`So how do you define sexual relations, Mr President?'

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AFTER EIGHT months of scandal, leaks and half-truths, Americans finally had the chance yesterday to judge for themselves the evidence of their President's conduct as the videotape of his grand jury testimony was broadcast in all its graphic and sordid detail.

Displaying a giddy shifting of moods, from belligerent and argumentative to coldly legalistic, to almost despairing, the most powerful man in the world confronted questions of near-pornographic intimacy about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.

Mr Clinton was shown being excruciatingly evasive when asked for his definition of sexual relations. He was asked if kissing the breasts of another person fell inside his definition. He answered: "Yes, that would constitute contact. I think that would, if it were direct contact, I believe it would ..."

He was then asked: "So touching in your view ... touching or kissing the breast of another person would fall within the definition?

Mr Clinton replied: "That's correct, sir."

As the tape that could break his presidency was being aired, Mr Clinton himself was addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York, where an audience of foreign leaders and diplomatsgave him a standing ovation.

Television viewers were treated to the surreal spectacle of the President condemning international terrorism with all the authority of his office on one channel, while being quizzed about his definition of sexual relations on another.

Mr Clinton's testimony was recorded from the White House on 17 August, as it was being shown on closed circuit television to members of the grand jury in the Lewinsky case - an arrangement agreed by his lawyers to avoid an appearance at the Washington courthouse. Its release yesterday was voted by the judiciary committee of the House of Representatives, even though such testimony is normally kept secret. The committee, where Republicans have a majority, defended the decision on the grounds that the American people have the right to know.

Public reaction to Mr Clinton's testimony is seen as crucial to his survival as president. The issue is partly the sexual relationship between the President and a White House trainee, which both have now admitted, but also the seven months of denials by Mr Clinton - under oath and on television - which are blamed by prosecutors for stalling the investigation.

While Mr Clinton's approval ratings have held up well throughout, affording him a degree of protection from his critics, they recently began to slip as Americans learnt more details of his conduct.

While some in the President's immediate circle are known to be disillusioned with his behaviour, and Democratic politicians fear for their party's prospects in November elections, Mr Clinton's high approval rating left Congress uncertain about how harshly it should respond. Some in Washington forecast that the tape could be as devastating for Mr Clinton's credibility as the Oval Office tapes were for Richard Nixon in 1974.

Early response to the Clinton testimony suggested that the damage might not be as great as the White House feared. While often evasive and at times clearly angry, Mr Clinton was mostly judged not to have been intemperate, and he never, despite advance rumours to the contrary, lost control.

Initial reaction in Congress split on party lines, with Republicans saying the video evidence buttressed the case against the President, and Democrats attacking Republicans for releasing it in the first place.

"After viewing this videotape, no reasonable person could conclude that the President did not knowingly lie to the grand jury and to the court in the underlying lawsuit," said Bob Barr, a right-wing Republican.

Others said the long and rambling answers given by Mr Clinton to many of the prosecution questions were a deliberate stalling tactic because he knew that the time agreed for the hearing was limited.

Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said that the tape should have remained secret. "I think it's unfortunate that on a very partisan basis, our Republican colleagues in the House have chosen to release this tape."

The House judiciary committee had also approved the release of much of the supporting evidence from the Starr investigation. And as the videotape of Mr Clinton's testimony was running on television, more than 2,800 pages of documents were made available in Congress, in bookshops and on the Internet. They included the text of testimony given by Ms Lewinsky which, while it added little to the substance of the already published Starr report, added piquant details.

It revealed, for instance, the reason Ms Lewinsky had not cleaned the blue dress, stained by the President's semen, which served as evidence of their sexual relationship. She had planned to clean it before wearing it at Thanksgiving last year, but her "friend" Linda Tripp - who later fed information to the Starr inquiry - persuaded her not to. "She told me I looked fat in the dress, I shouldn't wear it," said Ms Lewinsky.

The documents also disclose that Kenneth Starr is investigating the tape- recordings that Ms Tripp made of conversations with Ms Lewinsky - tapes that triggered Mr Starr's investigation into the President's private life.

There are signs that the tapes may have been duplicated and tampered with, and Mr Starr's office said yesterday: "If Ms Tripp duplicated any tapes herself or knew of their duplication, then she has lied under oath before the grand jury and in a deposition."

Ms Tripp, who was accused by Mr Clinton in his testimony of having "betrayed" Ms Lewinsky and "stabbed her in the back", has kept a low profile since her grand jury appearance. The issue of whether the secretly recorded tapes were tampered with may explain why they hardly feature in the final Starr report.

In a statement immediately after the videotape broadcast, White House spokesman Mike McCurry said: "That the President's conduct does not rise to the level of an impeachable offence should now be clear to everyone." He attacked the decision to make the testimony public as "an unprecedented violation of grand jury secrecy" and accused congressional Republicans of voting to keep in "the most salacious details" for party political purposes.