Girl, Interrupted


Monica Lewinsky is the Max Weber for our times. Weber was the sociologist who first delved
into the phenomenon of charismatic authority and the role it plays in social institutions and political life; like Monica, he understood that being in the presence of charisma means, by definition, succumbing to it. Charisma whips followers and acolytes into emotional, sometimes excessive forms of devotion and trust. It spurs people to do things they might not ordinarily— become Christians, follow leaders
into losing battles, or elect acknowledged liars. The charismatic leader operates on spectacular promises, and by making us feel the force of his vision and presence. He may be short on follow-through, as Weber and Lewinsky would agree, but he makes up for it with all that personal intensity.

Monica, in her early days at the White House, regarded the president as just another gray-haired old guy until she got her first taste of the Clinton effect up close. “I remember being very taken aback. My heart skipped a beat, my breathing came a little faster and there were butterflies fluttering in my tummy. He had a glow about him that was magnetic. . . . I thought to myself: ‘Now I see what all the girls are talking about.’ ” (Staffers referred to it as “the full Bill Clinton.”) Lewinsky may be somewhat more of a participant observer than Weber when it comes to methodology, but not so coincidentally, Weber too was in the midst of an adulterous affair when he embarked on untangling the role of erotics in the nature of leadership. Perhaps the experience of being in love is close to charismatic fervor, which also indicates how little its lure has to do with rationality.

Among the virtues of Andrew Morton’s Monica’s Story is the you-are-there feel for life in the Clinton sexual orbit: we get the play-by-play on those first thrilling glances of recognition, the shared Diet Cokes and childhood stories, the presents and late night phone calls. Have no doubt that Clinton did his share of the pursuing. Though he wants to “be good”— his code for not having sex— it’s clear that he never really mastered this all-too-Republican of skills, which is one reason to still like him. And as Monica carefully notes, before they kissed for the first time, he asked her permission. Notwithstanding her wishes for “more,” and the obvious differences in power, age, and marital status, the book’s point of view is that, at least during the affair, Clinton wasn’t a shit: despite an earthshaking case of conflicted sexuality, he
acted like a real person and actually put up with a fair amount from Monica who, by her own account, could be kind of a pushy brat. It was only when Clinton the politician started trying to save his skin that he jettisoned her— loyalty in a crunch also not being high on the list of Clinton attributes.

You do end up savoring this book more for Clinton’s story than Monica’s. Read between the lines and it’s a treatise on the psychology of modern political leadership, or indeed, a national parable: really, what’s so different in form between Monica’s crush-turned- obsession and the nation’s? Monica’s fantasy that Bill might leave Hillary and wind up with her is hardly less fantastical then the nation’s belief that Bill, once in office, would suddenly abandon womanizing and become a faithful husband, or stick to his principles, or not launch a few missiles at Third World countries if it meant staying alive politically. A few erotophobics and Christopher Hitchens excepted, the citizenry continues to adore him. Having elected him twice not in spite of his glaringly apparent flaws but because of them (the charismatic personality does not typically stem from a reconciled inner life), isn’t it a little hypocritical to then try to nail him to the cross of marital conventionality when it was always clear that this
wasn’t his particular talent?

As for Monica’s story, although Morton offers his own measured views on Lewinsky as a character throughout this third-person narration, it’s far more compelling when Monica gets to deliver her own usually astute insights into the Clinton psyche than when hashing over her own. Feel free to skip the inevitable childhood chapters. It’s not that any of it seems particularly false, it’s just unnecessary: since when did getting romantically entangled with powerful men start requiring so much psychological explanation? Until recently it was a prototypical female aspiration (Jackie Onassis, anyone?). Given all the mocking pundits, you’d think it was now a national crime. (I must have missed the announcement.) So she was young and romantic, got weepy and depressed or maybe a little obsessional when her lover wanted out, but Bill would break up, then the next week be on the phone again— the kind of thing that drives even mature types emotionally berserk. Yes, be warned that this book traffics in Girl Talk (although adequately translated into adult-speak by Morton), and call me a girl, but I really don’t get what’s so mockable about that: it’s a vernacular like Ebonics or Spanglish, which doesn’t mean that the experiences it describes are somehow lesser ones. Is obsessional love only a theme of gravitas when authored by dead European men (cf. The Sorrows of Young Werther, Death in Venice, Lolita) and delivered up in high-flown literary language? Maybe the trivialization of Monica’s story isn’t unconnected to her now well-known “self-esteem issues.” How are girls meant to have self-worth with everyone so sure that their experiences are, like, one big joke?

These days, Monica’s not exactly sure if she’s about Girl Power or telling the country she’s sorry for being bad. The confusion is understandable: one thing Monica’s Story makes clear is that few people could have endured the surreal year she did, the most emblematic moment of which was having her car rammed on an L.A. freeway by photographers looking for a photo op, or maybe hoping that she’d follow Morton’s previous bio-subject, Princess Di, into immortality. The casual murderousness of the media pales, though, compared to the tale related in the last third of the book, of Lewinsky’s treatment at the hands of Ken Starr’s merry band of federally funded thugs, whose legally dubious harassment of her family and friends included threats of 27 years in prison for Monica, or to sic the IRS on Dad and imprison Mom if Lewinsky didn’t cooperate. There’s also a strong case made that Linda Tripp maneuvered Monica to pressure
Clinton on the job front, then selectively recorded the conversations that provided Starr with the rationale to expand his jurisdiction into the Paula Jones case. The degree of before-the-fact collusion between Starr, Tripp, and the Jones team has yet to be fully investigated; Lewinsky’s account of her legal ordeals should also raise questions about the grand jury system itself, whose methods here resembled nothing so much as a medieval heretic trial, with the examiners set on probing not just facts, but deep into the condition of the sinner’s soul. Your tax dollars at work.

Of course, Lewinsky continues to splay herself on the public examining table, as though more exposure were the cure for overexposure. Given her legal bills, there are obvious financial imperatives, but after a year of being forced to tell all, it seems that now she can’t stop, like some Skinnerian lab experiment gone wrong. Not unlike the nation, though, all Monica really did was succumb to the charms of a larger-than-life figure beset by contradictions. Monica says she’s over Bill. For the rest of us, it’s going to take longer:
charisma, even as flawed as Clinton’s version may be, is a precious quantity, and like girls in love, we seize it where we find it, and don’t easily let go.