JUST WHEN IT did not seem possible for the black farce that is the Monica and Bill Show to get any blacker, we are told that the leader of the free world seems somehow to have convinced himself that oral sex is not sex.
This will astonish the majority of people in this great nation who, according to a poll in Time magazine, think almost everything is sex, including the fondling of private parts, or even "buttocks and breasts", through one's clothes. It will certainly amaze the 87 per cent who said that oral sex is, in fact, sex.
Late last week, in a carefully calibrated leak to the New York Times, the White House trotted out the possibility that the President may admit in his grand jury testimony tomorrow that he had certain sexual encounters with Monica Lewinsky, but that they did not meet his definition of sexual relations. As absurd as it sounds, this defence is not without benefits: it diffuses any imminent DNA bombs and gets him off a perjury rap. The latest CNN poll shows that 56 per cent of the people believe that if he lied under oath in the Paula Jones case it would be grounds enough for considering impeachment. But if he didn't think whatever he and Monica did together was sex, then he didn't lie in his deposition. Nor did he lie to the American people when he pointed his finger at a television camera and declared "I did not have sexual relations with that woman".
Oral sex is an area in which the President has shown unusual consistency. In 1993 an Arkansas state trooper told the American Spectator that he was assigned to procure dates for the then Governor Clinton, and to stand guard while women performed oral sex on him in the front seat of his car, which was usually parked in the deserted grounds of his daughter's elementary school. Once, the trooper said, he witnessed a department-store clerk doing the deed, and afterwards Clinton "told me that he had researched the Bible and oral sex isn't adultery".
While theologians felt compelled to take issue with the President's interpretation of the good book, it's the kind of hair-splitting that has worked well for him in the past. He smoked marijuana but he didn't inhale. When he avoided the draft he was "just lucky, I guess" - despite the fact that his luck was enhanced immeasurably by his failure to respond to his induction notice. He went on television to come clean about his alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers, but would only acknowledge causing "pain" in his marriage. In the Jones deposition he finally admitted to having had sex with Flowers - but only once.
Flowers's version is slightly different. According to her they had sex so many times she felt it instructive to include a photograph of the site of their liaisons, the Quapaw Tower apartment building, in her book Passion and Betrayal. There was also a shot of the bed where she alternately tied Clinton to the posts with silk scarves and smeared honey (from a bear-shaped plastic squeeze bottle she kept on the bedside table) on her naked body so he could lick it off. "I always laugh to myself when I hear reporters talk about Bill's love of food." She must have really laughed when she heard that Monica had given him a copy of Vox, Nicholas Baker's novel about phone sex. "The phone also played a part in our relationship ... He would start by saying something provocative - Bill loved to talk dirty and to have me say sexy things back to him - and we would masturbate while we talked on the phone ...It reached the point where every time he called, he'd want to have phone sex." But that's not all. Flowers said he also liked her to make his face up with eye shadow and rouge. "He was absolutely astonished at how different he looked with make-up on."
It was an indication of just how tortured people expect Clinton's grand jury testimony to be when two cartoons were published last week of Clinton wearing the famous blue dress. The captions read: "One possible defense: 'It was my dress.'" Given Flowers' revelations, maybe he could swing it.
For all the lascivious bits in Flowers' book, she does offer the best explanation for Clinton's unbounded appetites for a certain kind of girl. It's all about high school. Clinton was not a charismatic jock, he was the chubby guy in the band. No woman but his mother (and, later, up to a point, Hillary) paid attention to him until he became a politician, when the ladies started, in the words of none other than the preacher Billy Graham, "throwing themselves at him".
But now, with a girl barely out of high school herself, Clinton gets to have the fun he never had. Apparently part of what he missed was casual after-school phone chats with girls he could call up and say, "Hey, it's me".
The First Lady does not think it is her husband's arrested development that has got him into the current mess. She thinks it is a plot by conservatives and, most recently, that it is a reflection of regional prejudice. "They wouldn't be doing this if we were from any other state," she said last week, prompting one Arkansas pollster to retort that "First it was a right-wing conspiracy, now it's a chicken- wing conspiracy" - Arkansas's only major industry being poultry processing.
These days the President has taken to cueing the Marine band to drown out reporters' questions at innocuous Rose Garden events; and to grave and mute television moments such as the one last week when the bodies of Americans killed in the African bomb attacks arrived in Washington and he wept uncontrollably for the cameras. The only thing he's said out loud to reporters lately is that he thinks Armageddon is better than Deep Impact and that Zorro is the best movie of the summer. We keep being told by his aides that he is not answering questions about Monica because he's too busy focusing on the business the American people elected him to focus on. So how come he has time to watch all these movies? In truth, of course, he's not focusing on much of anything except the polls; but then he never has.
Lately he's been trying to keep Democrats on his side by raising huge amounts of money for them. Two weeks ago he was in the Hamptons - where he took the opportunity to hug the blonde supermodel Christie Brinkley, under the circumstances a questionable display of emotion which required stopping the official motorcade. Last week in California (before he cut his trip short because he was "uncomfortable" in the wake of the bombings), he raised $3m in eight hours and weighed in on the important subject of safe drinking water. "Today is a happy day. Safe water is something all Americans agree on."
I laughed like hell when I heard that. There is almost nothing he can say that people don't laugh at. In the Hamptons, at a party where people sympathetic to him paid to hear him talk, they laughed. He had started out a story with "I was talking to a little girl the other day" and the whole room broke up, forcing him to explain that "No, no, it was an eight- year-old girl".
The comedian Jay Leno makes jokes like "It's a good thing the President didn't go to Vietnam, he's obviously a terrible shot". But Clinton himself has become the joke, and therein lies his real problem. He won't be impeached - there isn't a congressman on Capitol Hill who wants to hold hearings the centrepiece of which would be the definition of sex. But for the rest of his term, this man who thrives on public adulation will endure a worse fate, that of being irrelevant and, even more humiliating, a laughing stock.
Last week a gossip column reported that his friends (and defence-fund contributors) Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen had offered him a post-election slot on the board of their production company, Dreamworks. I'm sure he's counting the days until he can head for Hollywood. It is a town entirely devoid of any sense of humour, and, therefore, the only place left on earth where the President has a prayer of being taken seriously. Before it's all over I predict that he'll end up on a golf course somewhere with OJ Simpson. They could compare notes about their experiences with the demon DNA.