The day all America watched and waited. And waited...

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The Independent Online
THIS WAS the day that all America had been waiting for, even if all America preferred not to admit it. Monica Lewinsky, the 25-year-old Californian who spent a year of her life as a trainee at the White House, appeared before a Washington grand jury to account for her relationship with the President.

Ms Lewinsky, dressed in a sharp blue suit, flanked by lawyers and advisers, was barely visible in the crush of reporters: just the top of her hair, the seam of the suit, and she was gone. It was 8.40am, the temperature in the 80s, an almost cloudless sky, the familiar silhouette of the US Capitol in the background.

There was the glitz and press of Oscar night, the dread fascination of a mass-murder trial, and a sense of history - debased, perhaps eventually trivial history, but history none the less. Ms Lewinsky, had pledged through her lawyers to tell "truthfully and fully" about her relationship with Bill Clinton.

Not a word emerged all day about what she was saying. Her testimony, like that of other grand jury witnesses, must remain confidential unless she chooses otherwise. The ubiquitous "sources" that have relayed all that is known of Ms Lewinsky's comportment, predicted embarrassment and tears, and graphic details. They repeated the terms of the plea bargain that freed her from the threat of prosecution in return for her evidence - terms that are still only hearsay.

She was expected to contradict her own sworn statement of six months ago and admit a sexual relationship with the President, so setting her version at odds with the President's.

She would recount, the sources said, how they discussed keeping the affair secret. She would confirm the details of her conversations with her colleague, Linda Tripp, which Ms Tripp secretly recorded. She would confirm that the President sent her presents. She would confirm that "that dress" - the dark-blue dress from Gap which may or may not be stained with semen - was hers, and that she kept it, by accident or design, from investigators for six months.

In Washington yesterday there was only one story in town, and Ms Lewinsky's appearance behind the closed doors of the Washington courthouse was it. President Clinton meanwhile pursued his programme rigorously, as scheduled, with speeches on gun control and Indian rights.

White House spokesmen also stressed that Mr Clinton would continue with travel plans next week - to California and the Midwest as planned, a three- day absence from Washington seen by reporters in the capital as an attempt to escape their attentions and reach a more sympathetic public.

Mainstream commentators lamented that the institution of the presidency should be brought so low and invoked, the deplorable moral relativity of the baby-boom generation, epitomised by Mr Clinton. Could it really be that the last presidency of the 20th century should end in DNA evidence culled from the stain on a girl's dress?

From the provinces came reports of more distaste than interest and the feeling that a sexual peccadillo should not be allowed to fell a president.

Outside the courthouse yesterday, the salt-of-the-earth Americans who might decide Mr Clinton's political fate were conspicuous by their absence. One woman, a visitor from Kentucky, left her hotel on a whim with a banner saying: "Mothers for Monica!". "Good luck, Monica" said another.

But this was a media event, not an occasion for mass lobbying. Polls say the public backs the President: by two to one Americans approve of the job he is doing and they do not want him to leave office. Asked what they think about his relationship with Ms Lewinsky, they say they do not care.

But television news ratings are up when the Lewinsky affair is discussed; radio talkshows - regarded as the bellwether of grassroots opinion - languish when they divert from the obvious. "All anyone wants to talk about is sex," said one host. They were talking Lewinsky - and mostly with a smile.

In a development that only added to Mr Clinton's woes, his Attorney General, Janet Reno, was yesterday threatened with removal by Congress for refusing to hand over two documents relating to possible illegal fund-raising by the Democratic Party.

The Republican-majority Congress has pressed for months for the appointment of an independent prosecutor to investigate the fund-raising activities of leading Democrats, but Ms Reno has declined, saying that her own department's investigation is still in progress.

The House of Representatives committee considering party fund-raising voted to cite Ms Reno for contempt for her refusal to hand over the documents, regarded as key to their investigation.

Ignoring an order from a congressional committee is tantamount to ignoring a court order and could result in her impeachment, although Ms Reno protests her neutrality.