Clinton's Crisis: So what can you get away with?

Not all nations want to know about their leaders' sexual indiscretions, as our foreign correspondents report
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Russia

By Phil Reeves

Even Bill Clinton would surely have sucked his cheeks in alarm at the capers of Valentin Kovalyev. The n justice minister was fired last year after being caught cavorting naked in a Moscow steam bath with two women in a manner that suggested that his mind had strayed from the job of enforcing the nation's laws. In any Western country there would have been public outrage and a media firestorm. Not here. The scandal subsided as quickly as the tumescent appetites which ignited it. The public was uninterested in the minister's foibles; it even showed a tinge of sympathy, as it was assumed he was set up, KGB-style.

So, too, with the Clinton scandal. While the Western press have been devoted to its every detail, n newspapers have taken only a passing interest. The US president has been portrayed as the victim of prudes and troublemakers in a society that sees itself as a citadel of individual freedoms, but is not. A headline in Segodnya newspaper read: "USA: last bastion of totalitarianism".

The n reaction has less to do with liberalism than arcane social attitudes. In a society in which feminism has scarcely evolved and where sexual harassment flourishes, few are outraged by the concept of droit de seigneur. Nowhere is that more in evidence that outside the doors of 's parliament where scores of prostitutes gather nightly. One political commentator, Sergei Markov, believes a n Zippergate could even benefit a politician. "People here watch and think he (Clinton) is a real "muzhik" (a real man).

China

By Teresa Poole

Could China's president, Jiang Zemin, get away with a bit on the side? In one of the world's most closed political cultures, the leadership in Peking can rest assured that any peccadillos remain out of the newspapers and television, which are under the strict control of the propaganda cadres and never report a bad word about top officials. The Chinese know virtually nothing about the wives and children of their leaders, let alone any bedroom hanky-panky. Not that it seems likely anyway, given that no one gets a top job in China until they are about 70. China's most famous womaniser, Chairman Mao, is known in the West to have enjoyed the company of nubile peasant girls when swimming in his pool. These revelations, written by his former doctor, have received no airing in China. The book is top of the banned list.

South Africa

By Mary Braid

FW de Klerk, South Africa's last white president, pushed Bill Clinton off the front pages here this week by revealing he was in love, after 38 years of marriage. The woman concerned was not his wife Marike but a wealthy married Greek, Elita Georgiades.

It was a rare home-grown scandal. In the good old days of brutal civil war, the sex lives of public figures was trivial stuff. Anyway, old apartheid South Africa was just too 1950s-stuffy for such nonsense.

That may well still be so. A national radio phone-in this week found most listeners thought FW's and Bill's private lives should remain just that. Interestingly, FW's affair was well known, but was only written about when separation became likely.

On a continent where media discussion of politicians' policies can be dangerous, journalistic forays into their private lives are rare. Two years ago three Zimbabwean journalists were convicted of "criminal defamation" for reporting - incorrectly - that President Robert Mugabe had secretly married his young secretary, Grace. Mr Mugabe claimed the story harmed his reputation since his first wife had died only four years earlier. He married in lavish style six months after the press reports. There was a more obvious reason for his fierce protection of his privacy; he and Grace already had two children, the eldest of whom clearly arrived before Sally departed.

Israel

By Patrick Cockburn

The election of Benjamin Netanyahu as the Israeli prime minister is a sign that even the most lurid sex scandal will not sink an Israeli politician. In 1993, he amazed Israelis by appearing on television to admit adultery and to say he was being blackmailed by political opponents who had a video of him with his girlfriend. It worked, though ever since he has been in thrall to Sarah, his third wife.

Israeli politicians are protected from allegations of sexual misconduct by the depth of divisions on religious, ethnic and national questions. David Ben Gurion as prime minister once wrote to an officer whose wife was having an affair with Moshe Dayan, the army commander, saying some sacrifices had to be made for the good of country.

Divorces have not damaged the careers of any of the present Israeli cabinet. Many male politicians have a military background, a macho sense of their own identity and many girlfriends. Voters do not seem to object.

Germany

By Imre Karacs

A "leading German politician" was spotted last week sitting at the back of the government plane, holding hands with a female journalist. Readers of Bild Zeitung titillated by this revelation received no further details, either from the nation's most scurrilous newspaper or any other source.

With the exception of Helmut Kohl, who has been linked to only one "close confidante" during his long career, serial adulterers stalk the corridors of power in Bonn anonymously. The domestic press catches up with their peccadillos when the love children are born and the divorce is officially announced.

That is how Theo Waigel, the finance minister from staunchly Catholic Bavaria, got into the "yellow press". But no paper will dwell on such a story for long, and no editor will authorise any serious digging. The bedrooms of Germany's men on top are sacrosanct. The readers, in any case, prefer juicy Anglo-Saxon sleaze to the duller home-grown variety.

Greece

By Andrew Gumbel

In Greece, sex and duplicity in politics have to be on a gargantuan scale to attract public attention. Even then, they are likely to do just as much good as harm. This is a country whose most prominent post-war leader, Andreas Papandreou, positively encouraged the press to publish details of the seven flats around Athens that he supposedly kept for his mistresses - one of them a minister in his cabinet.

When Mr Papandreou became embroiled in a banking scandal in the late 1980s, he adroitly distracted attention from the criminal charges against him by dumping his wife vastand taking up with an Olympic Airways stewardess, the notorious Mimi.

Mimi's breasts were plastered over every tabloid in the country, a fact that did not stop her from becoming the head of Mr Papandreou's private office when he was triumphantly re-elected in 1993.

If Mr Clinton really wanted to impress the Greeks, he would have to dump Hillary, marry Monica Lewinsky, get her to pose naked for Playboy, appoint her White House chief of staff, disinherit Chelsea in her favour, and build her a vast mansion in Virginia with money borrowed from his cabinet colleagues and a collection of shady overseas financiers.

Spain

By Elizabeth Nash

In Spain the idea that a politician might be ruined by sexual scandal is virtually inconceivable. "I don't think Spaniards worry too much about what you do from the waist down," observed a senior Madrid newspaper editor yesterday. "We take it for granted that our politicians lie."

The rule is to keep your personal and professional life tidily separate, and your private life is considered nobody else's business. Whispers of extra-marital liaisons enhance, rather than diminish, the reputation of a man in public life, and homosexual relations are tolerated. In Spain, elegance and discretion are more highly rated than honesty. Anyone clumsy enough to humiliate a spouse and children is regarded as a gillipollas (a plonker) but not a criminal. And no one ever resigns.

France

By John Lichfield

"Such a scandal is utterly unthinkable in France and we should rejoice in the fact." This has been the tone of much French commentary on the Monica affair. It has not, however, prevented the French press from revelling in the detail of Bill Clinton's alleged transgressions.

It is true that the sexual lives of French politicians, or any public figures, are not much written about in France. This is partly for legal reasons - the tough French privacy laws - and partly because there is a convention that France is more adult about these things than other nations, especially the "puritan Anglo-Saxons". When Paris Match revealed, at the end of his life, that President Mitterrand had an illegitimate daughter, Mazerine, it was regarded as the height of bad form. The truth is that the French love a good sex scandal as much as any other people, but they have to make do with the sex lives of foreigners, from the Princesses of Monaco to the Presidents of the United States.

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