Latest, latest! five had sex in White House

Perhaps 75 million of us will be glued to our television sets next Tuesday evening for what, even in normal circumstances, is a uniquely American political farce that defines the theatre of the absurd: the State of the Union address. The president will appear dramatically through closed doors, whence members of Congress and everyone else important in political Washington - a crowd the vast majority of which would willingly wring Bill Clinton's neck - will greet him with cheers, beams, handshakes and back-slappings. The president will then say how great America is, to more wild foot-stamping and cheers from his audience, and the evening will promptly be pronounced a wild success before the networks return to normal pap.

Next week, I suspect, Bill Clinton's approval ratings will go off the political scale in a manner that would have Peter Snow weeping with ecstasy. By day the Senate, chaired by the pompous Chief Justice William Rehnquist with four golden stripes on his judicial sleeves (he had the idea after seeing the Lord Chancellor depicted like this in Iolanthe), will be deliberating on the fate of the man whom most senators, Democrat as well as Republican, loathe. Come night time, they will be erupting with applause as Clinton expounds on the issues on everyone's lips. The booming US economy. Better schools. Tax credits for long-term nursing. Another $12 billion for defence. The lowest unemployment for four decades. Vice-President Al Gore, seated immediately behind him, will nod gravely between bursts of applause. Oh, the wonders of the American political system!

So far all is going to plan - or, at least, exactly according to the timetable outlined for New Statesman readers. The matter has passed from the schoolchildren in the House to the grown-ups in the Senate, who have promptly cobbled up the deal I predicted. Elder statesmen like Senator Robert Byrd, 81 - a man you have to avoid if you do not want to be buttonholed to gaze admiringly at pictures of his dog, Billy Byrd - galloped gallantly to the rescue. Ninety-six-year-old Senator Strom Thurmond, though tottering precariously, managed to cackle out scripted words to swear in the newly bestriped Rehnquist. Senators then solemnly came forth to sign their oaths using specially provided Parker pens that proclaimed them each to be an "Untied [sic] States Senator". Even Gilbert and Sullivan could not have come up with anything more tragi-comic.

The consensus wisdom in Washington - usually wrong, as we now know - is that the senatorial collegiality of last week will not last. This is possible but less inevitable than people think. First, the senators are a more grown-up bunch than many House members, some of whom are positively rabid. Second, the 435 representatives in the House are elected from smaller constituencies that tend to be either firmly Republican or firmly Democrat; they can take the party line without worrying too much what national polls say. The 100 senators, on the other hand, represent whole states, which manifest much broader sweeps of public opinion. Eight Republican senators, for example, will be up for re-election next year in seats that are specially vulnerable to the Democrats and where Clinton is popular; they, you can be sure, have been studying what the polls say very closely

And those polls say that people want a short, symbolic trial and certainly not the removal of Clinton; at the most, they say, he should be rebuked and told off for being a bad boy. The more experienced Republican senators, in turn, know the future perils for their party if they fly blatantly in the face of such public opinion. Three in just that mould - Senators John Warner, Ted Stevens and Thad Cochran - have all taken the conciliatory line so far. In a private session last week, Stevens furiously lambasted Henry Hyde - leader of the 13 House "prosecutors" - for insisting that the Senate now call crucial witnesses, although the House Judiciary Committee (of which Hyde is chairman) conspicuously failed to do so.

The 105 pages of charges against Clinton published by Hyde and his men this week are remarkable not just for their zealotry but for their tawdry mediocrity: they are poorly phrased, badly written, and full of intellectually contradictory notions. Much of the material reads like an attempted expose of sexual misdoings by some shabby tabloid - yet the Republican mantra is that the whole debacle is not to do with sex but with perjury and the like.

A senior Republican told me this week, quite seriously, that five hitherto unknown women (one of them black) are now waiting to come before the Senate to testify that they have had sex with Clinton in the White House as recently as 18 months ago. Rupert Murdoch's papers on both sides of the Atlantic have spread entirely false rumours about Clinton being the father of a 13-year-old black boy. Thus frenzied rumours proliferate.

Meanwhile our heroic sleuth Inspector Clouseau-Starr, in one of his most vindictive moves so far - and that is saying something - has charged Julie Steele with obstruction of justice. She now faces the prospects of an expensive trial and a lengthy prison sentence.

Julie Steele is the single-parent mother of an adopted Romanian orphan, who also happens to be a former friend of Kathleen Willey (who claims she was groped by Clinton); Steele now refuses to support Willey's claims, so Ken wants to send her to prison. Even such a remote, tangential figure is now grist for the mill in the ruthless fight to get Clinton. And yet, infuriatingly for the rabid Republicans and Inspector C-S, Clinton's ratings just climb and climb.

How we will all roar and stamp our feet for him next Tuesday!

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 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?