Forget Nato, we want more sex

Even serious US newspapers now prefer Paula Jones's lawsuit to politics, writes John Carlin
The presidency of the United States is becoming more and more like the British monarchy. There is still plenty of attendant pomp, but its powers are not what they used to be and, as far as most people are concerned, the most valuable function it serves is to provide the citizenry with something to talk about.

Take a look at Bill Clinton's week. He played a starring role, as the Queen has often done in similar circumstances, at the festivities marking the 50th anniversary of the Marshall Plan; he met Tony Blair, a sobering reminder, amid all the jolly atmospherics, of how excruciatingly circumscribed his executive powers are, compared with those of a British Prime Minister fresh from a landslide parliamentary election victory; and he sealed an agreement between Nato and Russia in Paris, an event that the American public would have considered of immense historic significance during the Cold War but today is of far greater interest to Czechs, Slovaks and Poles.

Paula Jones, of course, trumped all of the above. In kitchens, lounges, offices and bars, one question dominated every conversation: would Mr Clinton be the first president in US history to drop his trousers in court? The media picked up the theme, attacked it from every angle, chewed on it with the intensity of a dog with a bone.

For this is the lesson of the US's post-historical age. The only thing in which ordinary people can reliably be expected to take an interest, outside their immediate circle of family, work and friends, is sex.

Alert as ever to commercially beneficial trends, the news media, detecting that US society is regressing to a state of nature, are filling with daily sex scandals the vacuum left by the disappearance of political news.

With the re-emergence of Ms Jones's sexual harassment case, Mr Clinton is merely demonstrating that he remains in the mainstream of American life, that he is still able to play the important presidential role of striking the national keynote. Many legal manoeuvres still remain open to him to try to delay the case until after he leaves office, but it will be all too appropriate if it comes to the crunch while he is still President.

For every news page you turn, every channel you flick, the country seems to be playing in tune. A woman alleges that Marv Albert, the US's Desmond Lynam, bit and sodomised her against her will; another famous sportscaster is presented with embarrassing photographic evidence that he cheated on his no less famous TV wife with a retired stewardess; a previously obscure male member of the Kennedy clan is accused of having sex with an under- age babysitter.

Such is the public interest in this sphere of human activity that it no longer matters whether the participants are rich and famous. The military has redefined its role in the light of the Cold War's end and now, like Mr Clinton, finds itself providing a valuable social service as a national purveyor of tittle-tattle. The epidemic of illicit sexual activity at the Aberdeen army base, just north of Washington, prompted widespread debate on the army's definition of what constituted adultery, what constituted rape. As in: was a male sergeant who had sex with a female soldier guilty of forcible entry?

Until recently such stories dominated the supermarket tabloids - weekly publications known as such because every supermarket sells them - but were ignored by the serious newspapers and magazines. Today, a story about a female US Air Force bomber pilot caught in adultery is the cover story of Time magazine. (Neither Time nor Newsweek would dream of putting the Nato expansion story on its cover, as they once would, for fear of closing down the following week.) The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and other august organs that have traditionally scorned tabloid smut now embrace it, with all the more gusto if, as in the Aberdeen case, they can alight upon a plausibly significant social or political reason to do so.

What was gratifying about the case of the previously unknown Lieutenant Kelly Flinn, the USAF pilot, was that, in a titillating inversion of traditional roles, a woman was portrayed as the sexual offender, providing the opportunity for commentators to draw comparisons with the President and ponder at length such weighty questions as whether it is not gender but power that determines who harasses whom.