Monica and Me

April 16 1998 3:30 AM

Monica and Me

Her contributions to the GDP--and to our polity--are not easily measured.

I can imagine you saying, "What's Monica to him, or he to Monica?" But, in fact, we are quite close.

For one thing, I am her neighbor. I live in the East building of the Watergate complex, and she lives in the South building. It is said that she lives, with her mother, next-door to Sen. Bob Dole. From the deck of my apartment I can look across the plaza, less than a hundred yards, at the Dole apartment. So, I suppose I can look at Monica's apartment.

Dole's presence is manifest. A picture of him getting a haircut is on the wall of the Watergate barbershop. Sometimes, when in the swimming pool, I have seen the senator on his terrace and exchanged a word with him. Two years ago, before the presidential election campaign, I met him coming out of the drugstore and used the occasion to advise him that cutting taxes was not a winning issue. He did not take my advice, and now he is known chiefly as Monica Lewinsky's neighbor.

I don't think I have ever seen Monica. There are always several young girls, many of them students at nearby George Washington University, buying food at the Watergate Safeway. Monica, the overage Lolita, may have been one of them--but of course, I would not have singled her out for attention before the publicity. In fact, I don't think I could pick her out in a group of girls even now--unless she were embracing President Clinton. Him I would recognize.

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W hen I come out of my apartment I usually see a group of photographers waiting near the entrance to Watergate South, hoping to get a glimpse of her. There used to be 10 or 20. Now there are four or five. Some days there are none. As I write this, on Palm Sunday, there are none. Perhaps she has gone to California for Passover. Maybe, now that the Paula Jones case has been thrown out, the paparazzi will leave her alone and she will feel free to go to Safeway.

The photographers bring folding chairs. They seem in no hurry. On rainy days they sit under umbrellas and wrap their cameras in plastic. I saw one photographer whom I knew slightly and asked if he had sighted her. He had been there for three days and had not. In fact, I have never seen her on television coming out of the Watergate, but I may just have missed it.

I wonder if the work of these photographers is in the GDP. Of course, it wouldn't be. They are an input. The output will be a shot on television of Monica, and the value of that will be in the GDP. Someone evidently thinks this value will exceed the cost of keeping the photographers on guard. And who will pay that cost? Why, you and I, TV watchers, will pay, via the soft drinks and cars and toothpaste we buy.

But residential proximity is not my only connection to Monica. I am a member of the Cosmos Club, a rather conservative--some would say stuffy--club in an old mansion on Massachusetts Avenue. The membership is also pretty old, although not as old as the mansion. William Ginsburg, Monica's lawyer, stays there when he is in Washington. He is not a member of the Cosmos but does belong to a club in Los Angeles with which the Cosmos has reciprocal arrangements. He has met with Monica at the Cosmos and once had an interview with Barbara Walters there. Naturally this brought the press crowding around the entrance. In fact, one pressed so close, his foot was run over by Monica's limousine. There was no serious damage, however; reporters are a hardy lot. There's probably a Pulitzer in it for him. One reporter tried to get into the club by tapping a connection with a friend who is a member, but he was refused admission on the reasonable grounds that he wasn't wearing a necktie.

There hasn't been so much excitement around the club since a vote was taken, 10 years ago, to allow women to become members. One member who had voted no on that occasion was heard to say, "See, you admit women and the next thing you know you have people like Monica Lewinsky and Barbara Walters hanging around." But on the whole, the members took the excitement with good humor and were amused by the irony of the difference in culture between the Cosmos Club and the Oval Office.

Igave a lecture on the American economy in Tel Aviv, Israel, last month. I did not mention Monica in my lecture, but the first question I was asked was how President Clinton could do his job with all the distractions caused by the Monica Lewinsky affair. I gave my stock answer: In the first place, we don't know the truth; in the second place, the presidency is not a person but a team. Presumably some members of the team, such as the secretary of the treasury and the secretary of state, were not that distracted. I had my own experience, during the Nixon administration, of carrying on despite swirling scandal.

Later, I thought the subject required more analysis. One had to separate the relationship, whatever it was, between Monica, et al., and the president before it hit the headlines from what happened afterward. I remember that some people complained President Eisenhower was distracted from the business of his office because he was out playing golf so much. But we were told, and I think most people accepted the explanation, that golf relaxed Ike from the stresses of his job and enabled him to perform better. A similar explanation was offered, but privately, to some in the press who were aware of President Kennedy's sexual conduct. Perhaps Clinton's relationships can be justified in the same way. That would assume, of course, that the president did not feel any psychological stress from realizing he was behaving in what many people regard as an immoral way. That apparently was no problem for Kennedy. About Clinton we don't know.

After the alleged relationship became public property, the situation was different. Certainly there was much distraction at that point. What we have to ask, however, is whether that was a bad thing. Would it be better for the president, and the first lady too, for that matter, to be able to give their undivided attention to getting America across that bridge into the next millennium than it is to have them distracted by the Monica affair? I'm not sure.

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