It's a scandal, but nothing like the one about to break

Christopher Hitchens hopes the President will play out the whole scene

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While preachers preach of evil fates

Teachers teach that knowledge

waits

Can lead to hundred-dollar plates

Goodness hides behind its gates

But even the President of the

United States

Sometimes must have to stand

naked...

"It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)"

BOB DYLAN isn't the bard of the baby-boomers for nothing. But nakedness, whether visited on presidents or emperors or fathers - as in the story of the horrid shock inflicted by Noah on his sons - imposes shame not just upon the unclad but upon the witnesses and spectators. All across the United States today, there are men and women who are dressing Bill Clinton with their eyes. Even Kenneth Starr, most pitiless of moral scrutineers, felt it incumbent upon him to confirm that neither the chief executive nor his volatile squeeze were ever completely undressed.

As for the preachers mentioned above, they all got together at a Washington "prayer breakfast" on Friday morning and competed among themselves for the compassion trophy. (Call me squeamish, but I think we might have been spared the President's attendance.) Those who pay for "hundred-dollar plates" - a fund-raising term now made quaint by greed and inflation - are, of course, always happy to welcome and to excuse the occupant of the Oval Office. He's their cash cow.

Add to this a press that virtually apologises - no, make that literally apologises - for printing the Starr report and you have a potential constituency of forgiveness, led by cynics and hypocrites but none the less made up largely of reticent and hesitant people who prefer to avert their gaze from anything needlessly sordid.

The decency of such people, and such instincts, was already being exploited as early as 21 January. Clinton had already lied to the press and public, and to his friends and colleagues and family. But he levelled with just one person. This was Dick Morris, the sleazy adman and pollster with whom he had colluded in playing fast and loose with the campaign finance laws in the 1996 election. (Morris, far more "right-wing" than any of Hillary's imagined conspirators, had himself been forced to retire from that campaign after being caught with a hooker in the Jefferson Hotel. But he remained the President's closest crony.) Here is how their chat went:

Clinton: "Oh God, this is just awful. I didn't do what they said I did, but I did do something ... And I may have done enough so that I don't know if I can prove my innocence. There may be gifts, I gave her gifts, and there may be messages on her phone answering machine."

Morris: "There's a great capacity for forgiveness in this country and you should consider tapping into it."

Clinton: "But what about the legal thing? You know, the legal thing? Starr and perjury and all..."

The solicitous Morris proposed taking a poll on the willingness of the voters to forgive admitted adultery, and telephoned later that day with his findings, which showed that the public were less lenient about perjury or obstruction of justice. He interpreted the result as suggesting that Clinton should not offer any apology or explanation. The President then said: "Well, we just have to win then."

We now live with the late and decadent version of that "spin" strategy. (It was revealed during the 1996 election that Morris liked to impress prostitutes by dialling the President and getting straight through while they listened on the extension. We now learn that on 7 April 1996 the President took a call from Morris while Monica Lewinsky laboured at the salty toil of oral sex on the Oval Office carpet. Let's call that quits. Congressman Sonny Callahan, however, is unlikely to be amused at discovering that Clinton whiled away his important telephone calls in the same fashion.)

Come to that, Kathleen Willey, the recently widowed employee who came to the Oval Office for advice and counsel in her distress, and was rewarded by an enveloping hug and the crushing of her hand against the distended presidential groin, may take offence at reading that Clinton ridiculed the very idea of his bothering with a woman who had such small tits. You know how "judgemental" some women can be. And there is still a vague but large feeling that censoriousness is to be avoided. We must all act like grown-ups. But does that mean that the President should act like a grown- up, rather than like a gruesome self-pitying adolescent? Well, for the answer to that question, we are supposed to wait and see what the polls say. Oh, and the stock market, too.

I think that this strategy is almost played out. The Congress may, if it desires, discover that several plain lies told under oath do not "really" constitute perjury - even when uttered by a man who is sworn to uphold and defend the laws and the constitution. But why lower the standard for highly placed offenders? Here is a President who wanted censorious V-chips placed in televisions and computers to protect the young from news about sex; who fired his own Surgeon-General because she mentioned the word masturbation in a talk on adolescent health; who campaigns for abstinence among teenagers as a substitute for contraception; and who said ("Don't Ask - Don't Tell" being the key slogan of his administration) that homosexuals were not fit to wear the nation's uniform unless they were prepared to lie about their sex lives. Allowing him a free pass might give the game away. What if the powerless could call upon forgiveness, too? Where might it all end?

Should the President then resign and save Congress the trouble of impeachment? I very much hope not. He and his fans have earned, and deserve, the right to play out the whole scene. In particular, they have earned the right to witness the impeachment of Clinton for his covert agreement - struck with Dick Morris among others - to breach all known campaign finance laws in 1996. This dark horse of a scandal is now coming up on the rails with gratifying velocity. And, by a nice irony, Clinton didn't just come by Morris in this way. Monica Lewinsky only got her "job" in the White House because her mother's boyfriend was a mega-bucks donor to the Democrats, and because there's always affirmative action for the rich in Clinton's Washington. So, at least metaphorically, there is a crossover between the sexual-spoils system and the financial one. (Gennifer Flowers and Paula Jones were on the payroll - it's almost as if Bill has no confidence in his ability to get laid on his own merits.)

Let's get on with the serious business, as all the realists say, and leave these minxes to be defamed by underlings who are on the payroll, too. Fine by me. I've forgiven a good friend of mine, who sincerely lied for Clinton before a grand jury, for looking me in the eye last March and telling me that Monica was a "stalker". If he can forgive Bill - hey. It's healing time. But as I told him then, the real scandal is the money, stupid, and it's coming like a heart attack. And when it hits, the question of "character" will already have been settled. Nice to have that out of the way.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for `Vanity Fair'.

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