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A cool breeze blowing Bill's way

With his would-be Nemesis waiting to see him in court, Bill Clinton ought to look worried. Instead he has been talking rock'n'roll - and watching his ratings rise. By Mary Dejevsky
He plays the saxophone to professional jazz band standard, he runs the most powerful country in the world, and he may or may not have what Americans coyly term a "zipper problem" personified by a bubbly-haired brunette called Paula Corbin Jones. But the usually straitlaced American public loves him anyway.

On Tuesday night, Bill Clinton, President of the United States, showed yet again how he can break a whole book of American rules and still emerge a political winner. He had agreed to set aside an hour of his presidential time to take part in a programme about the history of rock'n'roll, on a music cable television channel, VH1. Relaxed, charming, and naively immodest, Clinton told viewers of the special affinity he felt as a teenager with Elvis Presley, "because he was from Mississippi, he was a poor white kid, he sang with a lot of soul, he was sort of my roots".

The only difference between himself and many other young Americans was that his mother, Virginia, who brought Bill up single-handed in the small town of Hope, Arkansas, actually approved of his taste for rock'n'roll. "My mother thought it was wonderful," he said. "She loved Elvis from the day she saw him. She thought rock'n'roll was great for kids. So music was always encouraged in our home."

Clinton took up the saxophone when he was nine, preferring it to the clarinet he started with. While still at school he played in clubs, and reached the point of considering a move to Paris to study classical jazz and pursue a professional career in music.

At the ripe old age of 16, though, he took a decision that determined the course of his next 30 years. It was the hours. "I didn't want to have to just do clubs and stay up all night and sleep all day." So he decided to become President of the United States instead.

"I thought I could be really good at it," Clinton said without the slightest hint of boastfulness. "I don't know how I knew it then, but I was right. And I'm glad I did it. I never stopped loving music, but I just knew I couldn't - that I wouldn't be a musician."

Now, clearly enjoying himself, he thinks he has the best of both worlds. He is the proud owner of an old C-melody saxophone that belonged to his father, and a vintage 82-year-old saxophone. "One of the nice things about being President," he said in an almost wondering tone, "is nearly anybody will come perform for you. So I've gotten to be friends with people that I've loved for 20 or 30 years - James Taylor, Carly Simon, Barbra Streisand, Aretha Franklin, countless others ..."

The disarmingly honest, chatty, but informed discourse illustrated the most attractive side of Bill Clinton, the side that is uppermost when he receives visitors at the White House, pounds the campaign trail, and sympathises with victims of natural disasters or tragic human mistakes.

Then there is the other side, the side that is widely believed to have been exposed in Joe Klein's barely fictional account of the 1992 presidential campaign, Primary Colors: the louche, swearing, short-tempered, junkfood- guzzling, womanising procrastinator.

This is the side that the Paula Jones saga, if true, would appear to confirm. She says that Clinton, while governor of Arkansas six years ago, had one of his security detail bring her up to his hotel room, where he made unwanted advances and, when these were rebuffed, exposed himself and demanded oral sex.

An apology has never been forthcoming. Rather, Mr Clinton has denied all recollection - a highly cautious and legalistic denial, if you think about it - of the events she alleges.

Then last week, after a long-drawn-out plea that her allegations should be tested in court, Ms Jones's luck turned. The highest court in the US decided that the President had no grounds for delaying a case against him, even if he was President. His lawyer had asked for a postponement until the end of his term, on the grounds that a President had far more important things to do - including, some had sneered, making programmes about rock'n'roll.

When it appeared last week that no barrier remained between Mr Clinton and a potentially embarrassing, if not politically fatal, sexual harassment case in court, Ms Jones, whose graphic account of her ordeal included a threat to prove her case by describing "distinguishing characteristics" of the President's private parts, seemed to have the upper hand. Yet so far - in the political, if not the legal arena - that is not so.

An opinion poll conducted for the newspaper USA Today this week showed that Mr Clinton's popularity rating has not budged one iota. It has even risen slightly compared with April (from 54 to 57 per cent). This was not, however, because a majority of those asked disbelieved Paula Jones's allegations. A full 72 per cent of those asked - more than 20 per cent up on two years ago - believe that "some incident between Clinton and Jones probably did occur while he was governor of Arkansas".

The question that many people, including in the United States, are asking - almost amazed that they have to ask it at all - is: how has Clinton managed this seemingly impossible feat? The obvious reason is that Clinton, while never entirely candid about his sexual dalliances, has never sought to conceal that he might not have been entirely faithful to Hillary. Their joint television appearance during the 1992 election campaign, in which they spoke of difficulties in their marriage, absolved Clinton of the one political crime that could have proved politically fatal: hypocrisy.

More to the point, perhaps, there is a widespread, though largely unspoken and perhaps quite unjustified feeling that Paula Jones is not entirely innocent. Hers is not a cause to which the hyperactive American feminist movement has rallied.

People will give the following reasons, strictly not for attribution, for her image problem. All the photographs and television sequences of her show a curvaceous, mini-skirted and highly made-up young woman, for whom flirtatiousness was a way of life. Why, it has been asked, did she agree to meet Clinton in a hotel room in mid-afternoon, when she must have known his reputation? (She says, in an argument entirely logical for an attractive, provincial working girl, that she thought he might offer her a job, or a promotion - she was a junior civil servant employed by the state of Arkansas which made Clinton, ultimately, her boss.)

The orthodox feminist line would be that how someone dresses and behaves should never be considered an excuse for the accusation "she asked for it", but that view exists in relation to Ms Jones. It should also be said that feminists in America have tended to protect their own - that is, middle-class, professional women.

Paula Jones's reputation was damned less by what she may or may not have done in a hotel room with Governor Clinton than by the early characterisation of her by increasingly desperate Clinton camp lawyers as "trailer park trash" - ie, an easy girl from the wrong side of the tracks.

There is the further problem of near-nude pictures taken by an ex-boyfriend that she posed for and appeared in Playboy. If she was such a nice girl, people say, then what was she doing posing for pictures? Lawyers differ on whether someone's character and behaviour at other times should be taken into account in a sexual harassment case. Those arguments are being slugged out now in the columns of the US press, following a threat by Clinton's lawyer to go rather deeper into Ms Jones's personal history than her lawyers think proper.

But there is also the legitimate question of whether sexual harassment is the way to characterise what may have happened in the hotel room. By her own account, Ms Jones was there of her own volition, she rebuffed his advances, she refused oral sex and Clinton let her go, with the admonition, "You're a clever girl, let's keep this between us."

She has never alleged that her career was in any way affected by her refusal, or that her immediate boss (a friend of Clinton's) ever knew anything about it. Was this harassment, was it assault, indecent exposure - or was it just one of those things?

With Bill Clinton, the saxophone-playing President with a liking for women, the American public seems in forgiving mood.