Slate Exclusive

Aug. 7 1998 3:30 AM

Slate Exclusive

We hear Monica speak! Sort of.

The grand jurors are not the only people who heard Monica Lewinsky in the courthouse this morning. I present a scoop--Monica's only public, audible statement: "Can I put a phone in here? Is that OK?"

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More later on how I collected this tidbit. First, an exegesis. Monica asked these two questions to the marshal manning the X-ray machine at the courthouse door. They are not, admittedly, gripping remarks. They are not, sadly, a muttered "I'm going to destroy El Schmucko!" Still, let's milk these 10 words for all they're worth.

David Plotz David Plotz

David Plotz is Slate's editor at large. He's the author of The Genius Factory and Good Book.

First, a critical question of interpretation: From my sense of her body language and tone, Monica was clearly checking to make sure the phone would not disturb the X-ray machine. She was not asking whether the X-ray would damage the phone. She was not, in short, making a selfish, materialistic inquiry.

That settled, what do we glean from her two sentences? 1) Monica is the kind of woman who has a cell phone; 2) Monica is deferential to authority; and 3) Monica is not feeling too confident. She didn't need to ask "Is that OK?" The first question sufficed, but Monica felt so unsure that she asked the second question.

The more revealing aspect of her comments: her voice, which has remained a tantalizing mystery. From 40 paces down a corridor, it sounded like the voice of a typical educated 25-year-old woman, with none of the Valley Girl stupidity or helium-squeakiness it has been rumored to have.

This analysis is, of course, an absurd exercise, but no more absurd than anything else about today. Because of Monica's testimony, this is the biggest day in Flytrap since the scandal broke. But it is also a pointless day--or at least a pointless morning. (Monica's lawyers have called a press conference for 5:30 p.m., after my deadline.) Every camera crew, TV correspondent, and newspaper reporter gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue knows, to a nearly perfect certainly, that we will report nothing of substance this morning. The mob has assembled to see Monica get out of a car, open a courthouse door, walk 10 feet down a corridor, and disappear. Something momentous may be happening in the grand jury chamber but, as far as news goes, it is a complete vacuum. No matter: Her presence makes the D.C. federal courthouse the undisputed center of the media world.

Ifigure that if I'm going to be part of a pointless media frenzy, I might as well do it right. So I have arrived at the courthouse at 5 a.m. to scope the scene. I am not the first. A gaggle of journalists camps by the side door. Why? Two words: "The List." The List, which holds 10 names, filled as soon as it was opened Wednesday afternoon. Representatives from ABC, CBS, NBC, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and other outlets have pulled all-nighters to protect their spots. (A Newsday reporter arrives at 5:30 in hope of getting Listed. As he tries vainly to cajole the marshal, another newspaper reporter gloats, "He's totally screwed.")

In fact, the List is a dubious honor, an excellent example of the pathetic running battle between the Flytrap authorities and the Flytrap media. The Flytrap authorities are winning: The List entitles you to stand in the hall outside the third-floor grand jury room (everyone else must wait on the first floor). Listees may not eat, drink, or sit down. They may not speak to lawyers or witnesses. They cannot even see anyone enter or leave the grand jury chamber, because Judge Norma Holloway Johnson has installed partitions to block the view. The Listees have been reduced to staring at the shiny marble walls in hopes of seeing the reflection of a lawyer or witness.

By 7, the rabble has arrived. Channel 11 from Pittsburgh. The Action News team from Raleigh-Durham, N.C. I count 25 TV trucks and 53 TV cameras. Because no one knows where Monica will arrive, the cameras cover every line of sight to every courthouse door. CNN has even mounted a camera on a cherry picker to get a better shot of the most likely entrance. A minute before 7, the courthouse plaza lights up like a fairyland: All the 20-odd correspondents are bathed in TV light as they begin delivering their morning spiels.

As I watch this, I am waylaid by two wispy-bearded, chin-pierced college kids, Spike and Jimi. They are interns from the local alternative rock radio station, sent to make trouble. They hand me a phone, where I find myself live on the air. I sputter through an interview with the disc jockey. They start chanting into a megaphone behind me: "If you can't find the sperm, let the worm finish his term!" and other, less printable, rhymes. Spike and Jimi are the only street theater going, but the cameras ignore them.

By 8, a few of us have adjourned to the first floor of the courthouse in anticipation of Monica's arrival. An AP reporter spreads the latest unsubstantiated rumor: Monica had a breakdown last night and won't be testifying. False: A couple of minutes later, cell phone reports say she has left the Watergate. Only 15 of us are waiting inside the courthouse. The TV folks have stayed outside, because cameras are banned, and others haven't arrived yet, because they don't expect Monica till 9. Too bad for them.

A guard shoos us well back from the door where she will enter, and at 8:25 a black sport utility vehicle pulls up outside the glass door. Monica gets out first and opens the courthouse door. She is wearing a blue suit--not quite navy blue, but a bit closer to that notorious color than I would have chosen--and white pumps and is carrying a white purse. She looks neither relaxed nor nervous.

It is weird, inexplicably weird, to see her in the flesh. The 15 of us, who had been talking loudly, fall into a spooky silence when she opens the door. (It is during this quiet that I hear her two questions.) The silence continues for 30 seconds till she walks around the corner and disappears into a closed back corridor, followed by her legal team. At that point the reporters break ranks, some sprinting up the stairs, some (like me) clambering into an elevator in hopes of seeing her enter the grand jury room. No such luck. She's inside and hidden, and there's nothing more to see.

The courthouse is not the only political circus in Washington this morning. After Monica vanishes, I stroll to Capitol Hill to see the Rep. Dan Burton spectacle. Burton, who's the chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, the force behind the campaign finance investigation, and an all-around nutter, wants his committee to cite Attorney General Janet Reno for contempt of Congress. Reno, Burton claims, is breaking the law by refusing a subpoena for confidential FBI and Justice Department reports about the campaign finance investigation. The contempt measure is expected to pass but, appropriately for this theatrical day, it is a theatrical gesture: The full House is highly unlikely to approve such an inflammatory action.

The contempt scheme is such a stupid, vicious, wrongheaded idea that it is a joy to watch Rep. Henry Waxman, Burton's Democratic nemesis, grandstand against it. "For the past two years we have seen this committee systematically demean and abuse almost every tool of congressional investigations. ... Today, Mr. Chairman, you are demeaning perhaps the most serious power we have--the power of contempt," Waxman announces to the committee. "Today if the Republican majority supports the chairman, our actions will be added to the growing list of travesties that this committee has inflicted on the oversight and congressional process. We have made a shambles of any pretense of seriousness and dignity.

"The chairman seems to relish every fight and go out of his way to provoke every imaginable showdown. What does it accomplish? Nothing. Any fight, of course, attracts some media attention. But are we doing anything of consequence today? No."

And that, I suppose, is today's moral.

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