America transfixed by Bobbitts' story: The magnetic banality of a marriage that ended in two trials is a legend for our times, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington

ODDLY, the longer the trial goes on, The Deed itself (though never far from anyone's mind) seems somehow to matter less. Everyone knows what happened; the protagonists have already described the incident before, when John Wayne Bobbitt was tried last November and acquitted of marital rape. None the less, America is transfixed.

For three days this week, half a country (or at least of that portion of it with cable television) has been glued to the spectacle relayed from a county courthouse about 30 miles from Washington. Manassas, Virginia, hasn't commanded such attention since the Confederates handed a surprise beating to the Union armies, at the second battle of Bull Run in August 1862.

So to Part Two of the Bobbitt trial, as Lorena Bobbitt answers charges of malicious wounding for the maiming of her husband. This is a story of marital, not civil war, but in its tawdry way, scarcely less significant, as the New York Times, no less, notes in an editorial: 'Every era has its legend. If this were still the age of balladry, Lorena Bobbitt would have a ballad. Her crime - wicked and fascinating - speaks so eloquently of our time.'

Not since the televised Senate hearings over Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court nominee, and his accuser, Anita Hill, in October 1991 has the country been so transfixed by a personal story. The reasons go beyond the nature of the crime.

Like the earlier confrontation, the viewer must take sides. Who was worst done by: Lorena, the demure Catholic woman from Ecuador subjected, by her telling, to four years of brutality? Or her inarticulate Marine-turned-bouncer of a husband? A lout, perhaps, but a lout deserving of so dreadful a punishment as he received last 23 June?

Then there is the magnetic banality of the tale. The Bobbitts' marriage may have been made in hell. But it was lived in the soulless suburbs of Anywhere USA, a world of shopping malls, trips to Ocean City, Maryland (a US version of Blackpool), and monthly nightmares over how to make the minimum payment on the credit card.

Subtract the appalling denouement, and the petty domestic disputes which paved the way to global celebrity for the Bobbitts have echoes in every household. A fight over whether to buy a real or a plastic tree for Christmas 1990, troubles over visits by the in-laws, a squabble one Thanksgiving over whether to watch a football game or a holiday parade on television: this was what Ms Bobbitt recounted on Wednesday - to hold a superpower spellbound.

In terms of public interest, Manassas has eclipsed Bill Clinton in Europe. For Court TV, the Bobbitt trial has been a trophy to match Rodney King. CNN too has been giving gavel-to-gavel coverage, demoting the Partnership for Peace to footnote status. With commendable courage, CNN did interrupt Ms Bobbitt for 40 minutes to carry the Clinton-Kravchuk press conference live from Ukraine - the world's third largest nuclear power was after all giving up its weapons. Such though was viewers' wrath that five times the anchorman had to promise that not a minute of her testimony would be omitted. Nor was it.

Today Ms Bobbitt returns to the witness-box to give her version of events. America will tune in.

(Photograph omitted)

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