William Hartson reviews The weeks press
YOU DO not often see the Daily Star and the Financial Times leading on the same story on their front page. On Wednesday it happened. "Clinton: No Lays No Lies" said the Star. "Hillary Clinton hits out against 'rightwing plot' " said the FT. For all the papers, the Hill 'n' Bill show was the only game in town. Most of them call it "Zippergate". The Mirror has dubbed it "Fornigate". The Daily Sport just talks about the affair in the "Oral Office".

As the Times on Tuesday headed one of many pieces on the story: "Clinton denial leaves nation short of facts". But never in the field of human concupiscence has so much been written by so many with so little to go on. And they all seem to be stuck with the same photograph of Monica Lewinsky - the one that looks as though she has come fresh from an affair with an orthodontist. To balance that there were pictures of Hillary Clinton - glaring, snarling, icily smiling, or even whispering in her husband's ear. It was difficult to judge from the President's expression whether he was gaining aural gratification from her attentions, but Hillary's television performance gained high plaudits.

"Cool First Lady launches stinging counter-attack" was Valerie Grove's piece in the Times. Her conclusion: "If there is a kernel of truth in this whole squalid saga, it is that marriage is for better, or worse; and the Clintons may yet overcome the worst, leaving Hillary in command and on top." Another piece in the same newspaper, however, produced a less rosy outlook for the Clinton marriage: "Mrs Clinton's determined defence of her husband comes as speculation grows that she might leave her husband and pursue her own political or legal career."

Sue Carroll in the Mirror, in a piece entitled: "It's not over till the First Lady Sings" came out against Hillary. "Make no bones about it, Hillary Clinton is the most powerful doormat in the world ... In standing by a man, who in the face of overwhelming evidence is a serial cheater, she is putting back the cause of womanhood by decades. I watched her polished, professional performance on television and I winced." The Mail just asked: "Is Hillary the real President of the US?"

And what of Bill? All the papers quoted his denial: "I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to this ... I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never." The Times describes the statement as "the words that will decide his fate", a denial that "permits of no subsequent qualification". But surely that misses the point. Does the President consider oral sex within his definition of "sexual relations" or is a blow job in an oval alcove a sort of sexual second cousin which hardly counts as a relation at all. And did he ever tell anyone to tell someone else to lie?

If anyone had cause to be grateful to President Clinton last week, it was Robin Cook. The saga of the Foreign Secretary's tacky romance would have dominated the front pages had it not been for the more momentous transatlantic tack. Did he sack a secretary to create a job vacancy for his mistress? Did he leave the Queen in a state of Utter Pradesh by flying back to his floozie? Worst of all, did the ginger-bearded swine keep Diana waiting? Oddly enough, both the items cited in Mr Cook's defence could have been turned into evidence for the prosecution. The Times, in a piece headed "The Queen backs Cook in tour row", reported that "Buckingham Palace denied reports that the Queen had felt 'abandoned' when the Foreign Secretary interrupted a royal tour of India in October to return home to see his mistress, Gaynor Regan." But she surely should have felt abandoned if Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs was performing his function properly. Equally when we read, in the Sun, "Crisis Cook fights Diana snub claim", together with a copy of Diana's own note which begins: "I so much appreciated you giving up your precious time this morning ..." is it possible to read those words "precious time" without a sneer of sarcasm?

The Mirror decided Cook was a better story than Clinton. On Tuesday "Robin Cook fired me for Gaynor" was emblazoned on the front page; on Wednesday page one was "War of the Secretaries", with "He kept Diana waiting for 20 minutes" on page five. The next day it was "Cook DID keep Diana waiting", though by now her waiting time had dropped to 15 minutes. Having secured an exclusive interview with Anne Bullen, the Mirror was determined to make the most of it, and she gave excellent value: "It's one thing to have a secretary who you later fall in love with but quite another thing to try to put your secretary, who is also your mistress, into someone else's job." The Mail, in "MI5 and the Cook job", reported that "Robin Cook dropped the idea of appointing Gaynor Regan as his diary secretary when MI5 discovered she was his mistress." The Mail had a thoughtful profile of Robin Cook, "this surprisingly shy, gauche and often socially awkward man" by John Torode, though his description rather jarred with the headline: "Fatal arrogance of the blundering gnome".

The curious thing about all this is that it must be perfectly normal in many businesses for top men to bring their secretaries with them when they change jobs. Only Robin Cook's crassness in handling the affair has blown it up into a drama. As Ann Treneman advised in the Independent: "You can stop digging now, Robin, the hole's big enough".

Despite Cook and Clinton's antics, the most tasteless headline came from another story. "Gin and Bear it, Ma'am" said the Sun. It explained that while she is on pain-killers, the Queen Mother will not be able to drink the crate of gin it has sent her.

Finally, the whist hand of the century. The Mirror, the Mail and the Guardian all published, without query, the same photograph of four elderly card-players holding up four hands of cards, each comprising a complete suit. The odds against such a deal are, they told us, 2,235,197,406,895,366,368, 301,599,999 to 1. There are about six billion people in the world. If they all played one hand of cards every five minutes, 12 hours a day, such a coincidence would happen about once every ten trillion years. On the other hand, there are a good few practical jokers around who would love to sneak a doctored pack of cards to four unsuspecting players to create the perfect whist hands when dealt. I know which possibility my money is on.