`Listen to me... I did not have sexual relations with her'

In a fighting statement from the White House, President Bill Clinton rejected all the allegations against him as false and said he did not have sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, the White House trainee, nor did he tell her to lie. As Mary Dejevsky reports, this was a high-risk gambit that places Mr Clinton's presidency on the line.

Bill Clinton appeared angry, tired, and almost desperate. He jabbed his finger repeatedly at the assembled reporters and spoke with deliberate slowness. "I want to say one thing to the American people," he announced hoarsely. "I want you to listen to me. I'm not going to say this again. I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie. Not a single time. Never. These allegations are false, and I need to go back to work for the American people."

Later in the day, however, reports emerged to cast doubt on Mr Clinton's denial. CBS news reported that Ms Lewinsky had visited the White House at least four times last month including evenings and weekends, after she had ceased to work there. The last recorded time was on 3 January when she was denied entry. CBS reported that she "threw a fit" and screamed "Don't you know who I am?".

Mr Clinton was travelling outside Washington at the time. Four days later Ms Lewinsky gave her sworn denial of an affair with the President. Her lawyer, William Ginsburg, said that he had "submitted to prosecutors a summary of what she is prepared to testify".

This opens the way for a possible retraction of her denial in return for immunity from prosecution for perjury.

In another apparent attempt to show the White House is in control, Mr Clinton's lawyers asked a federal judge to bring forward Paula Jones's sexual harassment hearing from the scheduled date of 27 May, saying that allegations that Mr Clinton had sex with a White House intern called for a "speedy resolution".

The unequivocal denial was what Mr Clinton's supporters had been waiting for. His legal advisers reportedly counselled silence until the extent of Ms Lewinsky's charges was known. But, by yesterday, silence had become politically untenable.

Yet the Clinton who appeared in the Roosevelt room at the White House yesterday morning was not the Clinton of old. It was not the Clinton of last Thursday, who denied the allegations to a television interviewer, looking worried, downcast and bereft of power. That was the much-criticised appearance he had to counter.

But neither was it the Clinton who plays to the camera in all naturalness, gladhands his supporters and looks straight into the eyes of the people he talks to. He appeared to be perspiring, he had bags under his eyes, his voice was throaty and at one point seemed to tremble.

A late night spent preparing his State of the Union address, the policy statement that opens the new year session of Congress, was the proffered explanation. This made the double point that he was tired, but not from worry, and that it was business as usual. But it did not fully convince. And, unusually, Mr Clinton declined to take questions.

The appearance had been set up with care. Mr Clinton was flanked by his wife, Hillary, and his vice-president, Al Gore, to present a picture of solidarity.

But Mr Clinton's performance also lacked the old magic in stemming doubt and affirming authority. Afterwards, pundits asked each other "Did you believe him?", and answered with sophistry about the possible distinction between "sexual relations" (which he denied) and a "sexual relationship" (which he did not mention). The same was asked on the streets, where answers were less sophisticated, but no more reassuring for the President.

While polls show far fewer people professing support for Ms Lewinsky than for Mr Clinton (before yesterday's statement), his rating is falling. Americans appear to be waiting to see what she will say, if and when she breaks her silence.