Clinton accused: Lewinsky's character under spotlight as ex-lover tells of sex `obsession'

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The character of Monica Lewinsky, the 24-year-old woman who could yet ruin a president, was put under the media spotlight yesterday. A former lover emerged to attack her credibility and her lawyer ran the gamut of the media to defend her. Mary Dejevsky reports on the latest twists in the drama that is gripping America.

Is Ms Lewinsky a young lady "obsessed with sex" who went to Washington with a "sexual agenda", perhaps even to seduce the President, or is she a normal young woman whose reputation is being grossly slurred to save the President? This is the question that emerged from 24 hours of charges and countercharges that began five minutes before Mr Clinton entered the Capitol for his State of the Union address.

Speaking from the lawn of his house in Portland, in the north-western state of Oregon, Ms Lewinsky's former school drama teacher, Richard Bleiler, said he had had a five-year affair with her that began when she was 19. He accused her of being "obsessed with sex" and habitually twisting facts, "especially if it can enhance her own self-image".

Mr Bleiler, who was accompanied by his wife and his lawyer, said he wanted to put his side of the story because his name had been printed in the tabloid New York Post and reporters had been descending on his house.

However, with every individual in the Clinton saga surrounded by lawyers and advisers "spinning" every detail to the advantage of their patron, the implications of Mr Bleiler's contribution were ambiguous. While some saw it as part of a gathering campaign to portray Ms Lewinsky as a promiscuous fantasist and so discredit any evidence she might give, others saw it as confirmation of at least some of the sex allegations.

According to Mr Bleiler, Ms Lewinsky boasted of a relationship with a senior, but unnamed, federal official and passed on trinkets and documents connected with the relationship (these are being passed to the investigation). There was mention, too, that she was impregnated and may have had an abortion before leaving the White House to work at the Pentagon.

Ms Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, came swiftly to his client's defence, stating that this affair with a married man, while "unwise", had been known about and was just part of her energetic youth.

He drew attention to the fact that Ms Lewinsky's career progression - from unpaid trainee to paid employee at the White House, to Pentagon employee with top security clearance, to job offers at the UN and Revlon headquarters - did not suggest that she was in any way unstable.

Ms Lewinsky herself remained hidden from view yesterday as her lawyer continued his efforts to obtain agreement from the special prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, that she should not be prosecuted if she changed her story. An earlier affidavit in which she denied having an affair with Mr Clinton exposes her to a charge of perjury if it subsequently turns out to be false.

Tape recordings made secretly by a fellow worker in whom Ms Lewinsky confided while in Washington have her speaking of a sexual relationship with Mr Clinton, and of gifts given and received.

The immediate question that the investigation into Mr Clinton has to answer is which is true: the sworn denial or the taped conversation.

If it is the second, and there is evidence to corroborate the tapes, Mr Clinton's days as president are probably numbered: he has denied on oath and on television that he had "sexual relations" with Ms Lewinsky.

If there is no corroborating evidence, it is his word against hers, even if she changes her story, and he could survive.

Mr Clinton's credibility, however, has already been damaged. The first opinion poll to be taken since his public denial of the affair on Monday is largely negative: of the more than 600 people canvassed, only 25 per cent thought he was telling the truth, and almost 50 per cent felt that his position was worse after the denial than before it.

A steady stream of presidential aides and former aides went to testify to the Clinton investigation yesterday - this is the wider inquiry that began with the Whitewater land deal in Arkansas and was broadened to include the Lewinsky affair.

They included Mr Clinton's personal secretary, Betty Currie, a former deputy chief of staff, Evelyn Lieberman, who was responsible for having Ms Lewinsky transferred from the White House, and Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff, who is believed to have angered the Clintons by saying at the weekend that if the allegations could not be disproved, Mr Clinton should resign.