The Diary: Shame takes a back seat, as does Britain

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New York

STEAMY, torrid, exceptionally uncomfortable - Manhattan's weather did its best to replicate the atmosphere in the Clinton White House when the First Fondler arrived in the city on Monday for a series of Democratic Party fund-raisers. The unseasonal weather - 85 degrees and insupportable humidity - coupled with the day-long gridlock that presidential sojourns routinely visit on the place ought to have occasioned more than usual hostility from the notoriously grumpy ers, or so one might have thought. But not a bit of it: there were a few boos, a few hostile placards, but on the whole the Clinton trip passed off exceptionally well - lots of money raised and scarcely a dissenting voice to be heard.

And here is the paradox of the whole tawdry, pathetic Clinton/ Lewinsky affair. Politicians and media folk pontificate and rage, the air is thick with mendacity and rank hypocrisy, TV and radio are shrill with analysis and dire prognostications, but somehow - so the polls would indicate - it seems to make no real impact on the ordinary Joe and Jill Six-Pack out there in the country, far from and Washington DC.

I have to say that the coincidence of being in for this week of all weeks filled me with pleasant anticipation - for once exactly the right place to be, especially as I had to write the IoS Diary. What a coup. But, as I stroll around, judiciously eavesdrop during meals, coax taxi drivers and doormen into vox pop revelations, I have to say that I detect not so much outrage as embarrassment.

It is too early to say (at the time of writing we await the grand jury video) but my hunch is that this may be the factor that will allow Clinton to survive. Quite simply, the Starr Report has told us far too much, stuff we really, truly, don't want to know. For example, did we ever wish to learn that the President of the United States prefers to masturbate into a sink? These are literally the most intimate of secrets and no individual - not even the most ardent right-winger or zealous Clinton-hater (and they are legion) - would ever wish anyone's personal sexual history and nature to be hung out to dry in this manner. Clinton is revealed to us as a poor forked animal - a particularly unaccommodated man - and it is almost impossible not to feel a vestige of sympathy for him.

Which presupposes in the President a normal and well-functioning sense of shame. Another error. It seems to me, on the week's evidence, that it has become almost a prerequisite of late-20th-century political life that the shame quotient in a politician's personality be surgically removed. Clinton's manner, as he goes about his business in the face of this ever- mounting disgrace, is the opposite of ashamed. The rebarbative acts of contrition - the "tearing-up", the appointment of "pastoral counselors" to keep him on the straight and narrow - testify to a brazenness, an arrogance, that is astonishing. Most people facing this degree of humiliation would go away and hide for a decade or two, but Clinton (and Hillary) present a smiling, barely chastened, business-as-usual facade.

Curiously, this may be the other factor that will allow him to survive: the implication being that, if they aren't bothered by all this scandal, why should the rest of the American people be so preoccupied?

But it takes some brass neck. The torrent of gleeful derision over here has to be seen to be believed. It is generated most obviously on the late- night chat shows - Leno, Letterman, O'Brien - and it filters down to the tackiest stand-up comic and winds up as playground smut.

Everyone knows that Clinton is a liar and everyone probably suspected that he was a serial philanderer, but the sheer volume of lurid, virulent abuse and speculation dumped on this President must be unparalleled in American political life. When you have journalists earnestly calculating - and tacitly deploring - that in 11 sexual liaisons with Monica, Bill only "came" three or four times there is, clearly, not an iota of respect in evidence. But - the point is worth making again - in order for lack of respect to make an impact there must be a corresponding sense of personal shame. If there's no shame, no mud sticks. A fact that certain of our own politicians have made all too clear.

Talking about our own politicians reminds me that this past week I've been completely ignorant of what is going on back home. Reading as many newspapers as I have and watching hours of broadcast news, one could be forgiven for thinking that, as far as the US media are concerned, the United Kingdom doesn't exist. The only item of UK news that appeared anywhere last week, as far as I could determine, was the sale of Ginger Spice's celebrated Union Jack dress. So much for the special relationship - even the dress was bought by the Hard Rock Cafe. An apt and bitter metaphor, perhaps.

But Clinton/ Lewinsky aside, continues to exert its uniquely idiosyncratic appeal. In two days I have bumped into three friends from London whom I have not seen for months - two of them in mid-morning on a crowded Madison Avenue. Barbara Cook was in sublime voice at the Cafe Carlyle. Saving Private Ryan seemed to be 20 minutes of technical brilliance followed by two hours of overbearing gung-ho cliche (and what the hell is Ted Danson doing in that movie?). I played tennis several storeys up on the roof of an 8th Avenue building with the Empire State looming above me. I sent some socks to the laundry and they were returned on a coat-hanger, wrapped in cellophane. A panhandler told me in all seriousness that he would accept personal cheques. And so on. But it's been a week dominated by stifling weather and Bill Clinton's desperately sad sex life. Last night as I whizzed through Times Square in an air-conditioned cab I found myself musing: what chance of an off-Broadway revival of John Osborne's The End of Me Old Cigar?... It should pack them in.

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