American Times Connecticut Avenue, Washington: A city that proves power is the ultimate aphrodisiac

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THEY HAVE been there for weeks, this group of sad, distracted looking young men and women who sit on the pavement, just staring into the middle distance. They wait for people to come out of the smart office blocks, hoping that they will get just a little something to keep them going for another day.

They are not down and outs, though, unless you define the upstanding members of the Washington press corps as mendicants (and many would). We are talking about street people Washington style: the camera crews and reporters who wait outside the offices of Monica Lewinsky's lawyers, staking out the main entrance and car park around the corner. This is only one of several encampments dotted around the city: there is another one at the federal court where the Lewinsky grand jury sits that forms an impressive tangle of cables and camera positions.

These odd locations become fixed in the memory of Washington residents, informally recognised landmarks. The camera crews seem unaware, but just across the street from them is a reminder of older adulteries. The Mayflower hotel is one of Washington's most comfortable and discreet, which is perhaps why Lyndon B Johnson and John F Kennedy both chose it for liaisons with their mistresses. Then there is the Capitol Hill town house where Gary Hart met Donna Rice; the room in the Vista Hotel where Mayor Marion Barry smoked crack with a young female friend; and the Jefferson Hotel, where Clinton adviser Dick Morris indulged in foot-licking with a call girl called Sherry Rowlands. (She is alleged to be writing a book called "If you think you know Morris, you don't know Dick".)

These places are of great interest to tourists, for whom they provide welcome relief from the endless trail of monuments. Maxine Atwater of Special Interest Tours takes visitors around the steamier landmarks of Washington, though she prefers the older scandals because the participants can't answer back, she says. She shows people the Tidal Basin where Wilbur Mills, then the august chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, frolicked with a stripper called Fanne Foxe on the steps of the Capitol, where former Congressman John Jenrette had what she politely calls "a romantic interlude" with his wife. At least it was his wife. But they are of even greater interest to the residents of this great city. It sometimes helps if you think of America as a polytheistic society, worshipping four great gods: power, money, celebrity and sex. These sites, often combining all four, are like roadside shrines to the secular idols. Above all, they help to convince Washingtonians that they live in a sexy city, a place where passion stalks the corridors of power.

The Kennedys brought a whiff of sex to Washington, but most of the White House incumbents have been less than erotically charged.

Jimmy Carter did once confess to "adultery in my heart", but apparently, that is where he kept it. Ronald Reagan and his wife were inseparable. And when Bill goes, the most likely incumbent in the White House is Vice- President Al Gore, a man who looks as if he is more likely to spontaneously combust than to have an extra-marital affair.

Monica Lewinsky has already generated a number of significant locations, shrines to the intersection of sex and power. Continue up Connecticut Avenue, cross over Dupont Circle and you will find Kramer Books, a funky little bookshop with a bar and restaurant attached. It was briefly dragged into the Monica maelstrom, when it emerged that she had bought some presents there for the President.

The authorities went to the absurd lengths of trying to subpoena the sales records for these purchases. One of the books is thought to have been Nicholson Baker's phone sex book, Vox. According to the much-cited tapes recorded by Linda Tripp, Ms Lewinsky and the President of the United States had steamy telephone sessions, perhaps inspired by Mr Baker.

There are a number of bizarre and inexplicable aspects of the relationship between these two, and the more we hear about the Tripp tapes, the stranger it seems. According to US News and World Report magazine, "Tripp and Lewinsky discuss an incident in which Lewinsky thought the President was becoming sexually aroused when Lewinsky told him about her Defense Department trip to Bosnia in July 1996."

There is no accounting for taste, especially in Washington.