THE HEADLINES in America and across the world have been dominated this year by the most highly publicised case of adultery in history, writes Andrew Marshall.

Bill Clinton's liaisons with Monica Lewinsky, which formed the core of the impeachment case against him, have been set out in such minute detail that there can be few who do not know the whole sorry tale.

Yet one woman - a very influential woman, it should be said - decided months ago what she thought of the matter: not very much. "I have concluded this is a very popular president," Eppie Lederer told the New York Times back in April. Americans were saying that "it's not our business and we don't care", she said, and it seems that she was right.

Eppie Lederer is rather better known, to put it mildly, as Ann Landers, the grande dame of advice columnists. It seems like lese-majeste to call her an agony aunt. She turned 80 in 1998, and has been dispensing advice for more than 40 years in a column that is syndicated to 1,200 newspapers worldwide. This is where you can find out what Americans really think about morality, sex, marriage, love or life in general.

The questions she receives, and the answers she dispenses, are a precise and accurate measure of America. The only columnist who comes close is Abigail Van Buren ("Dear Abby"), who is Eppie's twin sister in real life. Her entry into the same business caused a rift which lasted several years, though they have since made up.

But Ms Landers, who took over the nom de plume from her predecessor, is pre-eminent. She lives in Chicago, where she receives 2,000 letters a day, every day, so she has heard roughly 30 million messages of grief, anger, joy and plain puzzlement in her time.

She has changed her views over that time, like America itself. She was opposed to divorce until both she and her daughter went through one. She no longer regards homosexuality as a psychiatric disorder (a common, indeed, official view in America until the 1970s).

She is generally tolerant, flexible and generous, her views (and those of her readers) belying the image of America as a nation of puritans. She is anti-gun, pro-choice, and believes that since teenage sex is pretty much inevitable in modern America, parents should teach their children how to deal with it rather than ignore it.

Anonymous Mom from Springfield, Massachusetts wrote to her last week, saying: "My face turned red, and I could feel the heat when I read that letter from `Bob in Worcester, Mass.' He spoke of a `mind-blowing, wall- banging, sheet-grabbing, screaming-out-loud orgasm'. Don't you realise millions of kids read your column every day?"

Her reply was typically straightforward. "I am well aware that many pre- teenagers read my column and agree that some of the material is definitely not appropriate for nine-year-olds, but I am not writing for nine-year- olds. Newspapers print stories about murders, rapes, sodomy, incest, brutality, sadism, cults and so on, and children may be reading those stories as well."

The column went on to a lengthy discussion of the virtues of faking an orgasm.