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Lewinsky at courthouse last week for a grand jury appearance. (Reuters)

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ESSAY
The Monica Mystique

By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 27, 1998; Page C01

It's as if America got jealous watching England create Diana.

We wanted one of our own. We wanted a big-eyed, beleaguered, lovelorn princess with very, very white teeth and the power to heave ruling establishments into the media volcano. We wanted our own weight-worried rich kid with a nasty father, a girl-wonder in malice-land, a walking contradiction of saint 'n' sinner, vixen 'n' victim with a knack for the sort of fame that makes the world call you by your first name.

What we got was Monica, a sort of recombinant clone of both Garbo and Gabor -- the neurotic evasiveness of Greta and the marabou pompom opportunism of Zsa Zsa, an impossible combination that keeps Monica a little out of focus, indefinable, disturbing.

The problem is that Princess Diana had a shimmery transparence, and Monica has an earthbound opacity. Diana was legend and Monica is rumor. Diana was mysterious. Monica is unsettling.

Anita Hill, the accuser in the Clarence Thomas sex scandal, asked in the Village Voice: "Was she scorned and vindictive or simply an attention getter?"

In London, the Guardian called Monica both "the wronged and the righteous."

Slate, an online magazine, told us that Monica got pulled into "an innocent paternal relationship." But the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and People magazine, among others, report that she told the family of another married lover, "I'm going to the White House to get my presidential kneepads." And the National Enquirer, a supermarket tabloid, quotes the father figure here, Bill Clinton, as saying, "The woman is dangerous. She hallucinates. She fantasizes. I don't know if she even knows what the truth is anymore."

There's something wrong. You can't put your finger on it. This may be why people say they're tired of hearing about Monica, and why they also keep pushing talk show ratings through the ceiling -- people don't like her because they can't get a fix on her, but they have to keep trying.

A contradiction sampler:

She's charming and witty. She's a dodo.

She's a spoiled rich brat. She's a poor little rich girl.

She's sweet, with not "a mean bone in her body," according to a roommate. Then her fellow White House interns give her the nicknames "Vampira" and "The Stalker."

Is she the greatest groupie in the history of the Age of Celebrities? Is Bill Clinton the greatest celebrity in the Age of Groupies? But Monica isn't much of a groupie -- her biggest score before Clinton appears to have been a high school drama teacher. And Clinton isn't much of a celebrity if he spends 18 months consorting with a woman Mick Jagger would have booted out after 20 minutes.

As for Monica, she says nothing in public. Not a word. Amazing. She appears on no talk shows. She dodges the Hamptons and the New York club scene. She has appeared voluntarily in one magazine, Vanity Fair. She stays home and watches the soaps, or so it's said. Visits an occasional restaurant. Yet she has become a celebrity, a candidate for the glitterati sainthood of the First Church of American Fame. It helps that there's so much mystery around her.

There is mystery because Bill Clinton kept lying about her.

"Here's a new one for you: the guy who ruined a girl's reputation by telling everyone they didn't have sex." -- Nell Bernstein, Pacific News Service.

There is mystery because she kept lying about herself. Then there is mystery because they both changed their minds and told what is said to be the truth.

Monica is prey and predator. Clinton took advantage of her weakness or she took advantage of Clinton's weakness. Or both: They deserve each other, as Maureen Dowd said in the New York Times. "Monica Lewinsky is Bill Clinton's legacy. They are linked together forever and ever," Dowd said. "In its own way, it's a perfect ending."

It is madness to speculate on the motives of women in love, especially of lonely women in love, of ambitious, presumptuous, naive women in love, of directionless daughters of Beverly Hills in love. Especially those occupants of addresses in the 90210 zip code; they grow up understanding that a sexual score with a big producer, a huge director, a vast star, can only enhance their status and appeal in Hollywood.

Ah, but in Washington, it makes you worse than notorious: It makes you dangerous, an agent of chaos. Washington doesn't like agents of chaos. Now it is beginning to fear that Bill Clinton is the agent of chaos, not Monica.

It is madness to speculate on the motives of men in love, too, though men are simpler creatures whose apparent complexities are often no more than flaws.

Men are dumb enough to ask: If Monica was in all this love with Bill, how come she didn't do her make-over till they broke up? The answer, it seems, is that she was trapped in her Watergate apartment with nothing to do but watch television, on which she was appearing at every station break. She hated the way she looked. So she took that awkward, lumpy kid whom anybody could sympathize with and turned herself into a billboard for lipstick and perfect hair, slightly atremble. Oh, look at her gavotting on the beach in an evening gown; look at her staring soulfully over a feather fan in her photo spread in Vanity Fair! She looks guilty, guilty, guilty. Far more important, though, she looks seductive the way some women like to look seductive -- like mere advertisements for themselves, but not the real thing. The advertisement does not quite succeed. The unsettled feeling grows.

Why would a woman like this respond to a man with such random and voracious taste in women? Which is to say:

Why Clinton?

He has power.

So did George Bush.

Clinton's a celebrity.

So was Reagan.

Clinton's a Democrat.

So was Jimmy Carter.

Clinton has great hair.

So did Kennedy.

Clinton is like Kennedy.

So was Kennedy, and he did it a lot better.

It is madness to speculate on the motives of anyone in love. It is folly to look for plot lines in the life of Monica, to look for what the movie people call "arc" or what actors call "motivation." Only Monica knows. Or Monica's psychiatrist. Or mother. Or high school friends or fellow White House interns, or former lovers . . . all of whom keep contradicting one another.

No wonder we don't want to see any more about her. No wonder we keep watching.


© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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