Out of America: Hot tales of sleaze amid the ice and freeze

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The Independent Online
WASHINGTON - Come ice and freeze, there's no end to sleaze. Thus may be summed up the curious goings-on at the Omni-Shoreham hotel last Friday, just as one of the worst ice-storms in recent US history was paralysing the rest of the city, shutting down the federal government and keeping any right-thinking man by his hearth.

Two planned events, however, did go ahead. One, of course, was President Clinton's ill-starred summit with the Japanese Prime Minister. The other was the so- called 'Conservative Political Action Conference' at the Omni- Shoreham. It was supposed to have been an ideological call to arms. A better title would have been, 'Bring on the Bimbo'.

Forget Senators Phil Gramm and Bob Dole, or Jack Kemp and the other earnest presidential aspirants who spoke. As so often at such gatherings the real action was at a fringe meeting starring those two honorary Republicans, Larry Patterson and Roger Perry - more familiar as our old friends, the Arkansas state troopers.

Ostensibly they were launching what is known as a 'whistleblower fund', a device to compensate government employees who have risked their careers to expose abuse of public funds or public office. In their case, of course, the abuse in question was alleged employment of their talents by Bill Clinton to conduct a hyperactive sex life. But for reporters who braved Friday's storm there was a bonus: if not a ranking Bimbo, then a Bimbo manquee, in the person of one Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee. In May 1991, Ms Jones explained, she was summoned to a Little Rock hotel room where she was 'distressed and humiliated' by some crude sexual overtures from the 42nd President which she rebuffed. The White House naturally issued an instant denial.

And there, if we discount mutterings from Ms Jones about a sexual harassment lawsuit, the matter rests. But the episode tells much about the political scene here right now, and that fascinating blend of fear and hatred that Bill Clinton stirs among his foes.

Sample the views of Joe Mainstreet, and quickly you run into the hardcore minority who 'just can't stand the guy'. Their reasons are varied. For some it is simply the fact that Mr Clinton is an activist, interventionist President doing things Republicans don't like. Other cannot stomach Hillary's assertiveness and eminence. But mostly the loathing is visceral, of an intensity no American President since Richard Nixon has aroused. For 'Tricky Dick', read 'Slick Willie'. There is a similar mistrust, a lack of respect that verges on contempt for a politician whose election has not laid to rest the 'character' issue which his detractors insist should have disbarred him in the first place.

Now up to a point, this is splendid news for the right; after all there's nothing like a good villain for mobilising the troops. Since Mr Clinton's Inauguration, membership of the American Conservative Union which organised last weekend's conference has tripled. Since early 1992, circulation of the American Spectator magazine, which broke 'Troopergate' just before Christmas, have risen eightfold. A California-based magazine called Slick Times now sells 100,000 copies a month, mixing poisonous fables about the First Family with special offers like 'Slick Willie' golf balls ('Good Lie Guaranteed'). The only trouble is, the ranting has had no perceptible effect.

What with Whitewater and the troopers' tales, Mr Clinton has been assailed as no President since Mr Nixon and Watergate. And yet apparently it makes no difference. His approval ratings are around 60 per cent. He has stolen Republican clothes on crime and welfare, and the moral high ground on health care reform. The plan may well founder, but Republicans will win no votes for that. And what of the budget deficit, running 40 per cent lower than expected - is this the 'tax and spend' liberal profligate of Republican demonology?

And so loathing gives way to fear. The blunders of Mr Clinton's first six months are a fading memory. True, he lacks George Bush's expertise in foreign affairs: but where did that get George Bush? Instead, Republicans see a President who combines a swift mind and a swift eye for the main chance with the populist skills of a Ronald Reagan. Mr Clinton, the more thoughtful among them have long concluded, will be a formidable foe in 1996.

As the CPAC gathering only underlined, Republicans have thus far neither the candidates nor the ideas to field against him. There is only the abstruse tangle of Whitewater, which may or may not prove to be a scandal - and the Bimbos. Maybe the next one will be a Mount Pinatubo of an eruption, the post-election 24-carat real thing that topples a presidency. I doubt it. But we surely haven't heard the last of the Arkansas state troopers. After all, the party faithful clamour for them.