WHAT THE PAPERS SAID

WILLIAM HARTSTON REVIEWS THE WEEK'S PRESS

WITH Saddam Hussein's bellicose rumblings on one side and Kenneth Starr summoning semen-stained dresses out of the closet on the other, the President of the United States has had an irritating week. Will he bomb Baghdad? Or will the Spermfinder General catch up with him first?

The London Evening Standard has been having the most fun at the alleged goings-on in the White House. On Tuesday Brian Sewell came down firmly in support of the President: "In many men's minds fellatio does not count as penetration, but only as heavy petting in which they play a passive role and for which they are not responsible, so that Clinton's adventures with Lewinsky could not, in his eyes, be seen as an affair, or even as sexual relations. If this be the case, then his declaration `I have never had sexual relations with that woman' has the ring of truth as well as casuistry." In other words, they were not relations, just good friends, or kissing cousins at most.

The Evening Standard critic was at his most deliciously scathing, however, on the topic of Ms Lewinsky's name: "Monica is not a name to be taken seriously. Any mother wishing her daughter to be an academic, a professor of cultural history, a barrister or even a priestess in the Church of England should avoid it, for it carries the sub-text of empty-headed giggling, black nail-varnish, a visible panty-line under too tight a leather mini- skirt, of lasciviousness, of waitresses and shop-girls ambitious to share a rich man's bed, and of a substantial body that will be yet more ample as it runs to seed in middle age."

The following day, Alison Pearson, also in the Standard, got to the nub of the problem by interviewing the dress that the White House intern was wearing during her alleged encounter with the President. "Monica has said she will never wash you again. How do you feel about that?" Pearson asked. The dress was horrified: "I believe the impulse towards keeping souvenirs ... has to be balanced with a proper appreciation of the yuckiness quotient therein. My lawyers are looking into a personal hygiene suit."

But what did the First Fellatrix say to the Grand Jury? After leading up to the event all week, the papers found themselves in the position of reviewers who have been relentlessly plugging a show but then find themselves without seats for the opening night. All they could do was guess, or wait to ask people coming out of the show.

The Express on Monday devoted two pages to telling Clinton to: "Own up on TV Mr President" and asked "Why does Hillary stand by Bill?" In mid- week, the plot thickened as "Tests on dress have trapped Clinton", but on Friday the story headlined "Clinton cornered as Monica tells all" revealed only the questions she was asked, not the answers she gave.

The Daily Mail also advised: "Tell us the truth, Bill" at the start of the week, and built up to a profile on Friday of the "Intern who turned - Monica, the woman still looking for a father figure". It was a typical American tale of the dumpy daughter of rich parents "who could only make the chorus in school plays and was academically destined to be average" but who nevertheless proved that any girl with enough ambition, money and good contacts can shag the President if she really puts her mind to it.

The broadsheets were equally fascinated by the President's taste in interns with poor dry-cleaning records. Monica Lewinsky was "emotionally fragile" in the Times, "grim-faced" in the Guardian, "pale and solemn" in the Independent and "anxious" in the Telegraph.

The Independent, reporting that Lewinsky had told of "a certain kind" of sexual relationship, addressed the real issue in a way that seems to undermine even Brian Sewell's vigorous defence of the President. "For the purposes of [the Paula Jones sexual harassment] investigation, `sexual relations' were carefully defined, leaving Mr Clinton no room to plead that `oral sex' or even `genital touching' were not included in the term. If what happened between Ms Lewinsky and the President encompassed any of the activity so defined, Mr Clinton has committed perjury."

Meanwhile, on the eastern front, the Independent saw a week of constant escalation. On Monday it was "Iraq fears Butler will keep sanctions". On Tuesday we saw: "Iraq on collision course with UN" and Wednesday's headline was: "New UN-Iraq arms crisis `inevitable'".

The other papers waited until mid-week to catch up with Saddam. On Wednesday, the Guardian reported "Saddam back to the brink" and gave an instant history of Iraq-US relations from the Gulf War to the present day. The Times concluded that: "It seems at times that Saddam Hussein hopes sheer fatigue will be his ultimate weapon of mass destruction" but depressingly added: "There is disturbing evidence that he is succeeding." The Telegraph, belligerent as ever, concentrated on looking forward to possible conflict with a table of the military balance in the Gulf showing that the US forces are "Capable of powerful strike". The results of the past few months of diplomacy, however, were aptly described in the Sun: "We're Iraq to Square One".

Despite all the Clinton-related news, it was another stud that distracted attention mid-week. The royal stud. The stud in Zara Phillips' tongue. The "pounds 35 `Scary' stud" as the Telegraph called it. The Sun had broken the story in a "Royal Zara Has Stud In Her Tongue" front page exclusive on Monday, and the other papers all rushed to catch up the following day with pieces on the art, pain, history and potential medical problems of body piercing.

The Telegraph even attempted a Ted Hughes parody called "Iron Tongue" as one of its leaders. Only two lines near the end were worth the effort: "It'th frankly jolly unthightly and maketh it hard to thpeak". And none of the papers gave credit to the News of the World which had told us that it was going to happen as long ago as 5 July with a story beginning: "Posh school pals of Princess Anne's daughter Zara are trying to persuade her to have her tongue pierced." Let's hope she never meets Clinton, or the FBI will have that stud forensically examined before you can say "dry- cleaning".

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