President In Crisis: 'Sexual McCarthyism' provokes an outcry from US politicians

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A LESS fortunate time and place could hardly have been devised. As Congress broached the looming threat of "sexual McCarthyism" and continued an acrimonious debate about releasing President Clinton's video testimony for public viewing, more than 3,000 members of the fundamentalist Christian Coalition were arriving at the Hilton hotel in Washington for their annual convention, primed to celebrate and peddle the rewards of clean-living and family values.

For Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and a clutch of other leading Republicans, the conjunction of the two events entailed some agile commuting that was not just physical, but mental. From a Capitol Hill obsessed with sexual misconduct - Mr Clinton's and their own indiscretions long past - the Congressmen had to adjust to a forum of Middle America and the South, obsessed by sexual virtue but wary of saying so out loud lest their own luminaries turn out to have sinned.

Mr Gingrich, a mid-morning speaker to the Christian Coalition, played safe. He barely grazed the subject of the President, preferring the time- honoured populism of tax cuts and school standards, before turning to foreign policy and a half-question about Mr Clinton's capacity to function on the world stage.

His most fervently argued point, however, and his most enthusiastic reception, came for an accolade to Henry Hyde, the 74-year-old Republican Senator from Indiana who found himself this week bracketed with Mr Clinton as an adulterer.

Mr Hyde, Mr Gingrich said to loud applause, "is a decent, wonderful man, and we share his pain". That "pain" was caused by an article in the Internet magazine Salon alleging that Mr Hyde had had an affair with a married woman, Cherie Snodgrass, more than 30 years before, which had broken up her marriage.

Mr Hyde, who acknowledged the affair promptly but said that it was so long ago as to be "outside the statute of limitations", happens to be chairman of the House judiciary committee, which has decided that Mr Clinton's embarrassing video testimony will be made public. His committee will also decide whether the report compiled by the independent prosecutor, Kenneth Starr, about Mr Clinton's relations with Monica Lewinsky contains evidence sufficient to open impeachment hearings against the President.

The respect in which Mr Hyde is held by his fellow Congressmen and women and the timing of the Salon article combined to provoke an outcry. From the moment the House convened on Thursday, anticipating the start of the judiciary committee's discussions that afternoon, a procession of angry Representatives rose to attack the allegations and the perceived slur on Mr Hyde.

Republicans quickly suggested that the White House was behind the revelations, a view repeated by Mr Gingrichyesterday. While cautioning that the constitutional process (ie, the decision on impeachment) should be allowed to take its course, he said that "this kind of treatment by the White House" was unacceptable.

Mr Gingrich was one of eight Republican Congressmen who had initialled a written request the previous day to the head of the FBI, Louis Freeh, for an investigation into the expose of Mr Hyde. That letter, which the FBI has undertaken to follow up, stated: "Clearly there is credible evidence that an organised campaign of slander and intimidation may exist," and it named Mr Clinton's media adviser, Sidney Blumenthal, as a possible channel.

The attempted disgracing of Mr Hyde was only the latest in a series of recent slurs, all of them relating to members of Congress involved, or likely to become involved, in the Clinton-Lewinsky case. Dan Burton,chairman of the House committee investigating possible illegality in Democratic Party funding during the 1996 presidential election, confessed - under pressure of media allegations - to having fathered a son outside his marriage. Helen Chenoweth, a member of the House judiciary committee, admitted an affair with a married man before she became a Congresswoman. And Paul McHale, the only Democrat so far to have come under the microscope - and the first Democratic Congressman to call openly for Mr Clinton's resignation - found himself accused of falsely embellishing his war record, allegations that he disproved.

No direct White House involvement has been demonstrated in any of the slurs, but ABC News reporters spoke of information being touted around media organisations that originated with White House aides.

Salon set out the route by which it said it had obtained its Henry Hyde story, which appeared to absolve the White House. The accusations, it said, came from a friend of the "other woman's" former husband, who had been angered by portrayals of Mr Hyde as a man of unquestioned honour and integrity.

There were immediate questions about why the charges had suddenly emerged after 37 years, and how a Florida pensioner had known how to approach a host of media organisations, not just Salon, which has taken a pro-Clinton stance throughout the crisis.

White House officials, and Sidney Blumenthal in particular, denied involvement in the Hyde expose, and a succession of spokesmen including the chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, pledged that any staff member who was found to have been involved would be dismissed.

The furore over Henry Hyde may mean that the hounds will be called off, at least for a while and the longer-term implications could be far- reaching.

One of the favoured candidates for the presidency in the year 2000, Texas governor George W Bush, the 52-year-old son of the former president, said that he would now have to consider very carefully whether to run. "I've got to make up my mind if that's what I want to do. Is this something I want to put my family through?"

If America's next elections are run on a "morality" ticket, Mr Bush may not be the only potential candidate to be considering his position.