Impeachment Of A President
WHEN BILL Clinton was elected president in 1992, Americans knew he had a past. But they could never in their wildest imaginings have expected a saga like the knockabout epic of 1998. From January to December, they - and the world - were spectators to a rip-roaring drama, a low comedy always a hair's breadth away from high tragedy, a perpetual soap opera whose every episode was laced with the aphrodisiac of power.

In the White House were Bill and Hillary - he, a small-town Arkansan become the most powerful man in the world, she the one woman with the redemptive clout to save him. From Beverly Hills came Monica, the Valley Girl with the pert beret, who showed Bill her thong and brought him pizza, and made the word "intern" the cue for global snickering.

From the Pentagon came Linda, the ex-military wife with a sideline in tape-recording and a grudge in her heart. From the office of the independent counsel came Ken, arch-pedant and judge, who wheeled his dustbin to his suburban kerb by night and hunted down Bill by day. And then there was Paula - she of the big hair and the nose job - who brought them all together: the only woman in America unswayed by Bill's charms.

There were bit parts aplenty and there were props galore: the gifts, the cigars. And, of course, "that dress", the navy blue dress from Gap with its tell-tale stain that Monica kept in her wardrobe. "Life was so much simpler, wasn't it," snarled an enemy lawyer before Congress, "before they found that dress."

It was a drama neatly paced through the passage of the year. It spanned the finger-wagging denial of January - "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms Lewinsky" - and the hang-dog confession of August - "Indeed, I did have a relationship with Ms Lewinsky that was not appropriate; indeed, it was wrong."

It spanned Monica's disembodied phrases, her "Big Creep" and "Bubba", through the volumes of her complete admissions and, finally, in November, her voice. We saw Linda saying tearfully, "I am you", to justify her betrayal, Monica's "mom" near collapse from the agony of her testimony, and the new-style Paula waving a million-dollar cheque that she never received.

From the man who brought you "I smoked, but I did not inhale", came the redefining of what it means to have sex. And as the President wrestled with Iraq and Kosovo and the Middle East, the pensions system and health reform, he was also refining his testimony and consulting his lawyers.

By the autumn, Ken's report told the worst - and no presidential confession could expunge that stain.

Congress came into its own, grave and divided.

It all reached its climax in the double crisis of December: the split- screen surreality of a four-day war and a three-day impeachment. It was a political thriller that involved the Congress, the people, their President and the Constitution. Republicans dreamt of Watergate glory and vengeance. They told a tale of broken oaths and trust betrayed, of a chief law officer who did not uphold the law, and cried "impeach".

"This is not Watergate," shouted back the Democrats. "It's an extramarital affair." They were "disappointed" and "sad", but not "betrayed". And when the vote and the verdict came, they dismissed them as illegitimate. For Bill Clinton it was a triumph of survival, and the ultimate disgrace.

When all was said and done, the story of Bill and Monica and the US presidency might not have seen the light of day but for an Internet squirrel of a gossip, Matt Drudge, who plucked a Newsweek story from the "hold-for- more-evidence" pile and triggered a national chase.

Within a week, last January, Bill Clinton's goose seemed to be cooked. If even some of what was rumoured was true - the affair with the "intern", the White House trysts, the semen-stained dress - the wise men and women of Washington were unanimous: Bill Clinton was finished.

But it was all true - and more. And Bill is still here.

All the forecasts proved false. He would have to resign: he refused. He would lose the elections for the Democrats: they won. He would escape impeachment: he was impeached.

His survival showed pre-millennial America split in its soul. A grown- up Sixties generation had taken its live-and-let-live credo to the White House, and had second thoughts. Affairs were all right, but not with an intern. Secret trysts could be tolerated, but not in the White House.

Lie about sex if you will (and you will), but do not do so under oath.

The President was presiding over a shifting moral landscape where uptight conservatives and spent revolutionaries jostled for the high ground, and wanted it both ways.

And it is not over yet. As the first anniversary of the Bill and Monica show looms, the next - and probably last - instalment is at hand. Will Bill stand trial and could the Senate remove him? Will his public support hold up? Will the Constitution endure? And how many more highly placed adulterers will be ruined in his wake?

Tune in next year. Same time, same place.