Clinton accused: 'You'd think the boy would learn' A conquest too far f or Clinton?

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Bill Clinton's presidency looked in grave peril last night. Secretly recorded tapes indicate that the allegations the President faces, of having an affair with a young woman and asking her to lie under oath about it, might be true.

The mood in Washington was sombre yesterday, the conventional wisdom being that Mr Clinton was trapped in a predicament so intractable that this time he would prove unable to pull off another of his Houdini-like escapes.

The dread word "impeachment" could be heard, whispered, in the corridors of Congress, by friend and foe alike. The atmosphere at a senior staff meeting in the White House yesterday morning was reported by one official present to be unusually subdued. Others described White House officials as "shell-shocked". Veteran political commentators said that the smell of death hung around the president, as it did around Richard Nixon when the Watergate scandal broke.

At a press conference yesterday morning before what might otherwise have been a newsworthy meeting with Yasser Arafat, Mr Clinton said: "The allegations are false. I would never ask anybody to do anything other than tell the truth." But, asked to describe the mood at the White House, he replied: "I'd be less than candid if I said it was, you know, just hunky dory."

Hunky dory would not, indeed, be the most appropriate term to characterise the weight of evidence that Kenneth Starr, the special prosecutor investigating the president, seems to be piling up. The telephone conversations secretly taped in the last six months of 1997 by Linda Tripp, a former White House secretary and close friend of Ms Lewinsky, are reported to contain vivid descriptions of an affair that turned sour. The tapes tell of sexual encounters in and out of the White House lasting more than a year after the first fling in November 1995, barely six months after Ms Lewinsky, who was 21 at the time, had completed a degree in psychology.

A remarkable sting operation on Tuesday last week, when Ms Tripp agreed with Mr Starr to wear a body wire to tape a meeting with Ms Lewinsky, reinforced allegations that the president and his close friend, Vernon Jordan, had leant on the clearly tortured young woman to lie about the affair in sworn testimony earlier this month.

Another indication of how grim things look for the president was a suggestion by Ms Lewinsky's lawyer, William Ginsburg, that Mr Starr might grant his client immunity in exchange for her co-operation. "Mr Starr's office could give her protection," Mr Ginsburg said, clearly meaning protection from a perjury charge.

Ms Lewinsky is scheduled to appear today before Paula Jones' lawyers, who are eager to establish a pattern of libidinous presidential behaviour to assist in Ms Jones' sexual harassment law suit against him. Sources close to Mr Ginsburg say she will refuse to answer questions, seeking refuge in the constitutional Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate herself.

According to press reports leaked yesterday of Mr Clinton's own interrogation at the hands of Ms Jones' lawyers last weekend, the president provided an indication of the pressure he is under when he confirmed, at long last, Gennifer Flowers' accusation six years ago that she had a long-running affair with him.

Mr Clinton is also reported to have confessed that he gave Ms Lewinsky some "innocent little trinkets" which might corroborate a claim she made on tape that he bought her a dress.

Still further corroboration was provided by White House officials who told the Associated Press that there were records of several visits by Ms. Lewinsky to the Oval Office after she had left her White House job for a position at the Pentagon.

In a measure of the trouble the president is in, friends and former close associates have been reluctant publicly to stand by his denials. George Stephanopoulos, his chief adviser at the White House for four years, said that if the allegations were true they "could lead to impeachment proceedings". Dee Dee Myers, former White House spokeswoman, said the consequences of the president having lied would be "astronomical".

David Gergen, briefly Mr Clinton's White House director of communications, said. "We are either facing the worst act of self-destruction by a president, or the worst smear of a president, in the 20th century."

Gennifer Flowers' appraisal was more simple and to the point. "You think the boy would learn," she said.