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Washington Diary

Cherry and dogwood in full blossom, in a week or two the azaleas in all their splendour, and not a whiff yet of the murderous humidity of high summer. Few things beat spring in America's capital - unless you happen to be America's president, and you wander into one of the local bookstores. The compulsive fascination of the man escapes me, but Bill Clinton attracts writers the way a dog attracts fleas. He's barely half- way through his term, yet we've had by my reckoning four biographies, two full-out histories of his first two years, not to mention the memoirs of his late mother and enough tracts, reviews, essays and sundry scribblings to fill the Library of Congress.

For Clinton books, April 1995 has been a gruesome month. The other day I dropped by the extremely classy Politics and Prose, the bookshop that serves my upper north-west neighbourhood, to survey the latest offerings. First to catch my eye was Clinton Confidential, a 517-page tome by one George Carpozi Jnr, described as one of the country's most famous investigative writers (though, shamefully, I'd never heard of him). The opening line of the cover blurb sets the tone: "In the finest American tradition of bareknuckle journalism ..." Any remaining doubts are dispelled by chapter headings such as "A Joggin' Man's Orgies" and "Mistresses Queer Bill's '88 Run". In short, a compendium of every salacious tale and conspiracy theory that has ever been peddled about the Clintons.

Somehow, though, it wasn't quite as unnerving as the new book next to it, The Dysfunctional Presidency: Inside the Mind of Bill Clinton. Finally it's happened, this most over-analysed president in American history has been taken to pieces by "a licensed clinical psychologist", in the person of a certain Paul Fick, PhD. So our man's mad, right? Well, not quite. According to Dr Fick, Mr Clinton's problems are caused by a condition called the Adult Children of Alcoholics syndrome. Now that explains why he had Gerry Adams in the White House.

But, as Hillary Clinton will attest, the nastiest barbs come from closest to home. The latest to cash in is that black sheep of the Clinton family, the appalling would-be-crooner Roger. New York magazine this week ran excerpts from Roger's impending contribution to Clinton literature, due to hit the bookstands in July. "Hillary didn't fit my definition of attractive," he writes, adding that she's snooty as well. "She told me her family didn't have a crisis every few days. ... You get along with Hillary about as well as Hillary wants to get on with you." With brothers-in-law like that, who needs enemies?

Still, don't let me put you off Politics and Prose the next time you're in town. Along with home delivery pizza, baseball (at least until the strike) and button-down shirts, bookstores are among America's great contributions to civilised living, and P&P is the perfection of the genre. It offers comfy armchairs for unlimited browsing, plus its own coffeeshop, readings and discussion groups featuring topical authors, and about the nearest thing to an OJ-free environment in the Western hemisphere. And it's going to get bigger and better still. Last month it took over the next-door premises of a folded video store. Even in the US, Gresham's law can work in reverse.

But then again, not very often. Take the latest curiosity from that incestuous world of felons, talk shows, and politicians. Remember the Watergate burglar Gordon Liddy? As is well known, after serving four years in jail for his excess of zeal on behalf of Richard Nixon, Liddy saw the light, shaved his head and went into conservative talk radio, just as it was catching fire. These days, measured by bile and bigotry, he's right up there behind Rush Limbaugh. An ideal launching pad, in other words, for his daughter Alexandra to run for a Republican seat in the Virginia state legislature. "The Liddy name," notes a local official, "is certainly one that will generate money."

Speaking of money, more on that other local obsession - where the most powerful man in DC (who is not Bill Clinton or our soon-to-be-disgraced- again mayor, Marion Barry) plans to build a new stadium for the Washington Redskins football team. Now the Redskins have been even more dysfunctional than the President these last two seasons. But that hasn't stopped their owner, the eccentric, Canadian-born billionaire Jack Kent Cooke, from looking around. First he tried DC itself, then its Virginia suburbs, before being rejected by Laurel, the snooty racing town midway between here and Baltimore. Now the roving Cooke eye has lighted on a chunk of farmland east of the city as a possible home for his 78,000-seat monster. Alas, new disappointment beckons. The area, it transpires, is one of the prime fossil sites along the Eastern seaboard.

And while I'm on the subject of sport, a brief cautionary tale. Washington's crime rate is falling (murders this year are more than 10 per cent down on 1994). But Alexandria, just across the Potomac in Virginia, has just had its first random "jog-by" shooting. A 21-year-old woman was out for a run in a reputable part of town when a stranger jogging the other way pulled out a handgun and shot her in the stomach. I'm happy to report that the woman will recover, but is anything safe these days?

Finally, Washington's diplomatic blooper award of 1995, and no prizes for guessing the recipient - Republican Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who, in keeping with the mysterious ways of the Greatest Deliberative Body on Earth, was elevated this year to the chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Helms has, of course, never concealed his views that foreigners are no more than a bunch of Islamic weirdos, scroungers and crypto-Communists. But even by his own hamfisted standards he excelled himself this week, introducing Benazir Bhutto as ... "the Prime Minister of India".