Evasive he may have been, but he beat the Inquisition

It's almost yumorous. It'd a have to be an exhibitionist not to include everyone at those moments

"BROADCAST MAY be explicit", ran the legend at the bottom of the screen. Excellent, we thought, and about time too.

After 90 minutes of President Clinton's videotaped testimony in the Map Room of the White House on 17 August this year, 90 minutes of fencing and feinting about subpoenas and affidavits and "subornation of perjury", we were wondering if we'd ever get to the main event. Goodness, it was an ordeal.

Not the ordeal of watching the US President squirming on the harpoon of truth. The ordeal of listening to the relentless drone of the lawyers as they tried to trap him into admissions of perjury.

How could he have said this to the grand jury, when that was the case? But the things they fixed on so triumphantly were so small, so nugatory - about ties, love notes, sex manners - you were amazed they bothered. Some questions were so fatuous, they became surreal. "Is it true you never allowed Ms Currie [his secretary] to watch any activity between you and Ms Lewinsky?" Clinton was asked at one point. "You specifically tried to exclude her?" Clinton managed a cheerful grin. "It's almost yumorous," he said. "I'd have to be an exhibitionist not to exclude everyone at those moments."

He was a President under pressure, his face taut, his eyes flickering, his brow furrowed as he chased a way out of the ethical minefield. A shiny orb near his hairline suggested an outbreak of sweat, with secondaries on his pouchy cheeks. But he kept his presidential cool, even when sick and tired of saying: "I revert to mah former testimony," again and again, or being asked about Kathleen Willey's groin. In black suit, white shirt, olive tie and hair just so, he was an immaculately turned-out Sidney Carton in the tumbrils of the legalistic sans-culottes. The only sign of "inappropriate" body language was a recurrent mannerism of putting both index fingers together on his lips, as if saying "shush" twice - trying to keep a secret and trying to silence this gadfly nagging.

Of the angry, emotional, spittle-flecked madman as advertised, there was no sign.

Remarkably he came across most sympathetically when talking about Monica Lewinsky. She was "a good girl ... a good person with a good mind". He deplored the way she had been manipulated by Linda Tripp. He was still glad he'd given her presents. She had, he said with a smile, "a way of getting information out of people, whether by charm or determination".

Then suddenly, we were in X-rated territory. "If Ms Lewinsky said that, while you were in the Oval Office you touched her breast, would you say she was lying?" Whew. Clinton's gaze got defensive. He refused to answer. There's no legal excuse for your not answering, they said. I stand by what I said about sexual relations, he said. The questions moved on, like a seducer's hand up a thigh. "If she said you inserted ..." - and, amazingly, the soundtrack abruptly faded. On to the screen, in a sudden silence, came the words "strong language muted".

Oh come on. Just as they'd got to the cigar episode, the Sky censors clamped down. Thank God for CNN.

What did we learn? Clinton apparently really really does believes a person performing oral sex is having sex, but the person receiving is not. More significantly, he believes that "telling the truth" means finding a legal approximation of certain facts that will keep you temporarily out of the hands of your tormentors. It was a reminder that Clinton was once a professor of law and can swim with the sharks when necessary. But in this bizarre and itchy confrontation, he beat the sharks hollow in the sympathy stakes. He was evasive, periphrastic and pedantic, sure, but you felt that in his shoes, you'd be the same, against this smug platoon of Torquemadan voyeurs.

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