IN THE most inglorious episode of his presidency, Bill Clinton yesterday suffered the indignity of being quizzed about his sex life under the gaze of a woman who accuses him of soliciting sexual favours.
Affairs of state - including a showdown with Iraq - had to wait as the American president submitted to a humiliating obligation to testify in the case of Paula Jones, who accuses him of dropping his trousers to ask for sex in a hotel room in Little Rock, Arkansas, seven years ago.
Avoiding an army of journalists from around the world, Clinton slipped from the White House in his limousine to be deposited in an underground garage at his lawyer's office. There, in the presence of a federal judge, he took an oath to tell the whole truth before being exhaustively grilled about alleged sexual exploits in his former role as Arkansas governor.
Jones, wearing a cream-coloured suit, arrived with her husband a few minutes earlier, hoping to watch the naturally red-cheeked president squirm as he fielded questions in an X-rated deposition that carries all the weight of testimony given before a court.
The historic event was captured on a video tape which will be used as evidence in a trial that is scheduled for May. However, aides said that Clinton, who had appealed in vain to the Supreme Court to postpone the proceedings until after he left office, is still hoping that the case will be dismissed.
A writer of farce could not have concocted a more unlikely role for the president. But Americans were not laughing: the unedifying spectacle of the commander-in-chief of the world's most powerful nation being interrogated in such a sordid case has degraded the gravitas of the executive office to such an extent that it may never recover.
Although Clinton has given evidence as a witness in the so-called Whitewater affair, his testimony yesterday secured him an unwanted place in history as the first president ever to be interviewed under oath as a defendant in a court case.
Compounding the farce is the possibility that Paula Corbin Jones vs William Jefferson Clinton - expected to be heard in a court in Little Rock, capital of Clinton's home state, - will result in the president having to remove his trousers to prove his accuser wrong.
Jones has maintained that "distinguishing characteristics" she noted in Clinton's genital area prove she is telling the truth. But after discreet inquiries about an allegedly crooked and diminutive presidential member, Robert Bennett, Clinton's $300-an-hour lawyer, responded recently with one of the more memorable quotes in the history of high-level litigation. "In terms of size, shape, direction, whatever the devious mind wants to concoct, the president is a normal man," he said. "There are no blemishes, there are no moles, there are no growths."
The Jones team has yet to demand an independent medical examination. Just as troubling a prospect for Clinton, however, are the other women believed to have testified to Jones's lawyers recently about unwanted sexual advances from Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas.
According to one source with intimate knowledge of the case, a woman has told the Jones team that she was frequently smuggled into the governor's mansion disguised in a trench coat and cap for sexual liaisons. Four state troopers who protected the governor also say they procured women for him over the years. One said he had set up the meeting with Jones.
Clinton has said he has "no recollection" of ever having met Jones, but acknowledges that he "may very well have met her in the past". Bennett has been less circumspect, dismissing Jones's story as "titillating allegations which really are just tabloid trash".
It is all unspeakably embarrassing for the president's wife. Hillary, who was herself grilled last week in another investigation into her allegedly improper use of FBI files against Republican foes, has been photographed recently hugging her husband in a carefully calibrated signal that she intends to stand by her man, as she did when he miraculously negotiated reports of a long-running affair with Gennifer Flowers just as he was running for president.
Few had thought it would come to yesterday's testimony by Clinton. When Jones's allegations were first publicised three years ago, presidential aides were swift to dismiss her as "white trash" and as a devious muckraker. Stung by such insults, she withdrew from a settlement under which the president would have paid her $700,000, albeit without the apology she demanded.
Since then she has revamped her image. Gone are the braces that once clamped her front teeth. She has smoothed the frizzy mane of curls and for her big day in court acquired clothing more reminiscent of the boardroom than the secretarial pool.
"I had been aware of all the horrible things the White House was saying about her," said Susan Carpenter McMillan, her spokeswoman. "She is not white trash. She is not a big-haired floozy."
Yet Jones has dropped a claim that her character was defamed, apparently to avoid acute embarrassment in court where the president's lawyers, after thorough research, had planned to show that she had a colourful sexual history before her alleged encounter with Clinton. It is common knowledge to those who have followed the affair - and to the readers of Penthouse magazine - that she posed naked for a photographer boyfriend when she was 19.
It is the exploration of other aspects of her private life that has begun to raise questions. Mysteriously, she has become the target of an audit by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) which in turn - in keeping with the farcical nature of the affair - has become the subject of an investigation by the Treasury Department over claims that the taxman has been used as a political weapon against Clinton's enemies.
As these side battles rage, the chances of a settlement are fast receding. Under rules set by a judge, the evidence-gathering period known as "discovery" which must conclude by the end of this month, has so far, according to Clinton's lawyers, failed to produce evidence that might prompt the president to pursue a new settlement and find the $2m needed (Jones has apparently upped her demands) to make her go away.
Clinton may be calculating that the most humiliating allegations that could emerge in a trial - those concerning his penis - are already public knowledge and that his best chance of salvaging some dignity is to win vindication in court, where Jones may have a tough time winning, even if she is telling the truth.
It is a gamble. More than any of the welter of scandals plaguing his presidency, the outcome of the Jones saga could determine his place in history: whether he is remembered for balancing the budget or simply as "bonking Bill".
London Sunday Times 01-18-98