The year America was led by the nose

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 December, 1998, 12:00am

In a rare change of schedule, Santa Claus decided not to visit Washington this Christmas. Having made his list and checked it twice, he looked back over the events of 1998 in the capital of the free world, and decided he could not find anyone who had been nice. Santa's naughty column was overflowing with some very important people, as well as those whose 15 minutes of fame dragged on way past the public's welcome.

Topping the blacklist was President Bill Clinton, who also managed to make it off his wife's Christmas present list. L'affaire Lewinsky was the marital indiscretion which broke the camel's back, and made its way out of the Clintons' bedroom fights into the files of a federal prosecutor. Having tortured the English language into painful submission in an effort to mislead under oath, voters around the country knew they had finally heard it all when the president told investigators that, like the very best Left Bank existentialists, he wasn't sure what the word 'is' really meant. The only other person with such a surreal approach to the art of giving testimony was Microsoft chief Bill Gates, who has appeared to do all he can to lose his courtroom battle with the US Government.

Second on Santa's naughty list was Ms Lewinsky herself, for daring to show her thong to the nation's commander-in-chief, and for bringing a whole new meaning to the phrases 'cigar aficionado' and 'pizza delivery'. Before 1998, it would have been inconceivable that a product of Beverly Hills could bring any further shame to the 90210 zip code, but the sex scandal bearing her name is proof that life is stranger than soap opera.

Also in Saint Nick's bad books was Linda Tripp, the dowdy civil servant with her finger on the record button, whose mid-scandal makeover did not extend, unfortunately, to her character. In her only public statement, she stood quivering before the cameras to tell the world that she was, despite her new-found infamy, an ordinary person 'just like you'. Most ordinary Americans took this to mean that they, too, got a kick out of luring friends into spilling the beans about their private life and then handing the tapes to prosecutors.

Santa also kept a wide berth from the chimney of Kenneth Starr, fearing getting the seat of his pants scorched by the fire shooting from the jaws of the prosecutorial dragon. Former Clinton spin-doctor James Carville claimed Mr Starr was Mephistopheles made flesh, and other critics said he was on a witch-hunt funded by every right-wing interest group known to man. But the most abiding image from 1998 will be that of Mr Starr smiling at the cameras every morning as he entered his office, clutching a Starbucks double latte and remaining devilishly silent.

Neither will many members of the US media be getting a call from Santa. Blazing the Monica trail was Matt Drudge, the Internet carpetbagger whose gossip web site, filled with the uneaten scraps of the piranhas swimming round the same tank, made him one of the most unsavoury characters ever to don a trilby and have his press pass sticking out of the hat band. Following close behind were the rest of the Washington press corps who, having stirred Monicagate into a frenzy, threw up their hands in disbelief when the House of Representatives took their coverage seriously and voted to impeach the president in December, something even the bombing of Iraq by the US and Britain for apparent non-cooperation with United Nations weapons inspectors failed to prevent.

For their record during the past year, the tenants of Capitol Hill may be left off Santa's list well into the new millennium. Complicating the Republicans' desire to punish the president for telling the world that, 'I did not have sexual relations with that woman', was the fact that many of them had once said the same thing - to their wives. Among those in the Adultery Hall of Shame were Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde, almost-Speaker Bob Livingston and Clinton-basher Dan Burton.

After the Congressional elections suggested voters were fed up with talk of impeachment, Speaker Newt Gingrich took the bullet and stepped down. Not since he went to the bedside of his cancer-stricken first wife and demanded a divorce had he said goodbye with such grace. Mr Livingston became the shortest-serving Speaker in history, hustled by Hustler magazine into resigning the post 18 days before he was due to accept it.

One member of Congress, however, emerged from 1998 as a hero. Retiring Senator John Glenn returned to his first career, that of NASA astronaut, and took part in a space shuttle mission hyped nearly as much as his original flight.

Zero gravity is said to slow the ageing process, but at the age of 77, one week in orbit might not have helped Mr Glenn much. Although eyebrows were raised at NASA's agreement to the senior citizen's request to return to space, the mission achieved its primary objective: to refocus public attention in a space programme suffering from a lack of interest and a shortage of funding.

Until last month, it seemed the only thing with less credibility than Congress was the world of professional wrestling. But rolling around with grown men in leotards did nothing to harm Jesse Ventura's political prospects, at least not among the male 18 to 34 age group, whose votes propelled him to office as Minnesota governor. Mr Ventura becomes the most senior office-holder of any member of Ross Perot's Reform Party, and the giant sucking sound Minnesotans will hear early in 1999 will be the media ruthlessly killing off his honeymoon period.

In Tennessee, they like to keep their politics simple; there's no need for independent prosecutors or impeachments to rein in one's opponents, because around certain parts, the rule of law is the rule of the gun. Thus it was that a respected state senator, Tommy Burks, was found shot in the head two weeks before the November elections, and police charged his Republican challenger with his murder. Following the Mary Bono principle, the widowed Mrs Burks stood in his place - against her husband's alleged killer, who was not removed from the ballot (although his approval rating dipped).

This was supposed to be the year in which the Asian financial crisis would cause the American economic bubble to burst. But despite the Lewinsky-manic Congress' repeated efforts to spook the markets into a downward spiral, Wall Street would not play ball. A big summer sell-off, caused largely by fears emanating from Asia, wiped out most of the market gains from the first half of the year, but then investors' seemingly unshakeable optimism sent the Dow Jones Index soaring back.

Given the stench of adultery permeating Capitol Hill, few politicians are in much need of Viagra. But the American public embraced the impotence wonderdrug with a passion, making it the biggest pharmaceutical phenomenon since Popeye discovered spinach.

Failed presidential candidate Bob Dole caused an entire nation to wince when he admitted he had used Viagra, and drug company Pfizer reportedly considered hiring him as an endorser. But after users starting dying of heart attacks, the company might need his old Senate skills in crisis management instead.

The country's biggest antidote to Lewinsky overload came in the shape of the national pastime, baseball, which has risen dramatically from the dead after a crippling players strike four years ago. The race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for the old home run record - previously set in 1961 - brought electricity back to the game. Meanwhile, the New York Yankees rediscovered the old swagger of Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and were so dominant that many voted them the best team of all time - which, in America, is never that long.

Meanwhile, basketball's overpaid stars decided to reject all the lessons their baseball counterparts learned during their 1994 strike, and at time of writing, half the season has been lost due to a pay dispute which would have Marx turning in his grave.

The country (and the world) lost two of its most revered entertainers: Frank Sinatra to the great cocktail lounge in the sky, and Jerry Seinfeld to retirement. The Seinfeld sitcom's much-hyped last episode was a great anti-climax, but at least the comedian showed signs of keeping alive Sinatra's flame by spending the rest of the year embroiled in female trouble and trailed across the country by the tabloids.

Seinfeld's fans are still mourning the loss of the seminal sitcom which, its creators said, was so good because it was 'about nothing' - rather like the real-life presidential soap opera which is still running after 11 months and shows no sign of being dropped.