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At the heart of the story is a young woman's craving for recognition and attention. Monica Lewinsky grew up pampered but possibly emotionally neglected in Beverly Hills, Calif. Her father was a cancer doctor with a busy practice; her mother was a socialite who loved to drop celebrity names. She lived in a million-dollar house; Dad drove a Cadillac, Mom drove a Mercedes; the housekeeper took Monica and her brother, Michael, to tennis lessons, Hebrew school and the orthodontist. When Monica was 15, her parents went through a nasty divorce. In court papers, mother charged father with "screaming obscenities" and "belittling the children" by, on "many occasions," saying " 'leave the dinner table,' 'go to your room,' and 'we don't want your opinion'." (Bernard Lewinsky denied the allegations.) Other court documents listing the family's expenses included $760 a month for psychiatrists' bills for the children. Last week Monica's classmates at Beverly Hills High remembered her unkindly as a girl who had "gone to a fat farm" and strived to be popular.
An indifferent student, she went for two years to a local community college and then to Lewis & Clark, a small liberal-arts bastion in Portland, Ore. The real-estate agent who showed the house Lewinsky was renting described her as "cold" and her house as "filthy." Lewinsky "kept a container with about a dozen new condoms by her bed on a table," said the agent, Bob Elston. She was "very flirtatious, also a bit emotional, young and somewhat immature, and she talked a lot," said classmate Steve Enghouse, who spoke to reporters because of his suspicion that Lewinsky had concocted an imaginary romance with President Clinton in order to attract attention. Enghouse told reporters, "I don't think anyone who really knew her would put it past her to have made this up."
A White House internship gave Lewinsky a shot at reflected glory. (The job was arranged by Democratic moneyman Walter Kaye, a family friend who has donated more than $300,000 to the party.) Among staffers at the White House, where she arrived in June 1995, Monica Lewinsky was known as a "clutch." If an important person shook her hand, she wouldn't let go. Her determination to enter the inner sanctums of the White House was exceptional, even among other star-struck young interns. Lewinsky was relegated to room 93 on the ground floor of the Old Executive Office Building, where she opened mail. But her blue "hard pass" allowed her to freely roam the corridors of the White House, and she never passed up an opportunity to linger outside the Oval Office.
At the White House, female interns tend to be willowy and well bred. With her heavy makeup, revealing blouses and occasionally ribald comments, Lewinsky did not really fit in. While some colleagues remember her as "bubbly," others called her pushy and self-aggrandizing. She tended to exaggerate the importance of her menial tasks, and to hint at important "political connections." She bragged that she had used her White House pass to get into Democratic Party fund-raisers downtown, where she could be close to the president as he pressed the flesh.
Lewinsky inevitably attracted the attention of Evelyn Lieberman, then deputy chief of staff and a close friend of Hillary Clinton's, who served as a kind of informal hall monitor and watchdog. Lieberman sent Lewinsky home to change when she showed up for work in a low-cut white dress, and repeatedly scolded the 21-year-old intern for spending too much time hanging around at Rose Garden ceremonies, receptions, fund-raisers, any event where the president might appear.
Lieberman, White House sources say, wanted to get Lewinsky far away from the Oval Office. In April 1996, Lewinsky was shuffled off to a job at the Pentagon. In a three-page letter to her former supervisor at the White House, Lewinsky protested the transfer; according to a source who has seen the document, the tone was, "how could you do this to me?" Working as an assistant in the public-affairs office, she continued to boast about her White House connections. Once, when Clinton appeared on TV, Lewinsky announced that the president was wearing a tie she had bought for him. Willie Blacklow, a former deputy assistant secretary for public affairs at the Pentagon, says he was always a bit skeptical of Lewinsky's professed intimacy with the president, until he accompanied her to a White House Christmas party in December 1996. Lewinsky was "dressed to the hilt, with a semi-low-cut red dress." They were going through the receiving line when, Blacklow recalls, Clinton gave her an enthusiastic greeting, saying "Hi, Monica!" and "hugged" her. "I was kind of stunned," Blacklow said. "There was no question that she was something more than just another gofer." (Blacklow recalled that Hillary Clinton also recognized Lewinsky and shook her hand.) Blacklow says he liked Lewinsky, considering her a "sweet young kid," but said it was something of a "mystery" how someone with her youth and inexperience had landed her Pentagon job a post that came with a top-secret security clearance and took her on a half-dozen trips around the world. "Her knowledge of politics was extremely limited," he said.
According to her co-workers, Lewinsky also bragged about romantic flings with a midlevel civilian official at Defense and a colonel working on the Joint Staff (both men told friends the stories were untrue). Most of Lewinsky's colleagues ignored or were bemused by her girlish showing-off. But one who listened closely was Linda Tripp, an aide in the Pentagon's public-affairs office. Tripp, 48, soon struck up an intimate friendship with Lewinsky. Though Tripp was more than twice Lewinsky's age, the two bantered easily about sex and shopping. Lewinsky played the role of ingenue, Tripp that of wiser woman of the world. Over time, the friendship evolved into a kind of mother-daughter bond.
Because Tripp plays such a critical role in surfacing Lewinsky's alleged relationship with President Clinton, and because her later exposure of her friend seems perplexing, if not downright suspicious, Tripp's personality and character bear close examination. A career civil servant who had followed her husband, an army officer, around the world until their divorce in 1992, Tripp is described by co-workers as warm and nurturing also as domineering and manipulative. She has a love of office intrigue, sometimes playing off different officemates against each other and delighting in water-cooler gossip, especially about the foibles of her bosses. A holdover from the Bush administration who got a job as an administrative aide to White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum, Tripp was around for the early stumbles and scandals of the Clinton administration. She was the last person to see deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster alive on the day he shot himself (Tripp brought Foster lunch: a hamburger and some M&Ms). Left without duties when Nussbaum quit the White House, Tripp spent much of the day polishing her resume and sending out caustic e-mail. One of the notes, written during the search of Foster's office, described Nussbaum and two other top officials as "the Three Stooges."
She had a strong sense of rectitude "Things like this would never happen in the Bush days," she declared more than once and a willingness to strike back. When her neighbor's dog repeatedly left messes on the front lawn of her house in Columbia, Md., she tried to consult the White House counsel's office about suing the neighbor. Chatting with FBI agents on the White House detail, she became friendly with Gary Aldrich, the renegade agent who later wrote a best-selling, if somewhat unreliable, expose of the Clintonites. In "Unlimited Access," Aldrich describes the early Clinton White House as a den of pot-smoking, promiscuous twentysomething slackers. (Aldrich also purports to describe the president's sneaking out for late-night trysts at a nearby hotel.) Aldrich says that Tripp was a pleasant, competent staffer who helped him make his rounds as he conducted security checks but he denies that she was a source for his book.
By August 1994, Tripp had found a better-paying job at the Pentagon. Though she worked in a different office a floor below Lewinsky's, the two were drawn together by their experiences at the White House and a shared love of gossip in high places. Over coffee at the Pentagon Starbucks down the corridor, Tripp played the role of romantic adviser to Lewinsky. Lewinsky was eager to confide: she was, she told Tripp, engaged in a dangerous liaison with an older married man whom, at first, she did not name. Pressed by Tripp, Lewinsky confessed that the man was President Clinton.
As Lewinsky told the story, she had flirted with Clinton at a White House office party for the legislative-affairs staff (where Lewinsky worked after her internship expired) in November 1995. Lewinsky was wearing a revealing dress; Clinton took a more-than-avuncular interest. Tripp was somewhat disapproving she began referring to Clinton as "the big creep" but she was eager for details. In one conversation (taped by Tripp, without Lewinsky's knowledge), Monica, while discussing how many men she had slept with, failed to mention the president. "What about the big creep?" asked Tripp. "No," said Monica. "There was no penetration." Lewinsky said Clinton preferred oral sex. (It may or may not be relevant that one of Clinton's state troopers in Arkansas once said that the governor told him he did not consider oral sex to be adultery.) Lewinsky said that Clinton also liked phone sex; the president, she said, would awaken her at 2 or 3 a.m. to "talk dirty." After she went over to the Pentagon, Lewinsky visited Clinton at the White House more than a dozen times, usually during the afternoons and weekends and, on one occasion, late at night. According to Lewinsky, the two exchanged small gifts (a tie for him, a book of poetry Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" for her). Lewinsky told Tripp that she was keeping, as a kind of grotesque memento, a navy blue dress stained with Clinton's semen. Holding it up as a trophy to Tripp, she declared, "I'll never wash it again."
Prosecutors will have some opportunity to check out Lewinsky's lurid account. The dress, if obtained by Starr, can be sent to a crime lab. White House visitors logs and phone records can be examined. It is, of course, possible that Lewinsky was exaggerating or even fabricating her sexual relationship with the president. She does not sound unbalanced or delusional on the tapes heard by Newsweek. Still, a neurotic young woman trying to impress a worldly confidante might be tempted to embellish a flirtation at the highest levels.
In addition to Tripp, Lewinsky may have been trying to impress someone else: her mother. Marcia Lewinsky is an interesting role model for her daughter. After her separation, Monica's mother had helped write a column on showbiz for The Hollywood Reporter. Moving to Washington in 1993, she wrote, under the pen name Marcia Lewis, a saucy celebrity biography called "The Private Lives of the Three Tenors," about opera stars Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and Placido Domingo. In November 1996, shortly before the book was published, a gossip-column item appeared suggesting that Lewis had done some firsthand research on the sex life of Domingo. Recounting descriptions of the opera singer's "orgasmic screams," the item, by Cindy Adams in the New York Post, said that Lewis "sort of semi-denies this rumor, but it could account for the inside dish/dope/dirt."
It appears that Lewis may have started the rumor about herself and then denied it. Lewis wrote her own publisher a proposed press release: "How did the author, a glamorous Beverly Hills writer formerly with The Hollywood Reporter, get all the inside dope? She denies rumors she and Domingo were more than friends in the Eighties, but read the book and see what you think." According to a source who saw the draft of her manuscript, she described, at length and in vivid detail, what it would be like to be a woman lying in bed waiting to have sex with Domingo, as the great opera star dropped his robe. Lewis's publishers excised the scene because it was too purple. It is impossible to know whether the scene was based on real life. Through a press agent, Domingo acknowledged to Newsweek that he knew Marcia, but flatly denied that he had ever had an affair with her.
For much of her time at the White House and Pentagon, Lewinsky lived in the family apartment at the Watergate. On the tapes recorded by Tripp, Monica talks of confiding in her mother about her relationship with the president.
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