There is a point when we all look upon a public figure and go `ugh'

People have been known to recover from the impression that they're sleazy - but it helps if they're dead
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The Independent Culture
HE LOOKED, as we all might during four hours of questioning about an illicit affair, shifty, uneasy, angry and thoroughly resentful about being subjected to the ordeal at all.

The inappropriate word "inappropriate", doggedly and nervously used to describe as much sex as you can get without risking conception, grated and repelled. The evasions were made flesh.

The release of President Clinton's grand jury testimony is an intriguing study in the differing impact of two kinds of media. When the Starr report was published, we were told by the lip-smacking tendency that the details would be so disgusting that the President would be swept from office on a tide of public indignation. It did not turn out that way at all.

His countrymen showed a healthy disdain for the practice of cataloguing the sexual encounters of their President. Apart from Kenneth Starr and his acolytes, few Americans were so sanctimonious or unimaginative as to imagine that their own sex acts would sound dignified if exposed to a blow by blow analysis. Stop tittering at the back: the titter factor was Clinton's next lifeline. Even that cigar was a giggly parody of real eroticism.

There was something endearingly silly about his failure to ward off Monica Lewinsky, a three-in-one version of the Furies, relentlessly targetting his carnal weakness, thong and all, until he obliged, complaining all the time that he did not really want to be doing this.

His boldest defensive move so far was to exhibit his moral frailty at the White House prayer breakfast and beg America's collective forgiveness.

But the Grand Jury reminds us of the pre-grovelling Clinton, the one who does not want to give account of himself and who is so furious at the demands that he should that he loses his temper and walks out of the hearing.

We can argue about what constitutes sleaze. But there is a point, whatever the substance of the allegations, when we look upon a public figure and think `ugh'. It is the visceral force of this response which makes the damage so hard to repair.

Public figures have been known to recover from the impression that they are sleazy, but it helps if you are dead. The late Willy Brandt is still venerated in Germany as a moral figure, despite revelations of his rampant promiscuity and paranoia.

When the Camillagate tapes were published, it seemed that Prince Charles would be reduced in the public eye to an adulterer with a peculiar longing to spend the rest of his life as a tampon. But he has recovered his standing and his dignity by simply carrying on doing his job well.

Democratic politicians do not have this luxury. They must withstand the howling winds of public opinion and remain electable.

So George Stephanopoulos's description of Mr Clinton's present position as "standing on quicksand" is correct, but also a huge cheek. It was Mr Stephanopoulos and his fellow Democrat strategists who created the boom in Mr Clinton's appeal by helping him to reflect what voters want and how to shift with the popular whim.

Now that whim is seen as the key to his survival or extinction. Fair dos. The Clinton White House lived by the opinion polls, so it will only be poetic justice if it dies by them. The many headed hydra is a garrulous beast which, having been asked its opinion so frequently when it suits the powerful, cannot be expected to shut up when its judgement is uncomfortable for them.

The gap between the style of the two Clintons - the public and the private - has been exposed and this damages him as much as the actual allegations of perjury.

We think of the President as a direct and relaxed man, the one Mr Blair, as well as a meaningful sample of Arkansas and Washington womanhood, finds to possess a charm which is "almost irresistible".

Then we see a tetchy, stressed-out man twisting on the pitchfork of his own contradictions before the Grand Jury. The tape will be shown as often as the ghastly footage of Nixon sweating his way to defeat against Kennedy in a television debate. The Republican theme of this autumn's congressional elections will be: "This is what the top Democrat is really like. Do you really like the look of him and what he stands for now?"

Politicians create a virtual image of themselves for our consumption. Both Tony Blair and Mr Clinton have excelled at making that image fit their respective societies. In a Britain where the Tories seemed increasingly tone-deaf, Mr Blair has emphasised his ability to listen. If he only had the time, we think, he would be in the living room, biting thoughtfully on a chocolate Digestive, attentive to our gripes and desires.

It has worked a treat. But in a TV documentary last week, there was a cutaway of Mr Blair, button-holed by someone who wanted to tell him something that he had no desire to listen to. His forehead creased. She was given three seconds of dedicated "Hmms" and "reallys?".

Then he turned his back on her in mid-flow. It was a strangely disappointing picture of the Prime Minister. Does he really cut people like that? You bet he does. All politicians do. They have the social graces of wholly untrained pole cats.

But too many of these revelations would shatter the magic.

In this month's Prospect magazine, David Goodhart had the nifty idea of polling the public about how seriously it really wants its judgements like to be taken in the making of policy.

People were less sure than we might imagine about their new-found influence. A large minority of those asked - 43 per cent - said that politicians should take decisions against the majority view. They accepted that the popular will is capricious and transient and that governments and other institutions will make better decisions in our long-term interest if they ride out some of our knee-jerk responses. The question which demands political intuition is what to listen to and what to ignore.

The monarchy would have been in deep trouble if it had not responded to the criticisms over its distance from public opinion after Diana's death.

But the demands for the Crown to skip a generation to Prince William were short-lived.

Yet Mr Blair's Third Way pamphlet suggests that government should be guided increasingly by "direct" rather than "representative" democracy and that governments should take "full account of popular opinion".

To a large extent, it already is. Back-bench revolts no longer hold the terrors they used to for the executive.

As long as the majority is sound, Mr Blair is perfectly happy ignoring large sections of his own party. Indeed, he got where he is today precisely by doing this.

But the public is a harsh master. The new, inter-reactive politics mean that the desire to preserve face - albeit a modern, cool, responsive face - at all times.

They are as binding as the rules of behaviour imposed on any ancient Chinese mandarin. And when the public believes a leader has failed, whether in being insufficiently honest or insufficiently effective, they will not be rescued by objecting that they only did what we wanted. For the first time it is the ruled, not the rulers who have power without the responsibility?