Yes, it was a right-wing conspiracy

I was planning to stage a sick-in this week, which is what American Airlines pilots have been doing to circumvent anti-strike laws: you phone in and say you're too ill to work and if pressed get a friendly doctor to sign a certificate.

My ailment, in this case, is a bad dose of post-impeachment fatigue. But I decided not to a) because my editor (to say nothing of his deputy) is far too much of a slave-driver to allow me to get away with it, and b) I read so much drivel about the Clinton verdict in the British press at the weekend that I feel duty-bound to New Statesman readers to put some of it right. (Warning to British editors: the clear winner in my "Snitch of the Year" category is already Chris "the Snitch" Hitchens, but other categories covering the past year - Most Ill-Informed Speculation, Most Egregious Factual Error, and so on - have yet to be decided in my annual press awards for US coverage.)

Point one: Clinton "got away with it", "beat the rap", "got off": use whatever cliche you like, as Britain's press certainly did. This fails to understand the purpose of impeachment. It is not a criminal trial to decide on guilt or innocence but a political one to adjudicate on fitness for office: when Democrat and Republican senators failed to garner enough votes even for a simple majority (let alone the two-thirds required), the Senate unequivocally decided that Clinton was not guilty of high crimes and misdemeanours that rendered him unfit for the presidency. Nothing more, nothing less.

Point two: if prosecutors nonetheless now decide there is convincing evidence that Clinton did commit perjury and obstruct justice then he can and will face criminal charges, either now or when his presidential term expires. Lazy sound-bite reporting has given Britain an impression that the case against Clinton is watertight: it is not and even if Inspector Clouseau-Starr tries to press charges a jury would almost certainly acquit him.

Point three: the US presidency is an integral third branch of government entirely separate from the legislature; it is not comparable with any office in the UK or any other parliamentary system. Comparisons with Tony Blair and pronouncements that a prime minister caught with his pants down like Clinton would be thrown out of office are therefore missing the point. Under a parliamentary system a prime minister is merely primus inter pares in the legislative branch and much more easily dispensable.

Doubtless the world would not have fallen in if Al Gore had been sworn in as president last week (though we might all have died of boredom), but the degree of seriousness of removing a US president in the middle of his term is one that Britons, accustomed (at least before Blair) to almost constant speculation about the future of their prime ministers, find hard to comprehend. The American president is not only the sole executive branch of government, he is also head of state.

Point four: the office of "independent counsel" has been so debased by C-S that the 1978 act which allowed him to run amok in his $50 million probe to find Clinton guilty of something - anything - will almost certainly be allowed to lapse on 30 June. Last week the American Bar Association, which helped frame the post-Watergate law, voted by 384 to 49 to abandon its support; fair-minded people at both ends of the political spectrum now realise it is a thoroughly un-American law that Starr has abused in unacceptably McCarthyite ways.

Guilt by association and innuendo has no place in a democratic system. ("I find no account of a single case in which [Clinton] treated the woman well," smears William Rees-Mogg this week. Well, I find no account of a single case in which Rees-Mogg treated a woman well, either, but that hardly means he is guilty of anything.)

Point five: rather than a triumph for Slick Willyism, last week's verdict was actually a victory for democracy. Pundits sneer at opinion polls and thus the views of the people, but all along, in the attempt to ensnare Clinton over sex, Americans have rightly smelled a rat and realised that the charges against him have been put-up jobs. In Britain, I fear, establishment views would have prevailed; but America is a more democratic country than Britain. The people decided that they preferred a president telling whoppers about his sex life (in response to questions that no man or woman should ever have been asked) than a twisted sex policeman driven by ideological perversions.

Point six: a book to be published in April will confirm what I've been say-ing: notwithstanding Clinton's amoral duplicity, there is and always has been a right-wing conspiracy to get him. Michael Isikoff of Newsweek will show us how a lawyer at C-S's own firm first alerted lawyers helping Paula Jones - the theoretical begetter of the "sexual harassment" case against Clinton which started all the nonsense was largely financed by right-wing agitators and was later ruled by a woman judge to be of no merit - to the existence of the Monica tapes, recorded by her "friend" Linda Tripp (who also just happened to be in simultaneous touch with the Starr and Jones teams).

I could go on, but won't. In the meantime, don't believe all you read. If Rees-Mogg, for example, refers to the Democrats in the Senate as being "led by Ted Kennedy" - as he did in the Times on Monday - take it all with a pinch of salt.

Treat it as the ravings of a misinformed and misanthropic hack frustrated that the popular will has prevailed. (The Democrat leader is Senator Tom Daschle, 51, and Kennedy wisely took a low profile both publicly and behind the scenes.)

Next week, I promise, I'll write about baseball or the weather or Meg Ryan; something different, maybe even nice.

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 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think