Monica, we hardly knew you
We spent a year imposing identities on her. Now we meet her for real
By Margaret Carlson
February 8, 1999
When Monica left her videotaped deposition at the Mayflower Hotel last week, she was her usual Garboesque self: a shock of black hair, a fashion statement and silence. Unlike her pursuers on Capitol Hill, who brake for cameras, she plows determinedly through the crowd--never a comment, never a pose, never a clue. This encourages others to cast her in whatever role suits their favorite story line: starstruck ingenue, thong-flashing temptress, duplicitous home wrecker, innocent victim, Vanity Fair vamp or troubled product of a broken home in need of ministering, the kind only a President can give.
The latest label was "young," affixed by Republicans coming out of the Senate Cineplex. It was the first successful talking point to emerge from the caucus in days: simple, factually unassailable and subliminally suggestive of the heart of the President's darkness. How could he have taken such advantage, been such a sexual predator?
As Monica the Movie began Saturday morning, there was less of a buzz in the chamber than a quiet nostalgia. Everyone knew it was time to embrace the seventh stage of scandal--acceptance that it would soon be over. It was one of the last times all 100 Senators would be together, one of the last times the gallery would be this crowded. For all the partisan posturing, the Senate hallways have been as sociable as a county fair. Journalists say they hate the Monica story, but they actually love its narrative drive, its beyond-the-Beltway characters and the voracious appetite it has spawned in New York City editors for a Washington dateline. Its demise will mean the end of the newsroom as college dorm, with ordered-in food, endless talk of sex, and all-nighters. Next week we will be back to Medicare reform. No one will read us; no one will write. Brian Williams won't call.
Monica flickers onto the screen, and she's young, all right, with the lingering baby fat and the uhs and you-knows of a teenager. But what the Senators mean by "young," she isn't. She's older than many women my age. She comes across as composed, self-possessed and unbroken. I guess that if Bill Clinton had it to do over again, knowing what he knows now, he wouldn't (although he has two years left, so I'd put no money on it). But Monica might. You don't have sex, or a reasonable facsimile of it, with a man who has his own standing army in order to relieve existential loneliness or find a soul mate. You do it for the record books, the thrill of it all. It's like the dog who walked on its hind legs: it's not that it's done well, but that it's done at all. Sex in the study next to the Oval Office while the most powerful man on earth discussed military action in a foreign country with a member of Congress might have been what she had in mind when she reportedly packed those "presidential kneepads."
Onscreen, Monica is as savvy as the lawyer questioning her. She knows there's nothing to be gained from throwing in her lot with her captors', no matter their open-necked shirts at the Sunday-afternoon mixer, their stunningly obvious "We just want to get to know you" approach. And she's funny. When the most plodding and least menacing of the House managers, Ed Bryant, tells her she is going to have to talk about what's on the record "or else we can go home," Monica replies, "Sounds good to me." When Bryant objects to his own statements, Monica says, "We sustain those." She shuts him down when he slips a conclusion into a question. Bryant: "I want to refer you to the first so-called salacious occasion..." Monica: "Can you call it something else?...I mean, this is--this is my relationship."
Lights out, Ed. Hasta la vista, Bob Barr and Bill McCollum and the rest of you. For your final, willful act, you have inadvertently begun the rehabilitation of Monica Lewinsky, giving her the opportunity to reject bitterness for wistfulness, she of the "mixed feelings" who gently tweaks you as her steady gaze holds back more than she gives. She doesn't have the usual mementos--the wine bottle to put the candle in, the rose pressed in the diary--just some trinkets stashed under a bed, a satchel of subpoenas and a book deal. It didn't work out the way she'd hoped, but somehow she comes across as someone who got what she wanted anyway.
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Monica, we hardly knew you