Dinosaur man slips into oblivion

Thank you, faithful New Statesman readers, for all the nice letters I've received in the past week. I have to confess that I rather agree with the reader who lamented that newspaper proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black - to say nothing of countless Republicans now licking their wounds - would be looking a lot less silly if only they had listened to the unfolding, unfailing predictions of the NS since the memorable summer of 1998 and Clinton's brilliantly successful broadcast to the nation on 17 August (derided as a failure everywhere else but here).

What is so strange is that you did not have to be a genius to work out that Detective Inspector Starr and his Republican friends were furiously shooting themselves in the feet in the build-up to this month's elections. The opinion polls, for one thing, told that story from the very beginning: from the day Keyhole Ken tried to clamp the handcuffs round Clinton's wrists because of his romps with Monica, the American electorate firmly sensed who the real rats were in the Lewinsky story. America's very own answer to Inspector Clouseau had intended to put the handcuffs and leg-irons on to Clinton; he put them firmly on to Newt Gingrich by mistake.

Poor old Newt. The point most people miss about him is that he is, and always has been, completely bonkers. Walking into his office, you are greeted first by the huge - and real - skeletal head of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The first time I met him he said, "You're from the CIA, aren't you?" - and promptly walked away (to this day I don't know why). He is kept on a short leash by the two women in his life, his second wife Marianne (the first having been abandoned in hospital while recovering from a cancer operation) and a ferocious aide. Like Clinton, he is physically huge with a similarly omnivorous appetite. He likes to represent himself as an intellectual and former history professor, but is actually in his element talking to a group of seven year olds about the only subject which really interests him other than himself: dinosaurs.

And his successor? This week I saw Bob Livingston, the 55-year-old Republican Congressman likely to be elected on Wednesday to take Newt's place as House Speaker - and thus become second in line in succession to the presidency after Al Gore - described as "adversarial". He is actually about as adversarial as Sir Geoffrey Howe in his celebrated dead sheep mode. Livingston is the grey man of American politics, exuding charisma a mite less enthralling than Howe's blend of elan and dash; as we saw with Howe's valedictory attack on Thatcher, too, his only apparently human feature is that he can occasionally show a flash of temper.

But the real reason his Republican colleagues are rushing to vote for him is that he has distributed more than $2 million from his political slush funds to their campaigns. He has waited 21 years in Congress for this recognition. For the Republicans it's much the same story in the Senate: their leader there is still Trent Lott, so exciting he could just be Howe's long-lost cousin from Mississippi.

Which brings us back to Clinton and his future. I would hate to lose the NS's unerring record of political forecasting here by saying he is totally out of the woods now: he isn't. The Republicans, though chastened, remain in control of both the House and Senate. Inspector Clouseau still has a few cards up his sleeve, too, and by casting his net so wide - like arresting and questioning every single human being on earth about every event that has ever happened, which now seems to be his game plan - he may yet manage to pin something on Clinton.

Even Clouseaus (Clouseaux?) sometimes get their man, but - as I said in this column last month - I suspect Starr may yet feel the rough hand of the law on his collar before Clinton. His office illegally leaked Grand Jury evidence (a more serious offence than it sounds); he failed to disclose crucial personal interests to the Justice Department when seeking permission to investigate Lewinsky; and he is clearly guilty of attempted entrapment of Clinton (and, even more blatantly, of his friend Vernon Jordan) in the exceedingly nasty Clinton-Lewinsky-Tripp set-up. The other day I joked with someone often described as "a very senior White House aide" about Starr himself ending up in prison; he replied, very seriously, that one day he expects to see Starr in orange prison overalls.

So the hopes of the Republicans now revert to being pinned firmly on to the preppy son of the man Bill Clinton beat to become President in 1992. Rather as Michael Portillo is trying to reinvent himself as the caring face of Toryism, so the right here is desperately pushing George Bush Jr as new, compassionate Republicanism; you know this when you see Rupert Murdoch's cheerleader, William Rees-Mogg, blathering on about the virtues of Bush and how he is likely to become president in 2001.

You also know that such predictions and arguments must be flawed, too. George W Bush is a more complicated man with a more complicated past than Rees-Mogg and his ilk yet realise. By default he could find himself the Republicans' candidate for 2000, in which case we would be faced with Bush v Gore - two born-to-rule scions of privilege in an electoral battle guaranteed to send even poor Howe to sleep. But we have not yet heard the last of Clinton, Starr, Livingston et al - or even of Jeb Bush, newly elected governor of Florida, George's younger brother, and a much brighter and more interesting chap than George Junior. Watch this space: certainly not those of Murdoch and Black who, I'm afraid, have simply flunked it when it has come to these testing times.

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 13 November 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Why gays become politicians