While bombs fell and storms raged, politics suddenly became personal: The Independent year

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AND WHAT will they say of us, these children of ours, when they write the history of what we did in 1998? Probably that this was the year that many of us lost the plot. Without the polarity of the Cold War and imminent extinction to concentrate our minds, we lounged like Babylonians on our couches, ate grapes and quails' eggs, and rowed furiously over adultery and money. And all the while the serpent's teeth of future disaster were being sown just outside.

In 1998, the personal really did became political. When that happens, human beings finally have a story that they can readily comprehend - without the necessity of having to think too hard. We are permitted to forget the bar-charts and the hard choices, and take sides for or against the fornicator. Who, in this instance, was the priapic president, William Jefferson Clinton - a man all testosterone and empathy, whose year turned into a biblical epic, as rendered by National Lampoon and made 1998 the age of war and fellatio.

As of 1 January no one had heard of Monica Lewinsky. Almost no one. By the year's end she had become the icon of the confessional age, a needy, insecure, questing young woman, given to telling all to those who she should least have trusted: what, how often, where and (most bizarre of all) on what. Among her personal Oprahs was the pantomime villainess, Linda Tripp, who was secretly recording the details for later use. These were the tapes that trapped Ms Lewinsky, and that also, therefore, caught Mr Clinton in Kenneth Starr's perjury trap. (There is a verbal symmetry here: Linda Tripp. Kenneth Starr. Paula Jones. Two syllables, one syllable - the metre of murderous triviality).

The story broke, not in a newspaper or on television, but on the Internet. Nevertheless, from the beginning it was the only show in town. Press conferences to hail Middle East peace accords were hijacked by intelligent journalists asking inane questions about genitals and Tony Blair blushed like a nun at a strip show, as his American friend was given the third degree. "I want you to listen to me," said President Clinton, "I'm going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." The DC game of waiting for the American public to turn on its president had begun.

Outside Washington others watched and wondered. In February, President Saddam Hussein of Iraq tested the distracted West to the limit, blocking the United Nations inspection of Iraqi weapons facilities and nearly triggering air strikes. At the last moment the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, persuaded President Saddam to back down. But how, the smart question went, could a president so enmired in scandal deal with the many problems of the world? It was a question that might easily have been changed a little: how could a journalistic and political establishment so narcissistic and trivia-obsessed cope with the near catastrophes of 1998?

In August, when Mr Clinton finally admitted to not going the whole way in the Oval Office (out of the closet, improbably, came the uncleaned dress and its cargo of presidential DNA), the Russian economy had already entered its epic decline. The world's second nuclear nation, its warheads rusting in unstable silos and its streets taken over by local mafiosi, was now convulsed by a political crisis, as the ailing President Boris Yeltsinsacked his government, and then could not find another (what a shame that his vice was vodka, not women with big hair).

In Washington they were sure that the people would soon demand the head of Bill. They did not. Not even in September when Kenneth Starr's report became possibly the weirdest and most ridiculous semi-legal document published in the West since we stopped trying animals for witchcraft. (And when ethnic Albanians were dying in Kosovo.) Not in October when the Congress released Mr Clinton's videotaped evidence and we witnessed a president being asked about his orgasms and Monica's breasts. (And when new riots convulsed Indonesia, as the Far East struggled to limit the scope of its slump.) Hurricane Mitch offered a brief, dramatic diversion from the serious question of what Bill did with that cigar.

It was symbolic of the year that, even as the bombers took off to pound Iraq, the Speaker designate of the House of Representatives, Bob Livingston, was resigning his seat in Congress because an advertisement from a porn king had brought to light a series of adulterous affairs of the judgmental Republican. One moment Mr Livingston had been considered a fit man to hold high office, and then "bimbo!" all of a sudden he was not, on account of his member.

Members played some limited part in the political life of Britain too. Or maybe they did not. After the obscure escapade on a midnight common by Ron Davies, then the Secretary of State for Wales, the British media press played Penny for the Gay. Briefly. The outing of Agriculture minister Nick Brown and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Mandelson, led to a short episode of tabloid homophobia and The Sun's headline "Are we being run by a gay mafia?" But the British taste for this kind of thing was, mercifully, fairly limited. The Sun backed down.

Here in Britain we had important things to do. Once, of course, we got over our fascination with Viagra. The new wonder-drug's reception here seemed to suggest that the reverse was true in these chilly isles. Regrettably, it seemed, our tails were not wagging the dog. There was more discussion of whether Viagra should be prescribed by the National Health Service than over all other health rationing issues put together.

Trivia did not triumph. The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland came about partly because Tony Blair felt "the heavy hand of history" on his shoulders, and persuaded waverers that it was on theirs, too. We moved, stumbling and occasionally cursing, into the painstaking business of setting up a new administration for Northern Ireland, the Omagh bombing serving to remind everyone, paradoxically, just why the peace was so important. The year ended with the first terrorist guns being handed in and destroyed.

The new Government remained popular and - on the whole - deserved to. The spending review of the Chancellor Gordon Brown cut no taxes, but put additional resources into the electorate's priorities of education and health. David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, continued his campaign to provide for all children what middle-class parents always secure for their own. The Queen's Speech promised the long overdue abolition of the powers of the hereditary peerage, and Lord Jenkins of Hillhead reported on his preferred method of electoral reform.

But if the Government's main objectives appeared to be right, some of its instincts seemed suspect. There was the charge of "control freakery" concerning the apparent desire of New Labour to retain central power over its own people in the newly devolved centres of power - particularly in Wales and London. The lobbyist scandal, Drapergate, with its suggestions of an ethically challenged New Labour periphery, set the scene for accusations about cronyism. This may well have contributed to the downfall of Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, when, right at the year's end, his third of a million personal home loan from Geoffrey Robinson MP was revealed.

For liberals, the low point of New Labour in office was the unthinking populism, which informed the treatment dished out to the author Gitta Sereny in April. This came after The Observer newspaper revealed that Sereny had paid Mary Bell - convicted of murder when a child - for helping with the book Cries Unheard. The highlight was the detention of the unrepentant former dictator of Chile, Augusto Pinochet, despite the deluge of misinformation put out by his apologists in Britain.

As far as Britain is concerned, however, 1998 may also be written up by our successors as the year of one big lost opportunity. Because this was the year when, politics apart, we really should have voted to join the euro. For once we could have been in there from the start; and it begins next week, you know. Or did you turn over from the news to watch Jerry Springer's chat show instead?

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