in fact, the biggest show in town. And why it should never, ever, end.

Certainly, there seems to be a wide agreement among pundits that Bill Clinton's rather pathetic address to the nation on Monday night could not represent the final stage of the drama. He had not been frank enough. Nor had the President, apparently, answered all of Ken Starr's detailed questions earlier about exactly what he and Miss Lewinsky had done.

This, you see, was important when establishing whether Mr Clinton had grounds for saying that what happened did not constitute a sexual relationship. He should, said the broadsheet press (both here and over there), have answered these questions candidly.

Really? Reading the gossipy Drudge Report on the Internet this morning, I came across this line: "The DRUDGE REPORT has learned that Monica Lewinsky, when asked by prosecutors if the president performed `cunnilingus' on her, responded by saying she did not know what the word `cunnilingus' meant." Perhaps Ken Starr asked Mr Clinton the same question. Or perhaps the independent counsel asked the President, in detail, about the suggestion that Bill had allowed Monica to fellate him for a while, and had then procured his own climax while the chubby intern danced a little Salome number on the Oval Office carpet.

It could be that their conversation turned to the propulsive qualities of the presidential semen, and its capacity for landing far away. Anyway, Mr Clinton refused to answer such queries, labelling them as "intrusive", whereas the conventional wisdom is that he should have replied candidly.

Let us not forget why all this semen and cunnilingus stuff is supposed to matter. In 1991, before he was elected, Mr Clinton probably (though he denies it) showed his willy to a woman called Paula Jones in a hotel bedroom. She did not want to see it, told him so, and he put it away again. Several years later she filed a case against him for sexual harassment, and subpoenaed everyone that might have had any carnal knowledge of him. Enter Linda Tripp bearing tapes, enter Monica Lewinsky, enter Clinton's evasion (or lie) to the Paula Jones grand jury.

Jones's case - a civil one - was dismissed, not because of Clinton's testimony, but because the allegation did not amount to harassment. But by now Ken Starr was on the case. If Clinton had fibbed then, he was a perjurer. If he had attempted to get Monica to fib, then he was suborner. So, despite the fact that the original case had come to nothing, despite the fact that the Monica relationship was (according to her) consensual, if Ken could show that there had been knobbing, then he had his man by the short and curlies.

A Martian, landing on earth at this point, might wonder at the sanity of the whole business. Indeed, an American landing in Washington might wonder the same thing. I am not going to go into the question of whether lying in court about your consensual sexual relationships constitutes perjury or not. If it does, then it's a perjury that many decent people would commit, and feel themselves entitled to commit. Most Americans know this, even if the press doesn't.

They also know that several good American presidents have strayed, some far more egregiously than Bill. And they no more expect to judge presidents by their lower body polkas, than they query the world-renowned surgeon who ogles the anaesthetist, or the skilled pilot with a girl in every airport. But, according to the press, they haven't truly understood.

In yesterday's Washington Post, for instance, the comment was universally unfavourable to Clinton. Columnist David Broder encapsulated the argument when he disputed Clinton's claim that it was nobody's business. "Would that it were so," intoned Broder, piously. "But he made it our business - the nation's burden - first by showing utter disrespect for the high office he holds, and second by refusing all this time to do what he alone could do: clear up the matter."

Broder even invoked a previous crisis. "He [Clinton] not only lied to Paula Jones's lawyers, he lied to the public and to his closest political associates, and implicated the leaders of his party and his government in the deception. In all those respects, Clinton's behaviour is truly Nixonian."

This is such staggering rubbish, that it makes one despair. Nixon engaged in a criminal conspiracy to burgle opponents, and to cover up the results. He and Kissinger also connived at the secret destruction of Cambodia, the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Chile, and the unnecessary bombing of North Vietnam. Other presidents waged secret war against Cuba, organised the military removal of the progressive and elected government of Guatemala (with the consequence of the deaths of many thousands of innocent people), fabricated the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and - latterly - permitted Contragate.

And this litany of presidential sins is supposed to be less serious than fibbing about muff-diving? Well, yes. At least one serious article in a major British broadsheet newspaper seemed to suggest yesterday that Clinton has showed himself to be unfit for the presidency, by reason of having sex with Monica Lewinsky yet "not reciprocating any affection or desire".

This is the excuse of the trivialiser everywhere, the alibi of the TV executive who cuts the current affairs programme, and brings in yet another "people show". Clinton's tortuous tergiversations have a parallel in those of the press, who have been happily complicit in this heroic trivialisation of politics. Forget the difficult, intractable problems, the ones where lives hang in the balance. Forget the Congo. Forget the environment. As the planet heats up, there's only one kind of emission control that they're interested in.

The issue, we're now told (having passed through fraud, perjury and cover- up), is "character". And so it is. Once the Soviet Union was dubbed "Upper Volta with missiles". Today the US is Oprah with nukes.

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