How legitimate is the US President?

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TO SUGGEST that your head of state may be a bastard sounds a lot like treason. In America, though, the fourth estate apparently can get away it - because that is what newspapers in New York and Kansas City yesterday were reporting about Bill Clinton.

The claim, after all, is only the latest twist in an extraordinary series of stories - none formally substantiated - about the seemingly ever-extendable Clinton family. In June, we were told of a retired half-brother in California. Last week, a half-sister was purportedly discovered in Arizona. Now attention turns on a formerly unknown wife of the President's father.

This time, though, the implication seems to stretch beyond simply sketching in a few more branches of the family tree. The nub of these reports is that the marriage of President Clinton's father to his mother, then Virginia Cassidy, took place before this previous, until now unrecorded, marriage had formally been ended. And that spells bigamy.

The mystery endures because, three months before the President was born, his father, William Jefferson Blythe II, died on 17 May 1946, taking his marital secrets with him. His mother, Virginia, later married Roger Clinton.

In all, Mr Blythe may have tied the knot three times. If the instant genealogy laid out by the media is to be believed, his earliest marriage produced the half-brother, Henry Leon Ritzenthaler, 55, who stole headlines in the middle of June. Though the President declined to acknowledge the relationship publicly, he did apparently telephone Mr Ritzenthaler.

Yesterday, the Kansas City Star and the Daily News of New York provided alleged proof of a second marriage in 1941 to a Kansas City woman named Wanetta Ellen Alexander. It was with her, according to the reports, that Mr Blythe conceived the daughter who came to light last week: Sharon Pettijohn of Tucson, 52. Then there is the question of when Mr Blythe actually divorced Mrs Alexander and married Mrs Cassidy. The newspapers say court records show that the divorce was not finally granted until April 1944 - a full seven months after Blythe and Cassidy were married in Arkansas. If so, under Arkansas law, Mr Blythe indeed committed bigamy, thus rendering his marriage to Mrs Cassidy void and the President illegitimate.

The President's mother, who has now also married a third time and become Virginia Kelley, claims ignorance of the Kansas City wife. 'I knew absolutely nothing about it,' she is cited as saying to the Star. Mrs Kelley has also denied knowledge of the still earlier marriage that apparently led to the conception of Mr Ritzenthaler.

The White House, unsurprisingly, is so far proving coy on the subject. Rumours and alleged revelations about Mr Clinton's private life abounded during last year's election campaign, but now that he is in office and struggling to assert authority, his staff may have hoped that they had seen the end of such dirt-digging. Confirmation that the President is a bastard is hardly likely to be forthcoming.

It is possible, of course, that Mrs Kelley is holding something back. If so, we may soon learn more. Only last month, she signed a contract to write her memoirs: the story of her life and of bringing up a son and future president, legitimate or otherwise.

(Photograph omitted)