NEW YORK - The phone was answered after only a couple of rings - just the sort of efficiency you would expect in the office of a legislator whose friends once liked to describe her as The Smartest Woman in America, aka Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"How can I help you?" asked the voice.

Real easy, I began, explaining how selling crack cocaine to inner-city teenagers seemed like such a lucrative business, I'd decided to grab a piece of the action.


"So, what I need to know, is this: What sort of discount is Hillary Clinton offering if I pay for a pardon in advance? You know, if I get busted like Carlos Vignali, that guy in LA her husband let out of jail."

The response, which began with a excremental obscenity and ended in a procreative one, wasn't an example of the civility Clinton herself was urging last week as she, the ex-President, and assorted members of their families tumbled deeper into the pardons-for-sale scandal. And with that, the line went dead.

It's something that also has been happening to plenty of other telephones lately, most notably the hotlines that once led from the White House war room to the apparatchiks who spent most of the past eight years attacking Clinton critics and defending the indefensible.

The Big Jerk, as Monica Lewinsky memorably described the man now holed up in suburban New York with an army of newsmen besieging his front gate, could always count on those supporters. They were there no matter what.

If he ravaged the White House help, the toady legion would rise to argue that, hey, Kennedy did it, too. When he solicited contributions from drug dealers, Mafia associates and pornographers, another squad of talk-show apologists would take the field to blame the campaign-finance system for forcing a good man to hang with people he would rather not.

The scandal was immaterial - Whitewater, Zippergate, suicidal aides, cattle-futures scams, whichever reeking stink du jour it happened to be - the flacks and flunkies were always there to smear their idols' enemies with "opposition research" collected by the Clintons' private eyes and other, even more odious allies. "This is war," snarled strategist James Carville, who actually expressed a willingness "to die for the guy" if it would help to preserve the President's political viability.

Lose your power, lose your friends. It's a lesson that a savvy duo like the Clintons should have known. And perhaps they did - once, before so many escapes convinced them that they were untouchable.

Now they're revisiting that wisdom in spades.

With every day's sordid revelation - rules broken, propriety trampled, grasping relatives enriched - the pit into which they have cast themselves grows that much deeper, the ranks of their friends so much thinner.

A spate of polls leaves no doubt that only people who might be in the market for a bridge believe Hillary Clinton's assertions that she gained nothing - nothing! - of the $US400,000 that brother Hugh received for helping to clean the slates of pardoned drug dealer Vignali (caught with 1600kg of coke) and a tax-dodging snake oil salesman (currently under investigation for mail fraud). In one survey conducted by the MSNBC website, better than 95 per cent branded her a liar.

Meanwhile, her husband's reputation shrivels even faster. Doubt it? Consider his latest paid speaking engagement and what was missing from it. Not the former President, who was there bold as brass to collect a $US100,000 fee for sharing his thoughts about politics and the media.

No, what was absent was the banner which was to have hung over the stage, the one with the name of the sponsor, Credite Suisse First Boston.

At the last minute, after being deluged with calls from angry account holders threatening to take their portfolios elsewhere, Credite Suisse withdrew its name and banned the press from the affair.

Or consider this from true believer Carville, a man one can't help but suspect is no longer prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in the Clintons' cause: "I can't say these are illegitimate questions being brought up, because they are legitimate," he said of the allegations that pardons were bought and sold.

And then there is this from journalist and diehard defender Joan Walsh, who is offering her revisionist wisdom on "Former President Clinton's disgraceful exit raises an awful possibility," she writes. "Maybe he was as morally bankrupt as his right-wing enemies said."

Hillary Clinton's foul-mouthed staffer would express no surprise.