They huff and they puff but the show grinds on

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IF IT'S Monday, it must be Monica Lewinsky. The folding chairs will be set out around the Mayflower Hotel again, if that is the establishment that she graces with her presence, for the bedraggled members of the press. The unmarked police Chevy Suburbans will be lurking in the back streets of Washington; and most people, with a heavy sigh, will settle back into their chairs to watch more wall- to-wall coverage of the Trial They Could Not Kill.

This week, three witnesses in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton will give their evidence: Ms Lewinsky, Vernon Jordan, the soft-spoken lawyer who helped find her a job, and Sidney Blumenthal, the pugnacious media strategist who described her as a "stalker" soon after the affair broke cover a year ago. All of them have been with us for months, and, it sometimes seems, will still be there when the Millennium dawns.

Yet only a week ago, it looked as if the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was drawing peacefully to a close, in the phrase once used to describe the death of King George V.

As we later discovered, the King's demise was hastened on its way by his doctor with an injection of morphine and cocaine. Two veteran Southern politicians were on hand to provide this service for the President's trial: Dale Bumpers, the former Arkansas senator who wound up Mr Clinton's defence the week before last, and Robert Byrd, the constitutional expert who represents West Virginia.

Senator Bumpers provided the morphine, weaving a spell around the Senate that made it seem so seductively simple to end the whole affair. The cocaine jolt came from Senator Byrd, who announced that he would propose a motion to dismiss the trial.

Mr Byrd is a respected conservative Democrat, one of those most outspokenly against the President: if he was proposing to wind things up, then many Republicans might well have followed. At the very least, Mr Byrd's vote would show that there was not the two-thirds majority required to get rid of the President.

The Republicans were growing weary of the trial. At least six were opposed to bringing witnesses into the mix. Without them, the Republicans lacked the votes to proceed. If there were to be no witnesses, then the Senate would move straight to a vote on the President. It seemed quite possible at some point last week that the show would finally close. But it plays on, though to less and less packed houses. Trent Lott, the doughty Senate majority leader and Republican boss, managed to persuade his own troops to stay together and vote for witnesses, by a mixture of stick and carrot.

The key to this was convincing the impeachment trial managers, Republicans drawn from the lower house of Congress, to stick to just three witnesses when they had wanted more. The House managers and their boss, Republican Henry Hyde, were not pleased, not a bit of it, by this. In what has become his trademark, a heavy-handed display of wounded dignity, Mr Hyde huffed and puffed that he had been misused. "I sort of feel that we have fallen short on the respect side, because of the fact that we represent the House, the other body, kind of blue-collar people," he said. But at least he got his witnesses, and so the trial went on.

Mr Lott tried to come to some agreement with the Senate Democrats that would make the process of rule-making for this endgame look bipartisan, but there was little in it for them. The votes were almost precisely on party lines. It was clear both that any pretence at bipartisanship was over, and that the Democrats were going to enjoy telling everybody that it was over. "This is a Republican trial," said Paul Wellstone, a Minnesota Democrat, after he walked away from last week's key vote. It was a theme that the White House quickly took up.

The damage that this affair has already done to the Republicans may now increase. The party has been warned by donors and by senior figures outside the party - like George W Bush, Governor of Texas and a likely presidential candidate - that it is hurting itself.

But Republican activists want to proceed with the trial. They believe the President is guilty, that the constitution supports continuing (indeed, rules out any other path) and that producing witnesses will make others agree. They may also hope that more information will start to trickle out about other Clintonian adventures that will help the case against him. So perhaps the trial can still finish by 12 February, the date set by the House last week; perhaps not.

The curious thing is how distant Mr Clinton seems from all of this. He continues to do what he does best - campaign, even though there is no election imminent. The sun continues to shine on America, outside Washington, and the President looks better than ever. The economy recorded a massive 5.6 per cent growth in the last quarter of last year and inflation is at the lowest levels since the 1950s. The estimates of the budget surplus get revised up every few days, allowing more and more money to be scattered around in the budget that will be announced tomorrow.

There is a trickle-down effect of good news for those around Mr Clinton, as well. Al Gore, his Vice President and the likely Democrat candidate for President in 2000, is emerging from the shadows day by day. His only credible opponent for the party's nomination, Richard Gephardt, is likely to announce in the coming days that he will not stand.

Mr Gephardt is the leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, and can expect to be Speaker if all goes well and the party wins six more seats next year. The Democrats are emerging from the trial proceedings more united than ever. And as for Mr Clinton, in the words of Nietzsche: what does not destroy him, makes him stronger.