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Shales: Once More, With Feeling

Lewinsky and Walters Monica S. Lewinsky breaks her media silence in an ABC News interview with Barbara Walters. (AP)

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  • By Tom Shales
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, March 4, 1999; Page C01

    For months it’s been the story that had everything – illicit sex, domestic espionage, emotional ordeals – and last night came the interview that had everything: Monica Lewinsky, former presidential gal pal, hunkering down in a really major way with Barbara Walters on a two-hour edition of ABC’s “20/20.”

    The proverbial bottom line is that those who watched the whole interview, and tens of millions must have, probably came away more sympathetic to Lewinsky than they went in. But she also seemed at times inappropriately giggly, incorrigibly naive and awfully enamored of the limelight she claimed to detest.

    Certainly the interview produced reams of snappy quotes to be used in newspapers and on newscasts. Is Lewinsky still in love with President Clinton, with whom she had one of history’s most embarrassing extramarital affairs? “No,” she said. She still admires him at times and wishes him well but “sometimes I hate his guts and he makes me sick.”

    And what of Linda Tripp, the quarterback-size informant who tricked Lewinsky into confessing the affair? “I pity her. I would hate to be her. She is not me.”

    Walters asked dozens of good questions, but she didn’t ask about rumors of Lewinsky’s presidential ambitions back when she still lived in Beverly Hills. Not that she wanted to be the president but that she wanted to be the president’s honeybunch. Was Walters pulling punches? Probably not. The two hours were crammed tight and there were plenty of tough, blunt queries. Who knows how much good stuff had to end up on the cutting-room floor.

    “Toward the end of this relationship, you were a real pain in the butt,” Walters told Lewinsky, with Lewinsky replying, “You bet. You bet.” Walters grilled her on the seeming insanity of preserving the blue dress with the presidential stain, and on failing to take into account the feelings of Clinton’s wife (Lewinsky looked baffled by the implication she should have felt some homewrecker’s guilt), and on this oft-discussed matter of whether oral sex constitutes sexual relations.

    Lewinsky said she considers oral sex “just messin’ around” but also said she found sex with the president “gratifying.” Walters asked, “Did you ever try to have intercourse?” and Lewinsky smiled. “Uh-huh,” she said girlishly, then added that she got “really upset” when Clinton said no.

    Several times, both during the broadcast and all the pre-show publicity, viewers were promised a “startling revelation” that they hadn’t heard before. This turned out to be that during the 10 months Lewinsky was unable to see the president for intimate encounters, she had an affair with another man – a single man! – became pregnant, and had an abortion.

    Well, perhaps that is a startling revelation, but after all Americans have heard in the past year about the Peck’s Bad Bubba in the Oval Office and his adventures with Mantrap Monica, it was hard to be startled.

    Certainly Lewinsky looked better than she does in those endlessly repeated newsbites of her greeting the president in receiving lines. She looked less greasy and puffy, and her dark, gloppy hair was pulled back for once, revealing a thinner face. The interview was taped in ABC studios on a set made to look like a suite at the Bel Air Hotel or some other similarly classy joint. The camera came in for intense close-ups of Lewinsky and she held up well.

    Would she cry? We knew she’d cry. Walters and “20/20” saved it for near the show’s end. Each commercial break was preceded by a “tease” featuring a clip from an upcoming segment. Just before one of the last breaks, the tease consisted of Lewinsky making with the waterworkski. When the commercial was over, Lewinsky got emotional (as if knowing it would disappoint Walters and the audience should her eyes remain dry) and sobbed about the damage the scandal had done to her life.

    She could not describe the night that Tripp and some of independent prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s goons lured her to a hotel room and interrogated her without a lawyer present for 12 hours, Lewinsky said, because of an agreement she had made with Starr. It seems Starr has spent as much time trying to protect himself as he has trying to get the goods on the president. But craftily, Walters read passages from the forthcoming (like, today) Andrew Morton book in which Lewinsky did describe the nightmarish inquisition.

    Somehow talking with British author Morton does not violate the agreement with Starr but spilling the beans to an American journalist would. When Walters asked Lewinsky what she thought of Starr, Lewinsky thought for quite a while and then declined to comment. No viewers in their right minds can imagine that she was trying to suppress the comment, “Gee, what a wonderful guy.”

    Lewinsky spoke of having considered suicide, but she seemed to be an individual whose ego remains intact and perhaps only lightly bruised, even as she claimed “I don’t have the feelings of self-worth that a woman should have.” Severe loss of self-worth did not seem to be her problem. “I’m not a patient person,” she said proudly at one point. “I’m stubborn,” she said just as proudly at another. When she was a child, her favorite expression, she said, was, “You’re not the boss of me.”

    And after being shown a tape of Clinton denying having had “sexual relations with that woman,” Lewinsky said she would have preferred it if Clinton had taken the high road with his denial and said of Lewinsky, among other things, “She’s a great woman. She’s a bright woman.”

    Many familiar details, pop-culture icons practically, were discussed, from the thong underwear peekaboo to the naughtiness with the cigar. It was perhaps fun in some twisted, ghastly way to be embarrassed all over again by hearing it from Lewinsky’s own lipinskies. She’d get on the phone and blab to girlfriends things like “He’s so cute” when discussing her affair with the president, she said, and the first time she saw him in person, “My breath was taken away.”

    America’s vigilant comics, meanwhile, could be expected to pounce on the occasional opportunities for risque double-entendre, as when Lewinsky referred to “the push and pull of this relationship” and said of her relationship to Clinton, “You want so badly to hold onto this thing that you want.”

    No living human could probably have done a better interview than Walters did or even nearly as good. She saved a great kicker for the close, asking Lewinsky what she would tell her children, if any, about what had happened. Lewinsky’s reply: “Mommy made a big mistake.” At which point, Walters appeared alone on camera to say, “And that is the understatement of the year.”

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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