The First Bimbo
Monica Lewinsky, patriot.
She is the most famous person since Helen Keller to achieve her notoriety without uttering a single public word. Not long ago, she toured an art exhibition at a private gallery on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "She was sweet and charming," recalls the artist, who is a friend of mine. "It was a complete surprise."
We call her Monica because, as with all incredibly famous people, we feel we know her. But we actually know very little. All that may change next week when she gives her deposition in the impeachment trial, even though her testimony will be behind irksomely closed doors. Afterward, perhaps she'll grant us a public word or two on the Capitol steps. It would be the first time we will have heard her voice--except on Linda Tripp's tapes.
T here are hints on those tapes that we are doing Monica an injustice in regarding her as a vacuous vixen. "I could not live with myself if I caused trouble," she told Tripp that fateful day a year ago at the Pentagon City Ritz-Carlton, shortly before Kenneth Starr's boys showed up to make her immortal. "That is just not my nature. I am a good person."
Is it possible she's right? That--despite having caused trouble big-time--she is a good person? And maybe not so dumb, either. In one of her marathon phone confessions with Tripp, she even makes a shrewd case that in seducing the president, she was serving the public interest.
"Every ... president we have ever had has always had lovers because the pressure of the job is too much," she lectured her friend Linda. "[It's] too much to always rely on your wife, with whom you have too much baggage. ... I think it's bad for the country." Others besides Clinton have called on young people to perform a period of national service, in or out of the military. Monica the Marine ain't gonna happen. But Lewinsky, a star-spangled patriot, was eager to take on the selfless role of first bimbo.
Even genocidal monsters like Pol Pot's bathing-suit-clad henchmen get more respectful treatment from the press than Monica. Let me quote from the opening lines of a hoked-up exposé in the New York Post two weeks ago: "Sexgate siren Monica Lewinsky tried to cheer up with a chocoholic chow-down. Lewinsky indulged her notorious sweet tooth at a low-cal Madison Avenue bakery. But fat chance she's on a diet." A few nights later, Jay Leno cracked, "I have two words for people who think that sex burns calories--Monica Lewinsky."
By my reckoning, Monica's road to public ridicule was paved by four mistakes--and on each fateful occasion she was encouraged by a much older co-conspirator. These are Monica's maladroit miscues:
1. She was the sexual aggressor using the snap of her thong as a modern-day replacement for a come-hither look. That gesture forever branded her as wanton, but it was Clinton who wanted. Succumbing to a glimpse of thong is not sexual harassment, but of the two of them, Monica is not the one who most clearly should have known better.
2. She pressured the president to find her a job in New York. True, but it was Tripp, in the role of Iago, who originally suggested that she enlist Vernon Jordan and his vast Rolodex in her quest to sample the bounty of the private sector. Anyway, she was right to perceive that this is how you get fancy jobs in New York, with or without the sex angle.
3. She signed a false affidavit in the Paula Jones case. Whatever your beliefs about the formal obstruction of justice case against Clinton, Lewinsky clearly intuited that her mendacity would please the president. If anyone deserves to take refuge in the everybody-lies-about-sex defense, it is Monica, not Clinton.
4. She displayed execrable judgment in posing on a beach with an American flag for Vanity Fair. Her vanity duly engaged--as whose would not be?--Monica lacked the maturity to balk at the magazine's tasteless choice of props. And maybe, after months of house arrest, she wanted to make an up-yours gesture toward Starr. In this case, her elderly betrayer was her then-lawyer, William Ginsburg. Remember him? During his 15 minutes, now thankfully past, he was not in a position to advise anyone to avoid the cameras.
L ike many impressionable young women through the ages, Monica fell under the sway of bad companions. But are these crimes worthy of a lifetime in media purgatory? Not only is she forced to dance whenever Starr pulls the strings on her immunity agreement, but it is difficult to see how and when she can resume a normal life. I have it on good authority that the main reason that Monica hasn't taken a job or even done volunteer work during her ordeal is that she is rightfully fearful that her co-workers would immediately sell her out to the tabloids.
As an intellectual, Monica may be a few boutiques short of a mall. But her Valley Girl airhead image is a cruel caricature. She was smart enough to object initially to the choice of Ginsburg as her attorney. And it is evident from the Starr transcripts that she captivated many members of the grand jury. She also retains a sense of humor about her plight--these days, she jokes, she can make any small company famous by wearing its logo on a baseball cap.
Sure, the Linda Tripp conversations do not make her sound like Simone de Beauvoir discussing her relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. Even Monica, I'm told, was appalled by her incessant use of the word "like" on the tapes. But give the girl a break. Monica is not the only twentysomething obsessed with sex and shopping. What would you talk about with Linda Tripp--military readiness? (And keep in mind that Tripp was covertly trying to keep the conversation going and to steer it in a certain direction.)
A high-ranking middle-aged woman in the Clinton administration said to me recently, "If the world knew about my messy love life in my 20s, I wouldn't be in this job." Monica is an ordinary young woman, who blundered badly when she was exposed to extraordinary temptation. Like Helen of Troy, she's caused a helluva mess--but that doesn't mean she's responsible for it.
Walter Shapiro has covered the last seven presidential campaigns and just completed a fellowship at the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.