Wish they all could be Mississippi girls; The Diary

New Orleans

WE ARE still getting over the holidays here. The events of New Year's Eve did not bode well. They rarely do in , given the time-honoured tradition of firing one's pistol into the air at the stroke of midnight. Ordinarily, only residents get killed or wounded, but four years ago a Yankee tourist was watching the fireworks when a falling bullet struck her and killed her.

Tourism is basically the only business in town, so the city fathers suddenly got serious about preventing this particular method of celebrating. This year the local paper reported the triumphant news that 1998 had "the second- fewest number of falling bullets since 1994". I am desperate to know how they can possibly keep count, but it was all a bit beside the point. A barge carrying the fireworks blew up, killing two people and leaving a third critically injured.

Not that the week or so before had been so hot. First, as the world now knows, the President was impeached, an historic event that Clinton later told his friends wasn't really any big deal. The White House staged what was billed as a "pep rally" on the lawn. All the House Democrats were bused over from the Capitol, presumably to provide the pep. It's a wonder that they didn't all start shooting guns into the air.

Earlier that same day Louisiana's favourite son, the newly elected Speaker of the House, Bob Livingston, resigned, due to the fact that Larry Flynt was about to reveal in Hustler magazine that Livingston had had several extra-marital affairs. He doesn't seem too bothered either. Last Thursday, the day Livingston was to have been sworn in to an office that would have put him third in line to the presidency, he told a reporter that he was "very fortunate. I got my health and I got my family and I expect to make a goodly sum of change." That is certainly swell news for Bob, but meanwhile, as usual, Louisiana isn't faring so well. The former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke has already declared that he is running for Livingston's seat in order "to defend the rights of Christian Whites".

NATURALLY, the weather went as crazy as everything else. On Christmas Eve, a devastating ice storm hit the Mississippi Delta where my friend McGee and I were heading off to our respective childhood homes. When we left it was raining so hard a friend called to warn us against "y'all's usual rolling wine and cheese party" we stage to make the five- hour drive more bearable. After four hours we couldn't stand it, and McGee stopped off to buy a half pint of Courvoisier. It was a good thing, since immediately upon arrival in the Delta, the usual family resentments surfaced. "That is so typical of my mother," McGee said when we pulled up in front of her pitch dark house. "She didn't bother to leave a single light on for me." I pointed out there was indeed light in the house, but it was coming from candles - the storm had knocked out the electricity.

There were lights at my house, but the national air of cynicism had infected even the tiny tots. On Christmas morning my two-year-old niece hurled herself into my room at 6:45 to announce that Santa had arrived. When I said I was so happy he'd made it down the chimney she gave me a blank stare. So I proceeded to explain in an absurdly sing-songy voice all about how the reindeer fly Santa in his sleigh, and they land on the roof, and then Santa comes down with his big bag of toys. She looked at me again, not blankly, but as though I were an idiot: "That is so stupid."

TRENT LOTT, the majority leader of the Senate, and the man with the thankless task of guiding Clinton's impeachment trial, also spent the holidays in Mississippi. I have known Lott for twenty-five years and I can vouch that he has an almost pathological need for order.

Once, I interviewed him at his home, and in the space of a mere ten minutes he got up to brush a speck of dirt off a chair across the other side of the room from where he was sitting, he dropped to his knees to blot up a drop (literally) of spilt coffee from the rug, he went outside to chastise the lawn service for trimming the flower beds too far back from the grass, and he trimmed his own fingernails with a pair of clippers he pulled from his pocket. Finally, after he'd tried at great length to right a plant that was wobbling in its basket, his wife said: "Trent, leave the plant alone," and he said: "I can't."

On Tuesday I appeared on the CNBC political shout show Hardball and blew as hard as the rest of the panel. I would have been better off lifting the quotes that my own father, referred to as "the dean" of the Southern Republican party, gave to the New York Times and the Washington Post: "Chaos is not Trent's thing" and "Frankly, I'm confused my own self as to which way to raise hell". On Wednesday a television reporter called to ask me if it were possible that Lott could be on Larry Flynt's peccadilloes list. Certainly not, I said, that's way too messy. But, rejoined the reporter, he has such beautiful girls working in his office. All the girls in Mississippi are beautiful, I replied - "Ole Miss," otherwise the University of Mississippi and Lott's alma mater, claims to have provided the country with more Miss Americas than any other university.

I'm actually beginning to feel sorry for Lott. True to his neatnik instincts, he tried to short-circuit a drawn-out trial, but almost every Senator in his party jumped all over him. Now we may have to listen to Monica Lewinsky testify, and what's worse, to a ludicrous Clinton defence that the White House floated last week.

In arguing that he did not lie in his grand jury testimony - Monica says he touched her while he says he didn't - his lawyers may rely on intent. Okay, he may have touched her there, they will admit, but he didn't do it in order to arouse her or to get anything back, so it still doesn't fit the definition of sex.

Let me now beat the scriptwriters for Jay Leno and David Letterman to the punch in "quoting" Bill: "Hey, how was I to know? When I touched Hillary nothing happened." It may possibly work, but I reckon that at this point flying reindeer are infinitely more believable.

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