It's not just the hair and makeup. Monica's on a media blitz. Is it working? Has she changed?
By John Cloud
March 8, 1999
I have known the eyes already,
--From The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, Monica Lewinsky's favorite poem
If Monica Lewinsky had begun to feel fixed and formulated by the eyes of the public, the prosecutors and the media, last week was her chance to change the formula. It was an elaborate affair, spanning continents and media formats, involving a small army of press flacks and a red river of Club Monaco lipstick. Memorialized by a sympathetic biographer, humanized by Barbara Walters and glamorized by an upcoming European tour, Monica was reborn in warm pools of soft publicity.
We have never seen her smile so much, and there were times when it was hard not to break into a grin to match hers. The harsh flashbulbs seemed far away. In fact, ABC built a special set for the Walters interview, with lighting that mimicked a golden, late-afternoon glow. A British magazine ran a photo of Lewinsky knitting, another of her puttering in the kitchen. She lounges on a bed decorated with roses (an image reinforced by Andrew Morton's book, whose very first revelation is that "this girl likes roses a lot"). The publicity encourages us to see her not as a home wrecker but a homemaker, someone who's smart but fun, "sensual" instead of sex-driven, a '90s woman who can write talking points by day and go home to make her boyfriend a sweater at night.
But did Monica's makeover take? After hours of interviews and nearly 300 pages from Princess Diana's own scribe, have we learned to love her--or even like her? It seems not. A TIME/CNN poll taken the day after her Walters appearance found that 72% of those interviewed still have a generally unfavorable impression of her, down just slightly from a high of 78% in September, shortly after the unflattering Starr report was released. Only 15% of us think well of her.
Maybe the problem is that Americans would like less of Monica, not more. When the presidency was in crisis, when Kenneth Starr seemed in danger of undoing the election and the Clinton marriage, there was at least a reason for us to pay attention to Monica. Last week there was none. All that remained was what Monica calls romance and the rest of us know as gossip. Even with all its lusty detail, its hilariously unnecessary cigars and Altoids and thongs, the Starr report, when it appeared, had consequences. Monica's Story, which exists because of the theory that what we want is yet more embroidery of these stories, has none.
But perhaps the theory is right. Some 70 million Americans, after all, watched Lewinsky on 20/20. (ABC called it the most watched "news" show ever, though it didn't beat Oprah's prime-time tete-a-tete with Michael Jackson, which the network somehow doesn't count as news in a world in which Monica does.) At least in its first days, the book was making the splash its publishers paid for. It seems we do in fact want to see more of Lewinsky, even if seeing her makes us feel a little dirty. Even the world's most expensive p.r. couldn't keep Monica from being Monica.
Her lack of self-awareness--and what Morton calls, in one of several unsparing moments in Monica's Story, "a high sense of entitlement but a low sense of self-worth"--remains crushingly obvious, even after these 14 months of healing and, one had hoped, maturation. "I don't think that my relationship hurt the job he was doing," Lewinsky said in her most deluded moment on the Walters program. "It was between us." Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman, who last summer so devastatingly crystallized the moral dimensions of Clinton's words, last week captured the amorality of Lewinsky's: "She was talking about having an affair with a married man who was also President in the same tone as one would talk about playing tennis or getting your hair done."
In fact, Lewinsky still seems thrilled by the memories of her affair--the "soft" kisses, the "full Bill Clinton" stares along rope lines, Hillary at his side. She still seems, tragically and ridiculously, in love with Bill Clinton. It was "sweet," she told Walters, that Clinton always told her she looked thin. No, he was a cad: he told her things like that to avoid saying no, to avoid cutting her off, to avoid acting his age. Nor was Lewinsky acting hers. They behaved as teenagers do, with late-night calls that included such endearments as "I love you, Butt-head" (from Monica to Bill). If there was any doubt that Clinton treated this lovesick young woman badly, it is erased by one paragraph in the Morton book: "He spoke to her again about ending the affair, this time saying that he didn't want to harm her. 'You have been hurt so much by so many men. I don't want to hurt you like all the other men in your life have,' he told her, sentiments that suggest he was sensitive to her emotional vulnerability. Yet as the conversation continued, they ended up having phone sex, and he promised to call her again."
Full of high sentence,
Monica's Story is a lot like Monica's favorite coffee--a frothy concoction called a skim latte, with dashes of chocolate and cinnamon on top. Other publishers wanted her to be more contrite, to acknowledge more forthrightly that she shouldn't have had the affair. But Morton, who developed a chummy rapport with Lewinsky within a few minutes of meeting her last year, was happy to oblige her wish to make the central theme not contrition but invasion of privacy. When British publisher Michael O'Mara was shopping for a U.S. firm to buy the North American rights, he pitched Morton's book this way, according to publisher Judith Regan, who says she turned down the proposal: "Andrew Morton can say that she's the Princess Diana of America, but Monica can't say that about herself." St. Martin's Press, a middlebrow mass-market publisher based in New York City, said yes.
Hence Morton's Monica is human, but not too human; misguided at times but not flat-out wrong. Much is ascribed to her struggle with weight, a constant and sad trope of the book. We also hear about Clinton's weight problems and Linda Tripp's. At times it seems everyone here is acting out hostilities developed when they were mocked as unfortunately heavy children. And though Lewinsky complains about her treatment in the tabloids--her moniker "portly pepperpot" in the New York Post, and so on--Morton describes Tripp as "lumpy." He also tosses in this mortification: Tripp joined Weight Watchers at Lewinsky's urging--and lost just enough weight so that she could fit into big clothes from Monica's "fat closet." Finally, though "Tripp's treachery" in betraying Lewinsky is laid out in devastating detail, it's ridiculous for Lewinsky to blame Tripp, as she did on the Walters show, for her inability to end her relationship with Clinton.
Lewinsky settles other old scores as well. She jabs Tori Spelling for not inviting her to a birthday party when the two were growing up in Beverly Hills. She offers the name of a childhood tormentor who tagged her "Big Mac." White House aide Evelyn Lieberman, who tried desperately to keep Clinton from seeing Lewinsky, comes off as a snob; in Monica's Story, Lieberman plays the role of the wicked mother in Titanic, the film of forbidden love that, predictably, Lewinsky bawled through and loved
Working with Morton clearly hasn't helped her put her life in perspective. Doubtless encouraged by him, she has compared herself to Diana and others: "I'd like to think I will live on in a book," she told Andrew Golden of the London Daily Mirror. "I like to be able to reach up on my bookshelf for one of Shakespeare's plays, and I would like to think that people will do that with this book."
Would it have been worthwhile...
Inside Lewinsky's world, as concerns shifted from legal worries to financial ones, from private pain to public rebirth, new players emerged in the struggle for control over her fate. Last spring the bumbling, lewd William Ginsburg, a California lawyer and onetime family friend, was replaced by smooth Washington attorneys Plato Cacheris and Jacob Stein. Now those two are receding as imagemakers take center stage. In fact, even as Lewinsky is signing books at Harrod's and giving interviews to Paris Match, her handlers are bickering. Three factions have emerged inside Camp Monica: first, Cacheris and Stein want to safeguard their carefully crafted immunity deal (given that her book seems to lay out a tidy perjury and obstruction case against her, they're right to worry). The deal says Starr must approve her U.S. media interviews; he allowed Walters' and TIME's.
The second faction is the publishers and publicists, who want to sell the book. They seem more likely to stretch the limits of the immunity deal in exchange for the requisite publicity avalanche. And finally, there's the Lewinsky family, which wants payback-- financial, yes, but perhaps moral as well. If Monica's Story seems too squishy for its first two-thirds, the book inspires genuine indignation when it delves into Starr's treatment of Monica and her mother. After the FBI and Starr's men corralled Monica in a hotel room--thanks to a Tripp sting operation--they made her feel she couldn't leave and shouldn't call a lawyer. Even after she spoke of suicide, the men were flashing handcuffs and saying, as one did, "Does it bother you that I have a gun on? Because I can put it in the other room." After the agents finally let her make a phone call to her mother, she says, one of them (the same fella who graciously offered to remove his gun) stood with his finger over the phone, ready to end the call if she said too much.
After this ordeal, which preceded a long media nightmare, the Lewinsky family wants to wake up with at least enough cash to pay off Monica's legal bills and those of her friends. Monica's alone are estimated at between $1.5 million and $2 million. She stands to make perhaps $3 million from the book and a British-TV interview that will be sold to stations around the globe.
Recently the publicist for Monica's Story called the book "the essential document for closure," borrowing a psychotherapy term and suggesting that we're all about to get off Monica and Bill's couch, finally. Even Clinton got into the closure game. He insists he didn't watch the interview. At a news conference on Friday, he noted that Lewinsky had "paid quite a high price for a long time, and I feel badly for that." He wished her "a good life." Lewinsky, it seems, still has some work to do: "I just miss him so much right now," she told Morton in one of their later interviews. Pity she still can't see Bill Clinton the way most of the country does: as a good President but an awful man. She will perhaps need more time alone, and less in front of cameras, before she comes to grips with that.
--With reporting by Andrea Sachs/New York and Karen Tumulty/Washington
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