The Starr Report: The National Mood - Uncivil war breaks out as America weighs the all-too-explicit evidence

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The Independent Online
THE GRAPHIC and shocking sexual details in Kenneth Starr's report on President Bill Clinton's misdoings have upset the country, and to some extent backfired on him.

Mr Starr's report argues that it was necessary to go into lubricious detail, because the President had argued that sex did not take place with Monica Lewinsky, and she said it did.

But the degree of detail has convinced many people that the White House argument - that Mr Starr simply wanted to smear the President - is accurate.

"It is plain that 'sex' is precisely what this four-and-a-half year investigation has boiled down to," the White House said on Saturday.

In a CBS poll, 64 per cent said the details were inappropriate and 60 per cent said Mr Starr included them specifically to embarrass the President. "Ken Starr is on trial as much as anyone," Maxine Waters, a Democratic congresswoman, said on television yesterday.

Mr Starr's defenders say the charges of perjury rely specifically on differences between what the President and Ms Lewinsky said.

"I wish he had told us the truth from the beginning and we would not have read many things that have no place in public literature," said the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich. "I think that the nature of the president's answers require that kind of graphicness, which I found very sad."

In the report, a computer analysis by the US media showed that the word "sex"' is written 164 times, and "sexual" 406 times. "Perjury" appears only 40 times and '"impeachment" 15 times. Senator Paul Wellstone, a Democrat from Minnesota and a possible presidential candidate, attacked Mr Clinton, but said the detail "went well beyond what was necessary".

The report intersperses descriptions of their hasty sexual encounters with learned legal references. The result is Rumpole of the Bailey meets Last Tango in Paris, written by someone who was definitely more lawyer than DH Lawrence.

It is clear why Monica Lewinsky has avoided the public eye for some time. There are descriptions of her sexual high jinks so detailed and embarrassing that she gave testimony in a closed room, to female prosecutors rather than the grand jury.

At times, as she complains, it appears that the relationship between them was more of a "service contract" than an affair. She testified that until their third sexual encounter, she was not even sure that the President knew her name, as he kept calling her "kiddo".

The networks and newspapers alike have had to take difficult decisions about what they report, especially the footnotes, which get into very steamy territory.

ABC news has been highly conservative, with anchor Peter Jennings telling viewers that if they wanted the filth, "you won't find it on ABC". And Jackie Judd of ABC was positively prim when discussing the first encounter between the President and Ms Lewinsky. "She made herself available," she said. "I won't be any more descriptive than that."

The Boston Globe warned readers, saying parents of young children should beware. One newspaper refrained from delivering the text of the report, and another even left the text of the report out of its home-delivered papers in case children picked them up.

The Los Angeles Times, on its website, urged "parental guidance for children reading the full report". America Online warns that the report "may be objectionable to some people" and"is not appropriate for children".

But CyberPatrol, published by The Learning Company, decided not to block access or censor the report. "If the U.S. House has determined the American public should have access to this document, it's not up to The Learning Company or CyberPatrol to filter the content of a government report," said spokeswoman Susan Getz.

The angle which many news media tackled - gleefully, it must be said - was how to explain the stories and jokes to children. "Mom, What's Oral Sex?" was the plaintive cry from Newsweek. An apparently thoughtful Associated Press dispatch said: "What about the children? Starr report puts parents in a bind", adding in a subheadline: "Is it smut or a civics lesson?"

The nature of the Starr report is, to some extent, a vindication of the White House's strategy.

"We had a sense that Starr might feel compelled to put all this sex stuff in, to try to prove that the President lied," an associate of Mr Clinton told the New York Times.

"There was talk that if he did that, we could say that there was nothing to the serious charges, and all this amounts to is a sex report."

Another adviser told the paper: "We knew he'd do this", adding: "He couldn't help himself." In a slightly patronising piece on the front page, the NYT says: "Starr Report Recalls Outlook Of a Preacher in Rural Texas".

The degree of distaste which many have for the details of the affair have not stopped millions from reading every detail, in newspaper reprints or on the Internet.

Most of the big city newspapers have reprinted the report in full, or almost all (Associated Press cut "a word or two" from the most graphic descriptions, said an editor). It cost the Boston Globe about $100,000 to print.

Several publishers have already talked about publishing the report, but Pocket Books seems to be the only one going ahead.

It will have 500,000 copies on bookshelves for $5.99 a copy by tomorrow, and it should be a hot seller at Washington's Dulles and National Airports, to lawyers, politicians and perverts alike.