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The Diary: What Clinton and Lewinsky really got down to

AN OLD friend calls from the Style section of the Washington Post. She's spent much of the past week on "Monica Beach", as the hacks term that stretch of pavement outside the premises of Kenneth Starr's grand jury. Can I give her a quote or a bite about this and that, for Monday's front-page story? The first few minutes of our conversation are consumed with her apologetic throat-clearing. "I hate this... I've told the editors that it's not what we should be doing... I'm all for writing about sex but this is degrading..." Most grown-up conversations in today's United States involve a version of this formality. It had even been dutifully observed a few days earlier, when another friend called to give me the absolute inside dope on Monica Lewinsky's testimony. Before any of the tawdry details could be unbelted - and they did come from an absolutely pristine source - a ritual of self-abnegation had to be gone through. "We shouldn't really be doing this... I didn't become a journalist to be pawing through the laundry basket..."

My own Pharisaism is of the obverse kind. I actually do think that the press is too fixated on scandal and celebrity, and has been for a long time. But I also believe that the Clinton-Lewinsky imbroglio is an important story with real political implications. So I keep asking my fellow scribes why they don't have the cowardice of their non-convictions and just print the pathetic minutiae of the affair. "Surely," I intone, "you didn't become a journalist to keep secrets from the rest of the public? Why should you share the dirty bits only with colleagues and not with the customers?" I can't say this and not follow through, and it would be a waste of time to have come this far and then go all bashful at the crucial moment. So, here you are then. In their upwards of a dozen trysts, according to Ms Lewinsky under oath, she would perform unconsummated oral sex on the Leader of the Free World. She would then step back a few paces, disrobe, and perform a little dance while he completed matters on his own. Voila tout. That's the long and the short of it, and it may help to illuminate certain forensic and DNA details. The President denies that this was a sexual relationship and, by my standards, he's correct in doing so. This is the CD-Rom version of romancing a copy of Penthouse.

So how on earth can I say that it is politically important? It's very important to remember what everybody else chooses to forget, which is that Bill Clinton became President by running as a moralistic, law-and- order Baptist. He fired his Surgeon-General, a serious black woman devoted to health education, because she dared to mention the word "masturbation" in a speech on sexual mores among the young. With his wife, he has campaigned publicly to install "abstinence" as the alternative to contraception among teenagers. He has said that homosexuals are not morally fit to wear their country's uniform, unless, of course, they are prepared to lie about it ("Don't Ask, Don't Tell"). He is never happier than when at the National Prayer Breakfast, intoning scriptural platitudes. And he is notorious among friends for his knowledge of the biblical loopholes that "cover" adultery and fornication. In the "privacy" of his "own" Oval Office - which is actually public property lent him for the discharge of his elected responsibilities - he seems to have tried a dank and desperate version of fidelity and consistency. Who will say that this does not have policy implications?

EVEN IF I am wrong about that, the resulting costly and embarrassing procedure seems to me to be his fault, and not the fault of those who report it. The public, when polled, says that it doesn't want to know, and yet ratings go right up for any show or magazine that features the story. There appears to be some cognitive dissonance here. Unfortunately, the cresting and climaxing of the tale coincides with one of those recurrent periods of media masochism. In the past weeks, Time and CNN and the Boston Globe and the New Republic have all had to publish retractions and apologies about confected or unchecked or plagiarised stories. A whole new magazine, solipsistically entitled Brill's Content after its ambitious lawyer founder, has been launched to subject the press to journalistic scrutiny. Strange as it may seem, many reporters like nothing better than to apply the flagellum to their own shoulders. The loud resulting squeals are supposed to pre-empt the howls of populist hatred for the press as an institution. My line is that I became a journalist because I didn't want to rely on the press for information. If we even begin to ask what the public "wants" then we've missed the whole point. How will they know, until they hear? Incidentally, Mr Brill began his campaign by describing the DNA-sodden dress as a figment. If you want to indict second-rate pack journalism, start by inquiring why the media gave Clinton a free pass on Gennifer Flowers in 1992, which was some time after he had promised his closest political allies that he would not jeopardise their trust by carrying on with the hired help, and some time after Hillary Clinton had given Anita Hill an award for "speaking out" about the thorny question of sex at the office.

THE SAFEST remark that anyone can make is :"Issues are more important than personalities". You are guaranteed mature and sympathetic nods. Why is this? A politician can change his policies. (I am old enough to remember the beginning of the Whitewater business, when Clinton partisans told everyone to shut up about the scandal and get behind his "healthcare programme". They've dropped that.) But it's not as easy for a politician to change his character. Indeed, an estimate of character is one of the few reliable conclusions to which a voter can come these days, through the fog of expensive cosmetic manipulation. Norman Mailer once made the excellent point about Clinton that he had no last ditch; no line which he would not cross if it suited him; no principle that he would not dump at short notice. That is a question of character and not ideology. In New Hampshire, in 1992, I formed the impression that Governor Clinton was a fawning jerk, desperate to please, to whom lying was as natural as breathing. There were also reasons to think that he was funny about money and a bit cheap and nasty with the fair sex. I haven't had to eat a single word since then. Can his apologists say the same? He's now caught himself in a web of adultery and perjury and influence-peddling, of which only the first will not, contrary to liberal bleating, feature in any bill of impeachment. This isn't ideal. "Issues" man that I am, I would far rather that he was facing a grand jury because of his sleazy fund- raising. But, as Clinton might have said himself, I'll take what I can get. I just wouldn't have settled for so pathetically little.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for 'Vanity Fair'.