America's best-ever soap

No one really cares what the truth about Clinton's love life is any more, writes John Carlin - but the nightly show is topping the TV ratings
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The Independent Online
A COMMERCIAL during last weekend's television interview with the woman who said she was groped by Bill Clinton featured a plug for a movie based on Bill Clinton and his predilection for groping women.

It was a magical American moment, an unintended summation of a phenomenon that defines contemporary times: the blurring of the lines between fiction and reality. The trend may have been apparent for some time, but now it is official. Hollywood and Washington have merged to create one seamless web, from coast to coast, of non-stop national entertainment.

John Travolta IS Bill Clinton. Emma Thompson IS Hillary Clinton. The president's young mistress in Wag the Dog IS Monica Lewinsky. Wag the Dog's fictional mistress sports a jaunty black beret in the film, as does the real life Ms Lewinsky when she embraces the real-life president in a piece of TV news footage that has spanned the satellite-tented globe.

The problem for the makers of Primary Colors, which opened in the US on Friday, is that it is not competing against Titanic or Good Will Hunting or As Good as it Gets. It is competing against its own sequel, which has already come out, weeks ago, and is showing nightly, in ever more intriguing soap opera instalments, on American TV.

Let us pick up the plot where we left it last weekend. Until then Kathleen Willey had featured only in a supporting role. She was the woman who, one of Washington's 97,568 sources said, had claimed to have been molested by Mr Clinton in a room adjoining the Oval Office. No one paid much attention at first. Far more interesting to focus on the vampish Monica. With bated breath we waited day after day for the denouement when she would finally come clean and tell us: was it really true that, at the tender age of 21, she had gone down on her knees to please the President? That she had engaged in dirty talk with him on the phone? That (cover your ears, Martha) she had in her possession a dress stained with "the Big Creep's" seed?

But the Monica character turned out to be a tease; her bow-tied lawyer William Ginsburg, endearingly avuncular when he first appeared on stage, had become a frightful bore. His lines had grown tired, the over-exposure acute. Ratings were beginning to fall.

Then La Willey exploded back on the scene. A gravely bespectacled interviewer on CBS' Sixty Minutes, playing a psychoanalyst nudging a coy patient to reveal her most intimate secrets, gently squeezed out of her the details of her seamy encounter with President Clinton. When he placed her hand on his genitals, did she find him to be, how shall we say, aroused? (Pause. Deep breath.) Yes. When he put his hand on her breast could it have been merely an innocent, accidental brush? No. It was a hit. A palpable hit.

The show was a smash. More than 18 million American households tuned in, making it the week's top-rated programme by far. Seinfeld, ER, NYPD Blue didn't come close. A news and current affairs programme had crushed the light entertainment brigade - because now the best light entertainment was news and current affairs.

As the week unfolded the "Secondary Colors" plot assumed some bewildering twists and turns, exposing along the way depths of iniquity, dissimulation and betrayal that would have brought a blush to Richard Nixon's (or should that be Anthony Hopkins's?) cheeks.

Ms Willey's "best friend", Julie Steele, had followed the example of Linda Tripp, the harridan who had starred in an earlier episode, in committing the vilest act of sisterly treachery. Julie said that Ms Willey had lied, that she had faked the whole thing. Then along came Bob Bennet, the President's Perry Mason, to say he had proof that Ms Willey had tried to sell her story to a book publisher for $300,000 (pounds 180,000).

In the blink of an eye the virtuous Ms Willey, the shamefully abused but oh-so-dignified society matron, had been reduced to a shameless gold- digging hussy. But wait. There was more. Maybe the first impression of Willey had been right. For suddenly it turned out that Julie, far from being the honourable defender of democracy, the presidency and the American way, had sold a photograph Willey had given her as a gift of herself and the President to the National Enquirer, a smut-raking weekly tabloid, for $7,000. How could anyone trust such a rapacious bitch?

The nation was torn down the middle. Families descended into civil war. Women's groups, admirers of the president's feminist-friendly rhetoric, were paralysed with indecision. Who to believe? Willey or the president, who insisted till he was beet-red in the face that the attentions he had imposed on the fetching White House volunteer amounted to no more than a hug and a brotherly kiss on the forehead?

"Yes, but look, it's on the record: Clinton had earlier denied having had a private meeting at all with Willey. And what about all the other women? Are you saying that all of them, none of whom knew each other, happened to have made all those stories up?"

"Well, they could, they could. If you look closely they're all tramps, all of them out for money and cheap fame."

Thus did the arguments rage in millions upon millions of American homes.

Meanwhile, the Willey plot thickened. If it were not real life, if that is what it was, no one would have believed it. We knew, yes, that her husband had committed suicide, by the grisliest of coincidences, on the very day that she had or had not been sexually harassed by the President. But now it turned out that there had been strains in the Willeys' marriage because of the terrible financial straits into which they had fallen.

In better days, one walk-on actor said, Ed Willey's most pressing matrimonial dilemma used to be whether to buy his wife a Mercedes or a Porsche. These people lived the Dallas dream. But Mr Willey was a crook. He was embezzling from clients, he owed money - half a million dollars at least - to the taxman. The bank was threatening to repossess their home in Richmond, Virginia, and their ski lodge in Vail, Colorado.

The couple, seemingly held together by money, were breaking apart without it. On 28 November 1993 Mr Willey stormed out of his house in a rage and went to spend the night with a friend. On 29 November Ms Willey, utterly distraught, went to the White House to beg the President for a job, unaware - or so she says - that what the President had in mind was very different. On 30 November Mr Willey's body was found off a country road, next to a blue Isuzu Trooper. He had shot himself in the head.

Ms Willey, unable to obtain from the President the satisfaction she craved, was ruined. She sold off her husband's possessions and moved out of the Richmond mansion to a small rented home. She found jobs where she could. At a bakery, a hair salon.

She tried to enlist the help of old family friends. One was Nathan Landow, a wealthy property developer and fund-raiser for the Democratic Party who the president knew. She says that Mr Landow responded by trying to persuade her to lie about the incident in the Oval Office. He says he did not. Close associates of Mr Landow's say he had an affair with the widow Willey. He denies it.

Who is lying? Who is telling the truth? We may never know. Meanwhile, tune in tomorrow. Same time. Any channel. Forever.