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TIME On Politics

Monica's World

Soon she'll be the Starr witness. What will she say, how is she surviving, and what will her future bring?

By Eric Pooley

TIME magazine

(TIME, March 2) -- Imagine that you are Monica Lewinsky. Five weeks have gone by since your life was torn to pieces, and you and your mother are still holed up in her Watergate duplex, with a permanent TV stakeout on the street below. Your lawyer, William Ginsburg, won't let you leave except for the occasional doctor's visit or maximum-security dinner out, and he won't let you talk on the phone. It's jail! And so you pace the curved, windowless corridors, work out in the gym and page Ginsburg a couple of times a day; an old family friend, he has turned into your D.C. dad. Your time in lockup has been relieved only by the week you spent with your real father in Los Angeles. Though you sided with Mom in the divorce, you and he are getting closer, thanks to this mess. But the California paparazzi are even worse than the ones in Washington. They crushed you and your dad in Santa Monica one night, and they ruined his lawn. Being famous, you've discovered, isn't all it's cracked up to be.

While you wait for your moment of truth--the day you'll be called to appear before Ken Starr's grand jury--your mom is recovering from hers. For two days she was roasted by Starr's lawyers, who wanted to know everything about your sexual history--but didn't even get to your relationship with Bill Clinton before your mom broke down, hyperventilating and screaming. She's still a wreck; the tranquilizers are helping a bit, but your dad's TV interview last week unnerved her again. And she dreads Starr's lawyers. If they could do that to her, what are they going to do to you? Remember the grilling they gave you in January? Multiply that by a million.

You can't think about that. You can't not think about that. And so you and your mother do a lot of hugging, a lot of crying, a lot of bickering and bouncing off walls. The only thing that's keeping you from going crazy is your rage. You didn't do anything wrong! And it's nobody's business anyway! So you're furious at Starr--Dad's right, you think; he should be working for Hitler. And don't get you started on Linda Tripp. She was your friend--yet she wore a wire and set you up. She's the one who should be in jail. Of course you hate the media for the way they've dissected you. Your hometown paper, the L.A. Times, had 26 reporters on a single story about you, interviewing baby sitters and kindergarten classmates. So-called friends have sold you out for cash, and real ones won't defend you because they're worried about their own little secrets coming out. You're mad at all of them. Who wouldn't be? Apart from Ginsburg and your family, in fact, there's only one person in this entire mess you don't despise--the Big Creep.

"Monica has no problem with the President now," Ginsburg told TIME in a lengthy interview last week. "I think she likes him. I think she thinks he's a good fellow. I don't know why."

Lewinsky identifies with the First Family to a surprising degree. It was when Chelsea Clinton flew east from Stanford University, on Jan. 29, that Lewinsky demanded to fly west. Chelsea was coming home to spend the weekend with her father. And Monica started telling Ginsburg, "I want to see my dad."

Bernard Lewinsky was the scandal's invisible man--known mostly for the awful things his ex-wife said about him in their 1987 divorce--until last Friday, when he appeared in a televised interview with Barbara Walters and said he didn't believe there had been an affair. Ginsburg had planned the debut carefully, deploying the earnest, sad-eyed man during the lull before Monica's grand-jury appearance in the hope of increasing the criticism raining down on Starr. "To pit a mother against a daughter, to coerce her to talk," Monica's dad told Walters, "to me it's reminiscent of the McCarthy era, of the Inquisition, and even, you know, you could stretch it and say the Hitler era."

The son of German Jews who escaped the Nazis and immigrated to El Salvador, Lewinsky moved with his parents to the U.S. in 1957, when he was 14. At Berkeley in the early 1960s, he was a classmate of Ginsburg's. Later, after Ginsburg became a health-care-industry lawyer and Lewinsky took control of a string of cancer clinics with the infelicitous name of Western Tumor, the doctor hired the lawyer and a friendship bloomed. When Monica was born, says Ginsburg, "I was there at the beginning. I kissed that girl's inner thighs when she was six days old--I said, 'Look at those little polkas.' I truly am the avuncular Mr. Ginsburg." And he plays him on TV.

News accounts have had no difficulty in identifying the personality traits Monica inherited from her mother, Marcia Lewinsky (nee Vilensky), who uses the name Marcia Lewis--social skills that move from ebullience to a kind of enterprising pushiness. "That's where [Monica's] ability to fraternize, the ability to insinuate, comes from," says Ginsburg. Lewis free-lanced just a handful of articles for the Hollywood Reporter's monthly supplement before she and her sister tried to launch a Beverly Hills society magazine, which never got off the ground. But Lewis persevered, using the Reporter credit and some tenuous contacts in the opera world to land a deal for a tell-all book, The Private Lives of the Three Tenors. (It was at a Private Lives book signing in Westchester County, N.Y., that Lewis met media mogul R. Peter Straus, now her 75-year-old fiance.) Lewis wrote publicity material for the book that implied she had been Placido Domingo's lover, then denied it (Domingo denies it as well). But the publisher wouldn't use the material and cut from the manuscript a scene about fantasy sex with Domingo, which has led some to conclude that romantic exaggeration runs in the family.

When Walters asked Bernie Lewinsky about this tendency, his response was muddled. Though Monica is "very excitable" and gets carried away, he said, he "can't imagine" her making up the affair with Clinton. Even so, he says, "I don't believe it happened"--the idea is "ludicrous"--though he and Monica haven't discussed the matter, because "I will not talk to her about her sexual life." Yet he admits to talking with her about her affair with teacher Andy Bleiler. Whew.

Monica has her mother's tendency to let her imagination carry her forward. When Monica had just been offered the Revlon job arranged by Vernon Jordan, for example, "right away she started talking about new products--lipstick, perfume, nail polish--that Revlon should introduce," Ginsburg says. "That's Monica."

It's more difficult to divine the traits that Monica takes from her father. He is a perfectionist, an epicure, an amateur photographer who favors Ansel Adams-style nature studies and has them etched onto glass, then installed in the radiation rooms of his cancer clinics. From him, says Ginsburg, comes Monica's "genuine and sincere" side. "You warm to him, you embrace him," the lawyer says. "She learned from the other side [of the family] to embrace you--more of the aggressive approach."

Even in the best of times, Bernie Lewinsky was often absent, preoccupied with his work. And when the divorce came, with its titanic money battles and accusations of adultery against him, Monica's estrangement deepened. They are closer now. To pay some of Ginsburg's fees, Lewinsky is selling stock and considering a second mortgage on his Brentwood home. But Monica remains cocooned by her mother's side of the family, the Vilenskys. Three generations live in the Watergate: Monica and Marcia in the duplex, and Marcia's mother, an attractive, big-boned East European matron whom Monica is said to resemble, in an apartment upstairs. Bernie remains in Los Angeles, and Lewis' friend Straus calls often and has visited but lives in New York City. That leaves Ginsburg as not just legal strategist but surrogate father, media adviser and ubiquitous spokesman--roles he is happy to play. "I don't think [Clinton's] in much of a pickle at all," he told TIME last week, sounding lighthearted. "No matter what happens, the American public and Congress will let him limp to the end of his term. Everyone's got a job."

Ginsburg won't comment on what his client will say to the grand jury, but there are indications she will admit to a sexual relationship with the President and deny obstruction of justice. Take the much discussed "talking points" that Monica handed to Tripp in advance of her deposition before the Paula Jones lawyers. Starr would like to trace the document to the White House, but Ginsburg suggests it was another attempt by Tripp to "set up" Lewinsky. In his scenario, Tripp and Monica talked them over, Monica typed them up, and Tripp took them to Starr as "evidence" of White House collusion.

As sanguine as Ginsburg may be about Clinton, he says, "Monica cannot see a future." It isn't just the specter of prosecution that bothers her; it is the annihilation of her good name--something she apparently never thought about when gabbing to friends about Clinton. "The only jobs she's been offered are talk-radio crap and posing nude," says Ginsburg. "She has had a few book offers." Monica has reportedly been spending time making detailed notes of her various alleged encounters with Clinton. They'll help her when it comes time to testify, of course, but they could also be of use if she decides to "do something literary," as Ginsburg puts it.

"She's also worried about dating," the lawyer continues. "Who's going to go out with her? What expectations will be placed on her? Will she get her privacy back?" Imagining herself in Chelsea's predicament, Monica used to talk idly, Ginsburg says, about "poor Chelsea" having to live in a college dorm with Secret Service agents nearby. "Who would want to date Chelsea?" she used to say. Now Lewinsky finds herself envying even Chelsea's level of privacy and freedom.

--With reporting by Michael Duffy/Washington and Charlotte Faltermayer/New York
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: March 2, 1998

Clinton's Crises: Selling The War Badly
Clinton's Crises: Twin Perils Of Love & War
Parade Of The Dead Babies
What Jordan Knew
Going After Starr's Camp
Monica's World
Essay: Ye Olde Town Gimmick
Calvin Trillin: Rudy Giuliani, Proctor of New York
The Notebook: "...a simple, innocent explanation?"





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