Clinton accused: Dirty crack brigade has a field day as Zippergate transfixes an entire nation

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For a while it had seemed as if Washington had slipped for eternity into tedious obscurity, with neither news nor relevance to interest the rest of the country. Now, as David Usborne observes, the whole nation - in restaurants, on talk-shows, on the Internet - can talk about nothing else. It's Watergate time again.

Never mind the Superbowl tomorrow. Don't think of starting a discussion about Ted Kaczyinski, who is to plead guilty to his string of mail-bombing charges. He goes by the name of the Unabomber. But that epithet has morphed in recent hours and is being applied instead to Bill Clinton: President Unabanger.

Credit for that goes to Jay Leno, the television host and comic. And there are more. This is "Zippergate" and the potential for ribaldry is almost endless. "Looks like President Busy-Pants has been at it again," offered Craig Killborn on Comedy Central Thursday night. Ear-wig on any conversation in the US today and the betting is the topic will be the President and Monica Lewinsky.In the past 24 hours this correspondent has listened in on others talking in an plane, on a train and in a restaurant. And everyone, it seems, assumes the charges are true.

The swirl is inescapable. Television networks that spent entire budgets sending famous news-anchors to Cuba for the Pope have had to haul them back to steward coverage of the crisis. And these are busy people. Most networks have been clearing even their primetime menus of comedies and sitcoms for news and analysis.

While pundits repeated that these are allegations, not facts, private conversations are far less restrained. The twists and turns of what may have happened, what may be wrong with the President's mind, what he may have done exactly with Ms Lewinsky are surreal in their scope. Especially tantalising: a report that Ms Lewinsky has spoken of having a "particular type of sex" with the President. What type could that be exactly? Was it oral sex, as the President is alleged to have suggested to Paula Jones? Is it possible his denial of having had an "improper relationship" is somehow premised on a belief on his part that oral sex is not real sex and therefore does not count as adultery?

And what about the latest nugget on the Drudge Report, an Internet website that helped propel the scandal into the public sphere and which specialises in completely unproven filth? This is that Ms Lewinsky is in possession of an item of clothing with Mr Clinton's semen on it. Where will this end?

One Leno monologue began: "So this is Day Two of Jailbait-gate for President, or, as they're calling him now, the Unabanger. After five years of investigating and $35m, Kenneth Starr has found the smoking gun, and it's apparently in President Clinton's pants." Only one thing is darkening the mood of the late-night script-writers: the prospect of a Gore presidency. Where would be the fun in that?