Bill's ghost haunts the White House

In case you have not been following media coverage of the US in the past month, two notions have been dominating Washington: the start of Boy George's presidency has not been nearly as bad as feared, and Bill Clinton is in lots of hot water again. These, at least, are two common consensuses here.

Both, though, are misleading. The current simplistic themes - Bush good, Clinton bad, as Bush Sr might have put it in his inimitable way - reflect lazy media that are being easily spun. Crucially, Dubbya has a slick press spokesman, Ari Fleischer, who now briefs the media every day; Clinton's post-presidential organ-isation is a characteristic shambles, leaving him still without even a press spokesperson to deal with inquiries. The result is that, because (as anticipated here) Boy George is managing to put one foot in front of the other and walk to the waiting White House helicopter without mishap, the 43rd US president is getting little but rave reviews - in contrast to his predecessor.

What is fascinating is Clinton's continuing hold over Washington. People are actually far more interested in what Bill'n'Hillary are getting up to than in anything George'n'Laura are doing. The Republicans, not content with the electoral sleight of hand that delivered Boy George to the White House, still see Clinton as an enormous enemy looming over them. His very existence, they feel, continues to be an outrage. Hence the anti-Clinton stories that started to bubble out as soon as he left office last month: that his staff had trashed the White House, removing the W from all the keyboards, and that Clinton and his entourage had then ransacked Air Force One on their final flight to New York.

These stories, solemnly reported as fact, were all untrue. People in departing administrations often leave jokey and sometimes insulting messages for their successors, just as hacks like to take souvenir ashtrays from Air Force One. But having floated these stories as yet more examples of Clintonian mendacity, Fleischer's team has now backtracked on them - with Boy George himself dismissing what little did happen as a "prank or two". Yet the image of the departing good-for-nothing oaf stuck, and now Clinton's enemies have got their teeth into two more supposed outrages: his granting of pardons in his final hours in office, and his moving $190,027 worth of furniture from the White House to the family home in Chappaqua. The red-nosed sleazebag, the reasoning goes, is thus not only corrupt, but a thief, too.

Now Clinton's enemies think they have struck gold with his pardon of Marc Rich, a 66-year-old billionaire who fled the country in 1983 after being charged with fraud, evading $48m in taxes, and illegally trading in Iranian oil. His ex-wife Denise is a "friend" of Clinton's who has donated $1.33m to Democrat causes since 1993, including $450,000 (and possibly much more) to the $200m Clinton Library that will one day house 77 million pages of text from archives and 77,000 gifts and artefacts.

Congressman Dan Burton now wants to subpoena Secret Service records to track Denise Rich's comings and goings to the White House. Having pleaded the Fifth Amendment before Burton's committee, she is now likely to be offered immunity from prosecution in return for forced testimony that the Republicans hope, so hard, will hammer the final nail into Clinton's coffin.

But the worst that can happen, as with Monica et al, is that other people will have their lives ruined. If, for example, the money that Denise Rich donated turned out to have come directly from Rich himself, then such contributions would have been illegal because Rich renounced his US citizenship for that of Israel and Spain. It is illegal for foreigners to give political donations, and if that is the reason Denise Rich took the Fifth, then she, not Clinton, will be in hot water. And if it turns out that her relationship with Clinton was as close as Burton and his chums so salaciously hope, who will be surprised?

Disappointingly for the baying Republicans, granting pardons for political reasons is also nothing new. The departing Harry Truman pardoned two former Democratic Congressmen, a Louisiana governor and a former general counsel to the Democratic National Committee. And when it comes to presidential gifts, even "Honest Abe" Lincoln was an assiduous acquisitor - being entirely fitted out, in his case, by clothes from Titsworth and Brothers of Chicago. The Reagans left the White House with more than a million dollars' worth of dresses, jewellery and shoes - making the Clintons' retention of a $350 golf club given to them by Jack Nicholson or a DVD player donated by a shop in California, for example, look pretty tame.

But the Clintons, their PR machine all awry, announced they would reimburse $86,000 - making them look as though they had, indeed, been guilty of irregularities. On Rich, Clinton has said only that "there are very good reasons for it" - doubtless referring to the furious pressurising of him by a pro-Israel lobby, who argued that if he would not pardon Jonathan Pollard (the American jailed for life in 1987 for spying for Israel), then Rich might just about be an acceptable substitute.

Facts, facts, facts: as Boy George swaggers to the helicopter, exuding his faux humility, so Republicans continue furiously to target the Clintons with no fire and precious little smoke. If the likes of Burton do not shut up pretty quickly, they will soon find they have shot themselves in the foot again: and the 42nd president, his sleaze intact, will continue to dominate the 43rd presidency of his currently saintly successor.

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.