Al Gore, Clinton's closest ally, faces a dilemma - he wants the top job but not like this
AL GORE has perfected the wooden look, but on Friday morning, seated on a White House sofa for a press briefing by President Clinton and his visitor for the day, Yasser Arafat, his face wore a studied blankness. His features were not relaxed, like a television switched off, but set rigidly, as if in terror or shock.

The Vice-President was hating the moment for a simple reason. Not in the slightest bit interested in the Middle East, the reporters were attempting an inquisition of the President on the question of the moment. Had he had sex with Monica Lewinsky? (And was it in this very room, they might have asked?)

This is a scandal still in its earliest bloom, but from any angle it looks grave. Nobody can avoid giving at least a second's thought to this: if President Clinton leaves office in disgrace, either by resigning or after dislodgement by impeachment proceedings, then the Constitution says only one thing can happen: Al Gore would be made President of the United States and Tipper would be First Lady. As the television talk-show host Jay Leno said last week, Mr Gore is "an orgasm away from the presidency".

It is a prospect that may thrill few, but it would not lead to widespread dismay either. Mr Gore is considered decent and is far more humorous than may sometimes be obvious. He offers a boring pair of hands, but a safe and very experienced pair also. A Gore succession to Bill Clinton might bear comparison with the passing of power from volatile Margaret Thatcher to dull-but-steady John Major.

That Mr Gore, aged 49, is aching to be president is clear, but not in this way. Do not watch for even a trace of glee about Mr Clinton's predicament. Indeed, when the scandal first broke Mr Gore instructed his White House staff: carry on with your work as if nothing is happening. Do not talk about the possibility of Mr Clinton departing the presidency. Do not even joke about it.

Until recently, Al Gore seemed a man destined for America's highest office. He has breathed politics all his life. The son of a senator from Tennessee, he grew up mostly in the capital. After entering Congress in 1977, he was himself a senator when Mr Clinton picked him as his presidential running mate in 1992.

After the second Clinton-Gore victory in 1996, Mr Gore's path to the Democratic nomination in 2000, and perhaps to the presidency itself, looked straight and even. All he needed from the Clinton II administration was more of the same: prosperity at home and peace abroad.

The first wobbles in his plan came last year when questions were raised about the fund-raising tactics both he and Mr Clinton had employed in the 1996 campaign. The Vice-President was accused of soliciting funds from inside the White House and attending a legally dubious event in a Buddhist temple.

What he confronts now is far more tricky. If the second Clinton term becomes mired in scandal, some of the spatter may stick on him. One special danger is the loss of support among women, who would be critical to Mr Gore's chances.

When should Al Gore put some distance between himself and the President if the crisis worsens? He has stood by Bill Clinton on all of his previous travails, whether bimbo eruptions or Whitewater, and he made plain last week that he intends to do the same again. After all, he said, Mr Clinton is more than just his president, he is his friend.

One Washington consultant offered this piece of advice. By all means, stay true to the President, if only because showing disloyalty could itself sit poorly with voters. But if things get any worse than this, plan a long trip abroad.