The shabby history of the United States in the last year can be laid at the door of three unsavory citizens. President Clinton: shallow, reckless, a blushing trimmer; Monica Lewinsky, aggressive, rouge-lipped exhibitionist; Judge Kenneth Starr, pale, obsessive Pharisee. There was collusion among back-country elected ayatollahs stoning the adulterers in the public square while intoning the satanic verses of the Constitution. And washed up on the banks of the Potomac, the burrowing otters, Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg.
Humiliation, resonant, aching word, near to the sacred, fell at its worst upon the nation as a whole, as a conception, a nation among nations, enlightened despite the wish of some for a premillennial accounting in the wings. Humiliation has at the first dawn fled from Monica Lewinsky; with Judge Starr, many a stumbling perceived, with many to catch his arm before a fall; Clinton, the president, not a sports announcer or a political “adviser” set up for exposure in a Washington hotel, for him the awful moment, or moments, of surrender; the bad dream, to follow him to the grave, of being nude in the streets. Or to lower the tone in an obscurely derived current idiom: He’s toast.
Move on, move on, friends and enemies say. Put the nation in a Santini Van, wrap its underwear in brown paper, and, horn honking, move on. That’s the word for a country of road hogs, for the proper business of the state, for that woman, Miss Lewinsky, for Judge Starr, who seems to threaten to stand in place, still tapping away.
The sad, sad sin of location. As the reigning Head of State, a celebrity with his Marine band and honor guard, he has certain restrictions based upon his high, none higher, recognition factor. So it cannot be a Rooms-by-the-Day Motel, but the Oval Office of the White House, its bathroom or some private corner, whatever, wherever. The President has his oddities of practice coming forth to us from his partner and other deponents going back through the years. Looking over his Police Gazette profile, starting in Arkansas, we can say he is having bad luck due to the Zeitgeist, the historical moment for girls, or women. Previously they were somewhat restrained by self-protection, by not wanting mother, family, children, or job supervisor to know what was going on in the back seat of the car, in the after-hours office. Now there is the book, the lawsuit, the settlement, the chance to join the others on file which gives a jog to old unhealthy memories.
We are told that Monica Lewinsky early on, after her belief that the President had in a crowd cast lustful eye-beams her way, went home to read Gennifer Flowers’s memoir called Sleeping with the President.1 Monica’s bleak “sensual” engagement to come will in no way match Miss Flowers’s hot twelve-year affair, albeit off and on, with the Attorney General of Arkansas and later the Governor of the state. She was much better housed for action, with her own flat in Little Rock, and later her rooms in Fort Worth. “So there I was, head-over-heels in love with the married attorney general of Arkansas. And there he was, head-over-heels in love with me.” The author meets the often encountered measly aspect of words when hoping to describe sexual transport, but she makes her own strenuous effort in passage after passage, of which the following is the cleanest, we might say. “We continued to make love for several more hours, as Bill demonstrated more sexual libido than I have ever seen in a man. I’m not sure how many times he came, but he seemed to be inexhaustible. I remember thinking this is the kind of drive a man needs to become president of the United States.”
There were reassuring polls for the President as the dismaying revelations, depositions, false oaths, and actual impeachment by the House of Representatives fell upon his head, brick after brick. No matter, he seemed to get back up as mysteriously as those creatures flattened in a comic strip. Throughout the pummeling his performance as president was approved by the public. This was due, we heard, to the good economy, more jobs than job-seekers, a little bump of a few cents in the minimum wage, the affection of the black population for the sense he gave of at least knowing they were around. Oh, Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells. And then for some, he’s kinda cute.2
In addition to the charges of perjury, the prosecutors and the Managers in the House of Representatives seemed to want to rebuke the State of the Marriage Union. (What may have been on Legislator Livingston’s plate that led the poor fellow to resign under threat of exposure of violations of his marriage vows, to run into the woods as if there were a posse on his heels—it is altogether pleasant that thus far the public has been spared inside information.)
Weary yawns from the hinterland may partly have arisen from knowledge of Life: Life Science, as the extension courses name it. Philandering husband held in the family pen by the mortgage, the “kids,” debts, in-laws, neighbors, affections, familiarities, fatigue. For the working class, there is nothing to be gained by going public, telling your story, giving the real lowdown on him when nobody knows who he is. The truck-stop waitress who has caught the attention of the tired trucker, attention for a time until he doesn’t show up again. Well, she can overstep, call his home, serious offense, tell the wife all about it. Shut up, bitch, the wife says, and returns to the patio where he is putting a match to the charcoal. Where is the outrage? A good people should be displaying more outrage about everything, so the prompting Mr. William Bennett insists in mournful cadence.
It appears that men are men, DNA. Even the abstemious Prosecutor Starr seemed to have an inkling of this and thus ordained that his desired impeachment of the President should not be about sex. The dread business at hand was lying under oath about sex when summoned to the courts. True, the President’s prevaricating affidavit in the Paula Jones case might have passed as an unfortunate deception. Still and yet, addressing the world on television, solemn as a rogue in a Molière comedy, and denying that he had ever had sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky: that is a haunting bit of dramaturgy.
Lying under oath. In the courtrooms, a ringing Not Guilty plea is not always taken literally. It often says: Prove me guilty if you can and meet my defense attorney here by my side.
Courtroom scene, imaginary:
Did your wife threaten you with a gun?
Yes, Sir, she did.
Did you then in self-defense take the gun from her?
That is correct.
The gun went off and your wife was accidentally shot and killed. Is that your testimony?
Yes, Sir, it is.
Verdict: Murder in the First Degree.
The wanton licentiousness of the questioning of Monica Lewinsky by the Independent Counsel’s Office made this a most interesting, vivid presidential scandal to rest in all its skulking, panting eternity in the basement of the Library of Congress. The detail so rich, so concrete, a riveting pornography elicited with a bug-eyed tenacity, a prosecutorial relishing in passing beyond the intention to establish that sex had indeed taken place between the two in the White House. Many, indeed most, of the legislators voiced one after another a concern not only for themselves but for the corruption of our children and grandchildren. The unborn innocents got a lot: nine instances of oral sex, the responses of the performers, extravagant documentation of completions or what appear to be withdrawals; what rewards, if any, for the performing female, and how achieved, the interesting possibilities of the telephone as an instrument of excitation.
Did the President ever use a cigar in a sexual way? Did he touch her on the breast or in the genital area? Was it through her clothes or in direct contact with the skin? Had the President masturbated her when he put his hand down her trousers?
As this speculation dragged on about Monica Lewinsky, the sole witness, it was feared that in the minds of some of the old-fashioned, largely Christian folk waiting in the House of Representatives she might be what their generation called a fast number. A certain sanitizing of her image began in the Independent Counsel chambers. After the voluble and valuable tape recording of her tone and practice by her friend, Linda Tripp, it was prudent to shift the accent lest it veer away from the central figure, the President. The predatory groupie of the tapes became the “young intern,” a sort of medieval page at court and above all young, which she was and is.
Monica’s Story, by Andrew Morton. A vertiginous accounting of bantering baby talk mixed with her extraordinary bordello reminiscences. She it is who proudly wears the bright red A on her bosom but it is he who “will not speak.” When at last Clinton is forced, or thinks he is forced, to address the nation and admit that his denial of the sex affair was false and that what he did was “wrong” and “inappropriate,” Monica, listening, was, as ever, Niobe, all tears. She had wanted him to say that what he did he did for love and so what was this stuff about wrong and inappropriate? “I was very hurt and angered by his speech. I felt like a piece of trash.” He should have acknowledged her worth, her suffering, and that of her family.
Her story has a pleasant beginning. Mr. Morton is chatting with Monica Lewinsky in a “smart apartment building in Beverly Hills.” She’s free and on the television screen Kenneth Starr is giving his twelve-hour testimony in the impeachment trial of the President. Monica is knitting, worrying “about changing to smaller needles to make her scarf less bulky.” Soon he reports that his subject has a “remarkable capacity to remember times, places and dates with precision and accuracy.” To the point since this is her story. She is poised, articulate; she is also suffering from low self-esteem. She is demure and polite, “a far cry from the brassy Beverly Hills babe of media mythology.”
She has a weight problem. We learn about her family, her high school days, her parents’ divorce. At Beverly Hills High School drama department she met up with a big moment, one Andy Bleiler, and then, and then, when she was nineteen she lost her virginity to him who had in the meantime married. He tells her he’s moving to Portland, Oregon, and she transfers from Santa Monica College to Lewis and Clark College, in Portland. The affair with Bleiler continued, off and on, for five years, “a time she remembers with a mixture of tenderness, sorrow, anger and bitterness.” He’s unfaithful to her and to his wife as well. It’s a mess.
Her candor, a cataract of expressiveness that got her in trouble on the Linda Tripp tapes, has not abated in her interviews with Morton for purposes of the story to be presented to the public. It’s a curiosity.
Things aren’t going well with Andy and so she has a “fling” with his younger brother. Here her constant thought of being fat, of looking too fat, of having a closet in Washington of “fat clothes” indicate that she truly was fat, although in good shape now for her appearances. Anyone who has lived in a town or small city can remember that fat girls “put out” when they got a chance, or so the gossip went. In any case, Monica said that the “fling” with her lover’s brother was not only done as revenge for Andy’s infidelity but because he had told her his brother would “‘never like [her] because he only liked tall, skinny women.’ Monica felt that she had shown him otherwise.”
The story proceeds as it will, and perhaps unfortunately for many. Monica Lewinsky is off to Washington to serve in the White House as an unpaid intern. One day, a public gathering, and there he is, the President himself. It’s Hail to the Chief and to the intern who finds that he “exudes a sexual energy.” On to another occasion, the President going down the line shaking hands, and her turn in the hand-shaking: “He undressed me with his eyes.” Second sight, perhaps: “the capacity to see remote or future objects or events.” And yet once more, at a public gathering she throws him a kiss and he laughs. “The following day saw Monica…fondly expecting the Secret Service to call her discreetly…. Every time the phone rang her nerves jangled. The day passed, however, without the dramatic presidential request for her company.” A mind of such wondrous concentration is a cocoon, or like a succulent oyster ever floating in its shell.
As the internship’s term elapses, she accepts an offer to stay on as a paid employee in the Office of Internal Affairs (well named), quarters in the White House. Before the new situation could begin there was the government shutdown, but being still an unpaid young courtier she could be useful in filling the gap left by the absent regular staff. The chaotic scene is also useful and there is the President running about and there is Monica saying “Hi!” and soon she decides to “raise the stakes.” A famous moment in the imperial history narrated by our Saint-Simon: “She put her hands on her hips and with her thumbs lifted the back of her jacket, allowing him a fleeting glimpse of her thong underwear where it showed above the waistline of her suit’s pants.” And she is invited to the throne room where the first oral sex takes place while the monarch is on a phone call from a congressman. “We clicked at an incredible level. People have made it seem so demeaning for me but it wasn’t; it was exciting and the irony is that I had the first orgasm of the relationship.” What can you do with a poised, demure, intelligent, articulate, insecure, witty, vulnerable, low-self-esteem, overweight girl like that?
Meanwhile the halls of the White House have become like a bowling alley with Monica knocking down ninepins—Betty Currie, guards—with every throw. “When clouds are seen, wise men put on their cloaks,” a citizen opines during the raucous, disorderly reign of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Clinton cannot be named wise and was slow to put on his cloak, but Monica, as importunate as a tornado, was to find him unavailable to her whirling solicitations. The business was to be closed down, for the duration as they said in wartime. At last a wise person appeared on the scene: enter the noble Mrs. Evelyn Lieberman, who, seeing Monica dashing about the halls, requests her pass. Who goes there? When she learns that indeed it’s a paid employee with the right tag around her neck, she provides a sharp, swift bit of dialogue: “They hired you?”
The pesky clerk is exiled to the Pentagon and at first this would seem to be a welcome all-clear, noontide whistle for the beleaguered White House. Instead, a missile launching was ahead. In the fortress, Monica is miserable and has nothing on her mind except returning to her former post, about which wish Clinton and others had said they “would try”—a white lie for once. Telephone calls, presents sent, messages delivered by courier, demands to return to the White House. She dashes to the line outside the church the Clintons attend.
She manages to be in New York for the celebration of the President’s fiftieth birthday where, “in the crush of people around him, she was able to briefly brush his crotch with her hand as he is greeting well-wishers.” At the inaugural ball for the second term she waits “five hours behind the rope line so that she can see him on the stage with the First Lady.” She’s not always standing in line and so for one whose boast is to be ever “comfortable with her sexuality” she has a three-month “relationship,” another favorite word, with an older married man, a colleague at the Pentagon. The relationship led to an abortion.
Even though she no longer had a White House pass, Betty Currie, the President’s secretary, could invite her for certain gatherings. This she did for a small occasion, and after it was over Monica was allowed to go alone to the presidential office and this produced a prime exhibition for the courtroom drama. Miss Lewinsky had felt “demeaned” by the habit of the President, who “in the middle of oral sex… pushed her away.” She complained and he agreed to go, as it were, all the way, and Monica felt that “at last he truly trusted her.” Later, it was found, with Linda Tripp’s assistance, that a telltale semen stain had hit the Gap dress, a garment on a coat hanger that would provide a star turn in the impeachment trial. The stain, like a bloody footprint, and his.
Filth, squalor, folly, and base inanity—the tale grows wearisome until a speeding diversion. Mrs. Linda Tripp, a Pentagon colleague. An ear for Monica, who is still in the matter of discretion running a big deficit, as nurses name it when describing the victims of a stroke. Mrs. Tripp, forty-five years old when the alliance began, divorced from a soldier, two children, secretarial school, work in the administration of George Bush, said by many to pass boring office hours by gossip and intrigue. Disapproved of the style of the Clinton folk. A weight problem once more. And when facing the cameras, a sort of celebrity, needing a bit of a makeover of hair and wardrobe, like Paula Jones. Things certainly come Linda Tripp’s way, a fortuity not unwelcome.
For a time she stayed on in the White House after the Bush defeat, and when Vincent Foster, Deputy White House Counsel, committed suicide she was the last person to see him alive. She testified in Kenneth Starr’s investigation of the suicide. She had connections with the lawyers in the Paula Jones suit against the President; she knew Kathleen Willey, who told her about the sexual harassment incident in Clinton’s office. Contrary to Mrs. Willey’s story, Tripp said Willey came out of the office “disheveled but happy.”
Monica, a river of startling words, flowed over Linda Tripp day and night and the receiver found the words refreshing indeed, a dunking most valuable since she was posting a book proposal about the misdeeds of the Clintons. She encouraged the younger woman to continue the pursuit, a superfluity like asking a barking dog to keep at it. And then Linda Tripp began to record the telephone calls, without permission and illegal in Maryland, where she lived. She got out her notebook for a listing of Monica’s lovers, tape rolling. Seven or eight if you count a “health-nut boy” whose name she doesn’t remember. It is at this point that Monica takes the view, also expressed by the President, that oral sex isn’t truly sex; sex is intercourse. Mrs. Tripp murmurs, “I’m getting an education late in life.”3
Why the taping began is somewhat confusing or purposefully muddled even though it doesn’t need explanation because Linda Tripp was as loquacious as Monica and liked to tell friends and reporters that she had some hot information about sex at the White House while refusing to name the girl. According to Mrs. Tripp, the suggestion to tape Monica’s calls came from the book agent Lucianne Goldberg. The agent is a woman of striking intrepidity, colorful speech, dramatically conservative, a hound on the trail of useful scandal. She had been involved with Tripp on the failed first book project about the Clinton administration’s misdeeds, and when the much more inflammatory story of Monica came to her notice she advised Tripp to wake up, get it down, documentation, on tape. Tripp’s contention later that she needed documentation for her own protection against threatening enemies and so on was not entirely convincing, to put it in a way that avoids libel. In any case, the show was on the road. Goldberg put Linda in touch with Paula Jones’s lawyers and Monica Lewinsky entered the case as indicative of Clinton’s “pattern of behavior.”4
Nevertheless, Monica Lewinsky is going along in her own dear fashion. If a bomb went off outside her window, she would probably think: Oh, good. He must be calling me. He was calling less often and keeping his vow of celibacy outside marriage. Linda Tripp knew what was ahead for Monica: the tapes, a subpoena, exposure, big trouble. After encouraging the hapless one to hang on, she began to advise her to get out of town, to New York, where her mother was living. A job preference list was sent to the Oval Office and the response was like a splendid, beribboned basket of fruits and flowers delivered express by Vernon Jordan. The United Nations was on the list and by way of the White House staff, not Jordan this time, there was the US ambassador to the United Nations, “Bill” Richardson, on Monica’s phone saying, “Hi! I understand you want to come and work for me.” And she is off for an interview in his Watergate apartment. After a thirty-minute discussion, he offered her a job in his public affairs office. It turned out the place didn’t appeal to her. So it’s a “working lunch” with Vernon Jordan in his office and interviews with American Express and Revlon. She met with the top executives at Revlon, where Jordan was a member of the board of directors, and was offered a job paying $40,000 a year.
The interventions for this clerk are indeed a saintly generosity. Busy and kind corporate gentlemen must nevertheless have a reason for choosing one among the many needy that cross their path. Of course, the reason here was pressing: Monica had the goods on him and everyone concerned knew it. On the other hand, she, who has no more sense of nuance than a coyote, could well have believed that lawyers, jobs, lunches came her way because she was a friend people would naturally want to help.
The subpoena to appear in the Jones case intervened and Vernon Jordan secured for her the respected lawyer Frank Carter. Not telling him the truth led to her signing an affidavit that she had only met the President several times as an employee, that she had not had sex with him, and that he did not offer her employment or other benefits in exchange for a sexual relationship, and so on.
She was packing to leave for New York when Linda Tripp seduced her into a lunch date where she was met by FBI agents and taken to a room in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. “For ten hours Monica was alone with as many as nine armed FBI agents and Starr’s deputies, hard-boiled characters who normally hunt or prosecute those responsible for the most serious and brutal federal offenses.” Linda Tripp, placed in another room, was in touch by phone with the Paula Jones attorneys.
Monica asked to call her lawyer and was strongly encouraged not to do so. A lawyer of their own choosing was proposed. She asked to call her mother and was told that her mother too was not necessary. Starr’s lieutenant gave her the choice: twenty-seven years in jail or immediate cooperation. Susan MacDougal in handcuffs and leg irons made its point. The detectives themselves suggested that Monica, as a bit of cooperation, wear a wire and she refused. She was told that her false affidavit was a felony, even though it had not yet been filed by her lawyer, Frank Carter. Her mother arrived from New York and it was after one in the morning when they went back to their Watergate apartment.
Mr. Ginsburg, a legal friend of Monica’s father, was brought into the case and into the long struggle of refusing to testify unless granted immunity. Ginsburg was found to have too much fun declaiming into the microphones of the press and on talk shows, a bit of harmless celebrity malpractice which accorded with his specialty in law as a malpractice attorney. A new legal team was hired, immunity to prosecution granted, and the degrading, capricious trial, the tapes, the blow jobs were given to history and to the world. A rough time indeed for Monica Lewinsky, but she eased into it and the members of the grand jury entered their opinion into the record. “We wanted to offer you a bouquet of good wishes that includes luck, success, happiness, and blessings.” Her interview with Barbara Walters was beamed to the world in spectacular numbers, as if for a declaration of war. Monica’s Story is crossing the plains and the oceans. She does not underline the gravity of what has occurred, the drastic diminishment of the civil and political life of the nation. But she’s sorry and has many worries on her mind, especially the frequently expressed fear that no one would want to marry her now.
For months and months and still remaining, perhaps never to be expunged: a druidical Halloween of rascals with law degrees lighting fires and casting spells. And the biggest, saddest spook of all, President Clinton.
April 22, 1999
Sleeping with the President: My Intimate Years with Bill Clinton (Anonymous Press, 1998). ↩
One wit wrote that perhaps Jews liked Clinton because in high school instead of going out for the football team he signed up for the band. (Philip Weiss, The New York Observer, March 15, 1999.) ↩
Communication from The Office of the Independent Counsel, Kenneth W. Starr, pp. 2263-2264. ↩
The most interesting, densely argued, and reflective examination of the Starr Report appeared in articles written by Renata Adler. See Vanity Fair, December 1998, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 14, 1999. ↩