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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The feminist lothario

By Andrew Ferguson

TIME magazine

As a romance, it left something to be desired. there was none of the mythic sweep of Tristan and Isolde, not a glimmer of the mystical intensity of Heathcliff and Catherine, nothing akin to Romeo and Juliet's tragic inevitability. But the affair between Bill and Monica--if affair is the appropriate word for an "inappropriate relationship"--has something to teach us anyway, in unexpected ways.

The irreducibly human facts of the case, as detailed in Kenneth Starr's report, are liable to be lost as readers weigh competing legal claims or gasp at the long train of sexual detail. Of course, the report tilts heavily toward Monica's side of the tale, the President having declined to discuss the relationship with any specificity--an unaccustomed act of gallantry, perhaps. Even so, we know enough of his role to give this one passage from the report particular poignancy: "Whereas the President testified that 'what began as a friendship came to include [intimate contact],' Ms. Lewinsky explained that the relationship moved in the opposite direction: 'The emotional and friendship aspects... developed after the beginning of our sexual relationship.'"

This is, to say the least, a peculiar reversal and an instructive one. Since they first lumbered out of the Serengeti, the men and women of our species have approached the mysteries of romance from different vantages. Generally it's the men who prefer to move in the direction Lewinsky suggests: sex first, romance later (if there's a ball game on TV, maybe romance never). But by his testimony, the President wants it understood that the sex was an expression, a culmination, of a deepening friendship. And there's a reason the President would like it to be seen that way. He has created for himself an unprecedented persona. We have always known him by his contradictions--the raging moderate, the compassionate realist, the hardheaded dreamer. But now Clinton emerges as something new: a feminist Lothario, a New Age Don Juan, Alan Alda with a zipper problem.

This is a complicated act to pull off, if indeed it is an act, but the long account of his relationship with Lewinsky shows that the President is an extremely complicated man. Their affair began mildly enough, with a stolen kiss early one evening in a shadowy hallway. Both, apparently, resolved to put off any serious sex until their second date. As luck would have it, their second date occurred only two hours later, when the President ushered her into his study. There he invited sex one moment, only to resist it the next, beginning the ritual that so frustrated his young intern. And why? "He stopped her before he ejaculated," as the report puts it, because, Lewinsky testified, "he didn't know me well enough." Some things are just too intimate for strangers to share.

It is impossible to imagine such sensitivity from the legendary swordsmen of the past--the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am cretins who are, in style, the archetypal opposites of the President. And the President's sensitivity only deepened. On Feb. 4, 1996, according to the report, the two had "their first lengthy and personal conversation." Of course, this was after their "sixth sexual encounter," but still. "Their friendship started to blossom," the report says, until at last the President agreed to allow Monica to bring their favored sexual act to completion. Again the reasoning shows the kind of empathy that can only be called Clintonian: "I don't want to disappoint you," the President consented. The cretins may see fellatio as an act of sexual dominance; to the President it was an act of self-sacrifice.

Lewinsky recalled the DiCaprio moments. "He always used to push the hair out of my face." But the inevitable moments of petulance were revealing too. Monica's complaints to him sounded like those you would expect from a Valley Girl. The President's complaints to her sounded--well, like those you would expect from a Valley Girl. "If I had known what kind of person you really were, I wouldn't have gotten involved with you," he told her at one point. And at another, in Monica's paraphrase: "He had never been treated as poorly by anyone else as I treated him." (This was before he met Ken Starr.)

In the end, of course, it turned out that the New Age Don Juan bore a striking resemblance to the earlier model. With the romance turned to ashes, Lewinsky can only console herself with memories of the President's solicitude: the honeyed compliments, the smiles across a crowded room, the midnight phone calls--no, forget the phone calls. And she will always have the gifts, trinkets, as most people would think of them: pins, T shirt, the special edition of Leaves of Grass. But the President knew the most important thing, which was that in the eyes of his young intern, the gifts would be as spun gold. She may now, in her wisdom, want to open Leaves of Grass and read there the epitaph for her affair and the axiom of Clintonian empathy: "It is I, you women, I make my way/ I am stern, acrid, large, undissuadable, but I love you/ I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you."


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Cover Date: September 21, 1998

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