IT'S NOT YET the snore heard 'round the world--but just give the British tabloids a few more days. In the week since Condoleezza Rice and Jack Straw took their overnight flight to Iraq on her one-bedroom
The basic plot: The secretary of state and her British counterpart, instead of spending the night in Liverpool as planned, flew off to Baghdad to urge the Iraqis to form a government already. Straw was tired; Rice told him to use the pullout bed in her cabin. That left her nowhere to crash but an air mattress on the floor.
But that's no story, you say? True--but then, it was the most famous Brit of all who praised the wizardry of the poet, who makes the imaginary real and ''gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name." Not that the poets of Fleet Street are thinking of Shakespeare as they sweat over their keyboards, hoping to breathe life into the ''airy nothing" of the in-flight nap; they're just hoping to steal readers from the competition. And so far, their verbal inventions are taking two different shapes.
Story line 1: Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. The Sunday Mirror's headline sums up this approach: ''Jack 4 Condi: He Tried Diplomacy but Wants a Special Relationship." At The Sun, it's ''Condi: Hop into My Bed." The Sun also ran a romance-novel version of the tale, with photos and captions: ''Jack felt a knot in his stomach as she gestured towards her cabin and invited him to make himself comfy in her bed."
There was suggestive language embedded in the less cartoonish accounts as well: The pair had ''slipped away" to Iraq; Straw had ''that spaniel look in his eye" when he was with Rice; the tale of the bed was said to have ''transpired" (in the traditional sense--"leaked out, became known"), as if it were a secret.
But The Mirror took the prize for inflated prose with ''The Night Jack Straw Kipped in Condi's Bed; Rice's Shock Offer Aboard Cramped Jet." (Kip, slang for ''nap" or ''sleep," has never caught on in this country, despite its headline-friendly size; it's related to Danish kippe, hut, and formerly meant ''lodging-house.") In this one brief story, the writer managed to say ''politics makes strange bedfellows," ''Rice invited him into her bed," and ''Rice made the alluring offer"--a hat trick of Hefneresque heavy breathing.
Story line 2: Jack is a cad. ''Jack Becomes Embedded while Condi Loses Sleep" announced The Guardian. ''The Age of English Chivalry Is Truly Dead," mourned The Daily Express. The Sun chimed in, too, complaining that Straw showed ''none of the chivalry for which British gentlemen were once famed." But since The Sun is also partial to stories like ''Pammi Shows Off Her Gongs," we needn't take its lament seriously.
UPI took the chivalry tack, too, but tangled itself by calling Rice's gesture ''a reverse of gender chivalry." Yes, it's true that chivalry was once a man's code of conduct (a horseman's, in fact: chivalry, like cavalry and cavalier, is rooted in the Latin caballus, ''horse"), but the horses are history, and nowadays women, too, can be valiant and generous. Call Rice ''chivalrous," if you like, but not ''reverse gender chivalrous."
This second, simpler story--"every man for himself"--seems to be the one with international appeal. ''Straw forces Rice to sleep on floor," ''ungentlemanly," ''commandeering" the bed--these are the words winging their way to India, Germany, and Australia. And Condi's air mattress is rarely mentioned; that unforgiving ''floor" makes her sacrifice more serious.
A few days into what one paper called Bedgate, Jonathan Freedland of The Guardian wondered what Americans would make of all this overheated language. They'll say it shows ''the immaturity of the British press," he predicted, revealing ''a childish, saucy-postcard culture that has sex on the brain," and ''the sexism of a nation that can't deal with a female politician except as the love interest in an international soap."
I'm not so sure about the sexism, except in the most general sense. The British papers seem more interested in bashing Straw, whether for sappiness or rudeness, than in diminishing Rice. But as for the rest--I couldn't have said it better myself.