The media coverage of the alleged sexual affair between Bill Clinton and a former White House intern is enough to bloat even the most avowed news junkies. The glut of press conferences, prepared statements, interviews, videotapes, and photos of Clinton, his friend and confidant Vernon Jordan, and Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr, along with various other players in this soap opera–Linda Tripp, Paula Corbin Jones, and Gennifer Flowers, among others–has only managed to further spin a scandal that is spiraling out of control. At the heart of the controversy, of course, is whether 24-year-old Monica S. Lewinsky had an affair with the president some three years ago while working as a White House intern–a matter that has taken on such significance that it could undermine this administration and perhaps the president’s effectiveness.
But while the legal issues raised by allegations of a sexual relationship between Ms. Lewinsky and the president stem from charges that Mr. Clinton and his close adviser Mr. Jordan urged Lewinsky to deny the relationship in an affidavit for Paula Jones’s attorneys, what drives this media frenzy is the story of a sexual relationship in the Oval Office between a then 21-year-old intern and a married president more than twice her age.
Though no one would deny that this is Monica Lewinsky’s story to tell, her story–whatever it is–is being used by others to advance their own agendas. Unwittingly, she has become a pawn in a national morality play. So it’s no wonder that she has remained silent, reportedly sequestered in a Watergate apartment. Despite the fact that so far she has not been charged with anything and that the public views the alleged affair as a ”personal matter,” her life will not be the same for some time, if ever.
In 1991, I was faced with a similar crisis during hearings on the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. At the time, in anticipating the response to my testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Wyoming Republican Alan Simpson predicted, ”[She] will be injured and destroyed and belittled and hounded and harassed…just plain old Washington-variety harassment.”
That prediction ultimately came true in my case and may again for Lewinsky. If she proceeds, she can expect intrusions into even unrelated aspects of her personal life–from federal agents, in the interest of justice; from the media, because the public wants to know; and from others just for the heck of it.
Lewinsky’s attorney and spokesperson William Ginsburg, while negotiating with Starr for immunity, has intimated that the version of his client’s story purportedly confessed to Linda Tripp may, in fact, be the true story. But he has left open the possibility that the sworn statements given to Paula Jones’s attorneys–that there was no sexual relationship–are also true. Is hers a tale of a sexual relationship with the president that she lied to cover up? Or a story about a relationship she concocted and then confessed to her friend Ms. Tripp? Obviously, Clinton and Jordan are hoping that the latter prevails in the public’s mind. But the delay (as of press time, Starr’s decision to grant Lewinsky immunity was still unresolved) only prolongs what must seem to be an unbearable hush–one that began January 21 when the story broke.
Lewinsky’s own silence about her story has created a vacuum. And the media, particularly the Washington press corps, like nature, abhor a vacuum. So while Monica Lewinsky sits pondering a potential perjury prosecution, the story continues to spin as she and, more importantly, the president are tried in the court of public opinion.
National polls indicate that while a majority believe that a sexual relationship took place, there are any number of explanations why. One reason is that the White House and Clinton himself have done a poor job of convincing us otherwise. Another reason, perhaps, is the presumption many Americans have about men, women, and sexual morality. According to a CNN poll, a majority believe that Mr. Clinton’s morals are the same as, or higher than, the average married man’s–essentially, Bill Clinton did what any man would when he allegedly had an affair with Lewinsky.
The appropriators of Ms. Lewinsky’s story are adamant in their convictions, not just about the truth of the affair, but the character of the president.
Kenneth Starr, the Whitewater counsel, has pursued the Lewinsky story with a vengeance. Though Starr has spent more than $25 million investigating Clinton’s business deals, he has been unable to find any wrongdoing on the part of President Clinton, and public interest in and support for his investigation has been waning for some time.
Last year, Starr came under fire from his critics and lost even loyal supporters when he interviewed former state troopers to discuss alleged sexual dalliances during Clinton’s term as the governor of Arkansas. Against that backdrop, Starr organized an FBI sting operation that involved wiring Linda Tripp in order to record conversations between Tripp and Lewinsky. The official purpose of the operation was to catch on tape any statements that Clinton or his adviser Jordan had urged Lewinsky to lie under oath, but a claim of intimidation is nothing without some basis for the allegation, and thus conversation about the alleged sexual relationship is crucial. Even more disconcerting is Starr’s use of several federal agents to question Ms. Lewinsky for nine and a half hours in a hotel room without her lawyer present. Starr’s tactics, along with the broad sweep of his investigation, make him one of the more frighteningly powerful men in Washington with a particular agenda, especially given that he has little public accountability.
There are those who have a personal stake in the outcome of the Lewinsky affair. Linda Tripp, who previously made allegations of sexual misconduct against Clinton, used Monica Lewinsky’s confessions to protect her own reputation. Tripp and Lewinsky became friends in part because of their shared status as exiled White House staffers. And according to her attorney James Moody, Tripp, the friend, mentor, and confidant of Monica Lewinsky, has no ax to grind but only ”wants to tell the truth.” Tripp, like Starr, can only make use of Lewinsky’s story if the confession is true. If Lewinsky concocted the sexual relationship and the intimidation story, both Starr and Tripp stand to lose.
Even Gennifer Flowers has traded on Lewinsky’s story to bolster her own claim of having had a 12-year affair with Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas.
But perhaps the person who has the most to gain in all of this is Paula Jones. Monica Lewinsky’s story provides her with a legitimate, even if tenuous, claim, by linking the behavior described in Lewinsky’s story to Clinton’s credibility in Jones’s own charges of sexual harassment.
Despite reports that Monica Lewinsky will invoke the Fifth Amendment, she will very likely one day get to tell her story, either in Kenneth Starr’s investigation or in the Jones lawsuit. But even if she comes forward with the truth, no matter what she says there will be those who will call her a liar. There will be those who believe her story, but question her motives–was she scorned and vindictive or simply an attention seeker? Then again, there will be those who believe her but don’t think she or her experience is worth the trouble. And some will even applaud her candor. But all of this is perhaps too much for a 24-year-old to handle.
No doubt there are object lessons to be drawn from the Lewinsky affair. But the public may never hear the truth over the din of cynicism and political agendas. For that matter, Monica Lewinsky’s story may be perceived as no more than a means to satisfy a craving for the sensational. If so, the cautionary tale of the Lewinsky affair, like most political scandals, may escape us. And though the lessons learned from such tales may be irrelevant to the legal issues, they often hold the key to the truth.