Bill speaks, with the gas masks ready

You must create a sense of threat. That, a friend was telling me the other day, is the secret that American television news channels are discovering. Reporting a routine snowstorm, for example, they must show semi-hysterical anchormen delivering dramatic, stentorian warnings: stay indoors, keep warm, stock up on food supplies, watch out for the elderly and don't venture out unless absolutely necessary, that sort of thing. This is the way, TV focus groupies are apparently finding, to hook viewers to news - in exactly the same kind of way, psychologically, that they become addicted to soap operas. Forget about reality: for all of us, life then becomes a series of TV dramas lent new meaning by artificially induced urgency and anxiety.

Thus, hoping to win the biggest television audience ever for a State of the Union address, Dan Rather breathlessly informed us last Tuesday evening that security outside the Capitol was being dramatically stepped up - with extra reinforcements of "police, fire-fighters and US marines" on duty, all this to footage of nervously expectant soldiers. There was no earthly reason why firemen and marines should have been there, but that didn't matter: the political and personal dramas in Washington were real enough, yet had to be hyped up to manic levels. Then we could all indulge freely in the hysteria. Visit the normally somnolent Senate press gallery, for example, and you would find gas masks "in case of airborne chemical attack".

If you think Monicagate has sent me flying off into the realms of surrealist whimsy, it hasn't. This is exactly how it has been here this week. People are hooked on the presidential dramas, but that is precisely how they see them - just as viewers tune in to see how fictional characters in As the World Turns, say, are doing. Congressman Henry Hyde invokes the words of Sir Thomas More to his daughter on the eve of his execution to show how a martyr would rather die than say untrue things - not words from real 16th-century history, mind you, but imaginary ones from Robert Bolt's play. In this way the media moguls and Washington elites are now frantically decreeing that the Clinton drama must end as their script demands, with his ousting. But this is where people are smarter than the Hydes of this world think and begin to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Exactly as I forecast last week, Clinton's brilliantly meretricious 77-minute performance on Tuesday - which one White House aide privately referred to as "a weapon of mass distraction" and was interrupted 98 times for applause - sent his ratings soaring ever higher. That stubbornly jutting prize-fighter's nose, the clenched cheek muscle of the determined fairground slugger, that much-rehearsed lip-biting emotion; all struck a bell with the watching masses, to the ever-growing fury of the Republicans. A major opinion poll by the Pew Research Centre had already found that 76 per cent of the American public dismissed the Senate trial of Clinton as "mostly bickering", while 69 per cent remained adamant that he must stay in the White House.

The still-booming economy plus heavyweight performances this week from Chuck Ruff, the wheelchair-bound White House counsel, means that the Republicans - already two Speakers and five Congressional seats down because of Monicagate - are now growing increasingly worried that Clinton will not only get himself off the ropes but do so with more knock-out blows. They know that even if they are able to muster the senatorial votes necessary to push Clinton out, they would probably suffer grievously in the elections next year as a result; in short, they're boxing themselves into a corner.

Not that you will be reading or hearing much about this in Britain or the US. That need to create drama and anxiety is a fast-spreading, international virus. This, nonetheless, is how the new phenomenon I have described is gaining momentum: surrealist drama clashes with reality in a way that never happened before the advent of the 24-hour, satellite news channels on which so much of the world's media now relies. News sources and opinions converge into predictable unanimity instead of diversifying in the way the moguls would have us believe.

As in any good soap opera, there are plenty of twists and turns to come. A recap, meanwhile: in last week's episode, the Republicans hurled at Clinton what Ruff now calls "a witches' brew" held together by "sealing wax and string and spider webs" - and what Senator Tom Harkin, less delicately and using a different word in private, calls "a pile of dung". And yet, in this week's show, Clinton magically emerged from that dung smelling of roses.

This weekend's episode? I suspect it may prove surprisingly important, for on Sunday the battleground will move briefly to the TV talk shows. Last Sunday no less than 19 per cent of Senate members took to those all-important airwaves, and this Sunday they will be jousting over whether the prosecution or defence put the best case in the Senate trial. Polls will be taken. They, in turn, will presage how senators vote in next week's crucial divisions over whether to call Monica Lewinsky et al as witnesses - or, just possibly, to call a halt to the whole business.

That sense of threat and anxiety that television is now demanding is enveloping Republicans every bit as much as the Democrats and Clinton himself. Inexorably, though, reality and drama will soon start to merge - and political minds will have to concentrate more and more on how those temporarily ignored American masses will be thinking when they go to the polls next year.

That, somehow, seems a peculiarly comforting thought.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage