You tend not to spend too much time contemplating Tim Russert's innermost thoughts when you're 100 feet under water, breathing through a narrow tube, soaring past the ocean wall in slow motion, staring at 200-year-old sea tortoises, parrot fish, and coral that have no concern for love or career. A week of no news, no television—nothing more than books and the company of a handful of divers and fisherman. I had no idea of the storm clouds brewing in D.C.; the weather in the Caymans was 80 and sunny, the diving was clear, and my tan was coming in even and had yet to peel.
It was while waiting for the first plane at the shack that passes for an airport in Little Cayman that I caught a glimpse of the AP wire story on the front page of the Caymanian Compass. I was playing with a puppy in the airport office when I saw the headline; the Caymanian reading the paper quickly offered it to me, as I clearly had more interest in it than he.
The world was beside itself about the latest presidential scandal, this one involving an affair with a then-21-year-old intern—the juiciest story to break in my adult life, a salacious tale of alleged infidelity between the most powerful man in the Milky Way and a girl named Monica.
A girl I'd gone out on a date with a few weeks before.
I hesitate here, because I have no desire to appear on Hard Copy or banter with MSNBCeebees, and, essentially, I feel bad for poor Monica and feel unclean adding my feeble barnacle to her ship of fame. Although I will admit to an odd weave of loathing and envy when I watch the blabbocracy breathlessly weighing in—Hey, I think, they don't even know this chick. But I am not jumping in because one dinner with Monica enabled me to read her mind as she sits with friends and family at the Watergate, pondering her fate.
I write, clearly, because I want a piece of this story just like everybody else. That imperative distinguishes me not at all from every other journalist in Washington. But perhaps even more, I also want to point out that behind this particular bimbo eruption sits a young woman who is not a bimbo, who is a fairly sensible sort from what I saw, who was never going to be the one holding a press conference alongside a posterboard blowup of the Star with a back pocket full of the cash she got from selling out. She may be guilty of poor judgment, but she never asked for this.
That said, let the whoring begin.
It's still etched on my December calendar: the Saturday night of Joe and Danielle's going-away party at Stetson's on U Street NW. I walked in, checked out the crowd, and immediately headed for Doug, the owner. I chatted and drank with him, and, in an effort to make myself as unapproachable as possible, I started shooting pool with him. Soon enough, Doug was called back to his duties, and I had to start feeding the table quarters. Between my former colleague Maloni and me, we could only scrape together three of the requisite four quarters. I took that particular need and blended it with another one, stepping up to a group of three women who had been hovering near the table.
"Do any of you have a quarter?" I asked, and one of them, the one with the smile that seemed to be about nothing in particular, dug into her purse and handed me one. I thanked her, introduced myself, and resumed hunting my target stripes.
"Am I drunk, or is she cute?" I asked Maloni.
"Which one?" he said.
"Monica," I said. "The one in the black."
"You're drunk," said Maloni, a rugby pretty boy. I overruled him. She was cute, if a little zaftig. And friendly. And nice.
I hovered around the coral reef of the pool table for hours that night, never coming up for air. It was fine, paddling in my little eddy of indifference, waiting for others to approach me. Which Monica did. I was lining up a side shot when she stepped up and dropped three quarters onto the table, the smile now seemingly offered more specifically for my benefit.
"For the game?" I asked. "You got next?"
"No, for you," she said. "Just some extra I had."
So, ignoring the usual coy mating rituals, Monica felt free to actually be nice. Just to be nice. Maybe she wanted to meet me or someone like me. Regardless, it was refreshing. A warm patch of water in an otherwise chilly ocean. The simple act of gifting me with a few quarters after knowing me but a few minutes disarmed me.
I was intrigued enough to approach Joe, who was the raison d'être for the going-away party. Upon gentle inquiry, Joe told me that Monica was bad news, that she had left the White House because she had kept wandering into the Oval Office and inappropriately striking up conversations with the commander in chief.
"Some weird shit, man," he said. "Stay away."
But Washington, in its own polite way, generates more trash talk than a Bulls game. People spread malicious buzz here—at the gym, in bars, at lunch—with no forethought, just to stay in shape, like a jog around the block. So even though I like Joe just fine, I didn't put a lot of stock in his 12th-hand scuttlebutt. Who knew what the truth was in the shark-infested White House waters? I've been "friends" with a bunch of people who work at 1600 Pennsylvania and have seldom trusted anything they say.
Joe's misgivings aside, his girlfriend Danielle, ever the yenta, was eager to facilitate. "Jake," she called to me as she stood with Monica. "Do you want Monica's number?"
"Sure," I said. And a scrap of paper went into my pocket. Home and work phone numbers—a good sign.
A few days later, I called her at that Pentagon job she was soon to leave. Busy, she needed to call me back. She did. The conversations were terse but friendly; we made plans to get together when she returned from a job interview in N.Y.C. I thought it odd that she was leaving the Pentagon job without a new one to go to, but she explained that she was anxious to leave D.C. and live with her mom in New York. Her long hours and international roadtrips while working as the personal assistant to the deputy Defense secretary precluded much of a social life, and she was anxious to move on to something less demanding.
After a few plans fell through—about which she was unfailingly polite, understanding, and as far from aloof as you can get—I picked her up at her mom's place at the Watergate. I'm 15 minutes late for everything, and I always get lost around the Kennedy Center, but she waited in front, no big deal, seemingly psyched. We hit Adams Morgan. Her job meant she wasn't getting out much, so any place sounded great to her. I took her to Roxanne's, a nice Tex-Mex place where I'd eaten a million times when my brother waited tables there.
This was Tuesday night, Dec. 23. Her last day at the Pentagon was rapidly approaching, for which she was grateful. Trapped for months in whatever tunnel she was in, she probably saw a glimmer of light and thought she was still going to be able to extricate herself before the flood waters reached chin level, escaping D.C. with a life intact. Her good mood and light manner indicated that she had no idea that in a matter of days she would become a chew-toy for Ken Starr.
Right off, Monica was different from the standard D.C. date: not a salad-picker, she joined me in appetizers and an actual entree of her own. She had a beer or two, while I drank bourbon. She even offered to pay for her share, a fairly rare offer I rejected but appreciated.
I got the same basic bio you did, though mine was spoken rather than in black and white in the Washington Post: raised in Los Angeles, a city she found fake because her "hair is brown and boobs are real." Parents divorced, dad a doctor, mom an author, seemed to be some family money floating around there, very close with her mom. Lewis and Clark College (huh?), liked Portland, Ore., just fine. White House internship, arranged through some random contact I didn't quite get but didn't push, Pentagon personal assistant.
I've had my share of dates with Really Important D.C. Career Women, and I've found it's easy to get the skinny on anything that ever happened to a woman from meiosis 'til the leak she took before dessert. Monica wasn't like that, peppering her monologue with questions for me and actually listening with interest to the responses. She didn't strike me as a classic climber—just a woman looking for a decent, challenging job and a happy life to go with it. We talked about some of her past relationships, though the president's name did not come up. I didn't work her over for her opinions on Netanyahu, the emotional residue from her parents' split, any of that. It was a first date, one I wasn't sure would be followed by a second, and how was I to know that the woman on the other side of the table would set the presidency into seismic rumblings?
She struck me as cheerful, open, a bit too much a resident of Planet Hap-Hap-Happy in my acerbic view. A little bizarre in her almost childlike sweetness—it was tough to juxtapose her almost giddy warmth with the gravity of the places she had visited, like Bosnia—but she was from both L.A. and money, so her unusualness had a context. She mentioned, more by way of observation than complaint, that her transcribing duties for the DOD were massively challenging for someone who had more skill in communication than in typing—a tidbit now used as bimbo ammo, though it seemed reasonable to me at the time.
Physically, she was pleasant without being overwhelming. She's a little chubby, but she's leaps and bounds prettier than that vacuous mug shot beamed all over the world. (You know how some photos of yourself can make you cringe? Imagine if one of those became a new international icon. We should be allowed to pick our own pictures at times like these.) A great dresser—she wore some black '70s number, kind of, but not in the slightest bit revealing or inappropriate. The reason D.C. quislings are hissing about her "wacky" dress is because she has a sense of style, and this city, simply, does not.
So. A sweet girl. Nice.
Maybe we'll go out again, I thought.
She said as much: "Yeah, I'd really like to get together again. You're really easy to talk to."
And that was it. I was coming down with a cold, and she had to get up early the next day for her last day at work, so I dropped her off before midnight with a very innocent goodbye. As it happens, our second date got lost amid New Year's, my vacation, and my setting up a new apartment—in the cleaning of which I threw out her number.
And apparently, she was kind of busy, too.
Now, to your questions:xxxxxxxxxxxx
After a couple of hours of semicandlelight, I don't know if she is capable of fantastic, Medea-scale delusions. Maybe. But maybe Newsweek reporter Mike Isikoff and Net bottom feeder Matt Drudge are, too; I have no idea. Neither do you. Drudge seems to have no compunction about his personal role in our national deep knee-bend toward Gomorrah; Isikoff apparently thought there was nothing revolting about his going on Letterman this week. Those seem like fairly grand delusions to me.
And I don't know if she was riding Air Force One, so to speak. Perhaps. Though my guess would be based not on my date with her but just on the same compelling car-accidentlike wreckage we're all rubbernecking to see. My sum total experience is a meeting of eyes at a boring bar party and a B-minus date afterward. If fate, Vernon Jordan, and Ken Starr hadn't intervened, who knows, maybe I'd be the only reporter in the world pursuing her.
When my brother returned in '94 from a year of studying ancient texts in Israel, he was incredulous and disgusted with our national obsession with Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. When you emerge into a media maelstrom directly from a media-free world, whether it's Jerusalem or the bottom of the ocean, alleged semen on a reportedly navy blue dress purportedly ejaculated by the leader of the Free World seems rather unimportant, not to mention, well, seedy.
But I am not my brother, and it didn't take long—about a second, actually—for me to go from glimpsing the Caymanian Compass to joining my fellow townies in an obsession. I couldn't watch enough airport-bar CNN-blaring televisions. The rest of you had been huddling around your cable-news campfires to all hours, swapping "I know a guy who knows a guy"s, riveted by all the mumblenewsing, quidnuncing, hearsaying, tattling, and idle-chattering. I had a lot of catching up to do.
Normally, I love this shit. When the gong of scandal ringeth, count on me to be the first in line for the hanging, salivating in expectation of the next tidbit. But a funny thing happened to me on the way from Cayman to the States. When you scuba dive, if you plunge deep into the abyss—say, deeper than 66 feet, or two "atmospheres"—you can't rise to the surface too quickly or you risk a serious medical problem with a silly name, the bends. Maybe I returned to the rag-colored atmosphere of D.C. too quickly, but I'm feeling mighty queasy about this one. I don't know Monica much better than you know the person in the next cube, but she's not a mug shot and a punch line to me.
Whether we care about her or not, we've all done the math on Monica's behalf, parsing out her destiny over warming beers and neglected finger food. No matter the permutations, there are really only three options:
1.) It happened the seamy way it looks, in which case I feel sorry for her. Who among you women would turn down an opportunity to befriend and go at it with the tall, bulky, handsome, charismatic guy who just happens to be president?
2.) It didn't happen at all, and she was/is lying, or, as a drunken, fairly high-ranking administration Clintonista bellowed at me in not-quite-subliminal talking points Saturday night, "She's an ugly girl with a crazy fantasy life!" He seemed far more crazed than she, but even if the whole thing
is unadulterated bullion, I still feel sorry for her.
3.) As most of us believe, it was some hazy amalgam of the first two choices, a disconcerting land where Chuck Robb's oral-sex-is-OK rules and Monica was addled by a close brush with power. Why blame her for what ensued?
No matter which curtain you pick, there are dozens of people I've met in this town with empty, self-serving, loathsome characters who deserve life-ruining scandals long before Monica does. It is as if my buddy Joe's unconfirmed, unsubstantiated, off-the-record barroom trash talk went right to the front pages of the Old Gray Lady and the rest. There are three actual facts we know: She swore it didn't happen, he swore it didn't happen, and there are some tapes out there on which she says it did. And we all know what "it" is. Don't kid yourself, this isn't about perjury, it's about blowjobs.
Images of barracuda are fixed in my mind. Barracuda frequently haunt the nether regions of scuba boats, hoping they're fishing boats, and position themselves within jaws' reach of any caught game. In Little Cayman, where the fun is in landing, not eating, the bad-tasting bonefish, normally the fish get thrown back. But the fucking barracuda just hover, and wait, and wait. No matter that the bonefish is scheduled for release and can still live a fruitful life—the predator moves in and bites off its head.
Washington is giddy....What are we so damn happy about?
"Jake, how come you're not at the party yet?" a woman—the hostess, the birthday girl—called me Saturday night. "Everyone is dying to hear about your date with Monica Lewinsky!" Even as I feed the beast, I know it will be years before anybody can have a conversation with her without imagining her on her knees in the Oval Office. If ever. She will live her life within the borders of a tabloid cover.
Monica was/is like a lot of young women inside the Beltway, only more so: young, ambitious, and looking—looking for next, seeking a place to land, searching for that one friendly face in the crowd who will think she's worth talking to. A guy, a boss, a boyfriend, a mentor, a friend. For Monica, that person turned out to be Bill Clinton. Clinton apparently saw in her either a consummately gullible kid, or maybe, just maybe, he was taken by the same thing I was: an absence of jade, a willingness to look around the next corner, a sweetness that is rare in a city built on bitter and sour and salty.
And she kept looking even after she had become a footnote in the White House personnel files. When she started chatting with Linda Tripp at the Pentagon about clothes, or the office, or sex, or whatever, she'd thought she'd found a kindred spirit, or at least, for God's sake, a friend. She found an abyss instead, where she became trapped for not knowing where friendship ends and politics, of the most bitter and fanatical sort, begins. How was she supposed to know that when a friend invited her out to a hotel bar to pour out her heart over a couple of cocktails that the friend would show up wearing a wire under the chiffon? There's Monica, working through post-adolescent confusion about a close brush with a man who was both married and incredibly powerful, and suddenly she has G-men grabbing her under her arm, hauling her off to a room to tell her how it is going to be.
Whereas before I wasn't even sure if I wanted a second date, now everybody wants Monica. Ken Starr wants her so he can settle the score with Clinton once and for all and then shuffle off to Pepperdine. Vernon Jordan wants her so he can tell her to shut up and maintain his position as the sunlike epicenter of the political universe. Weekly World News and Ted Koppel want her so they can squeeze and prod her like a zit, until something else juicy and heinous pops out. And I want her because you do.
We just want to know...everything.
Monica is now in the business of wish fulfillment. We want her to come screaming into our lives, contrite and unapologetic, chaste and slutty, humiliated and strong, lying and personifying truth. We want her to be every fucking thing, and we will stand outside her window with minicams and live trucks and subpoenas until she comes out and plays ball.
The night I went out with her, I thought of her as uncomplicated. Of course, uncomplicated ain't going to work for a media machine that needs to be fed hourly. The story will be nudged along with bits and pieces of her, none of which reflects the whole. The boy she dissed in school, the bureaucratic harridans at the Pentagon and the White House she offended with her flashy ways, the weekly reporter who had a single date with her, the intern she surpassed without much effort—him, her, them—we will be hearing from all of them.
Jesus, how many college roommates could rattle off lists of my bizarre habits? How many ex-flames? Newsweek actually reported that, when Monica was a college student, some real estate agent noticed that she had some condoms by her bed. It gets worse. If you read between the lines of Clinton's more deft flacks, there is a subtext that she is just so much well-financed white trash who was looking to get her lips firmly onto the seat of power. It's there, in the countless references to the deep cut of Monica's dresses and the ample cleavage they revealed. To my eye, Monica was not the least bit sleazy. Maybe she made a bit more of a fashion statement than most, but nothing that you couldn't take home to mom.
My mom, in fact, would love her. Dad, too. She's Jewish, for one thing.
When I watch the video of her making nice with the president after his victory in 1996, I don't see anything untoward, anything "come hither" or ridiculously "familiar." Gigantic smile framed by thick, chocolate-colored hair tumbling out of her beret, she seems very much in the moment, enjoying the attentions of the most powerful man on the globe. Who among us wouldn't smile and hug ourselves if the president turned his eye our way? Go to the Hill—watch interns bow and preen for acknowledgement of their existence from the most innocuous, long-irrelevant Member. I'm sure third-tier cable-news anchorhairstyles are afforded obsequiousnesses far surpassing anything possible in a just universe. There is something supremely validating about proximity to power, and when that proximity morphs into intimacy—be it of an emotional or sexual sort—the seduction is a fait accompli. Isn't Monica just the ultimate expression of what D.C. is all about?
Those who really know her say that she worked, endlessly, cheerfully, that no job was too small or too daunting. D.C. is rife with her type, those of the perennially cheerful faces who are more than happy to do what ever it takes to make the alpha male (or female) look good. Monica and girls and boys like her come by the trainload, seeking résumé fodder. They arrive cheap, easy, and willing. When I worked on the Hill in '93, we would joke about the Stepford Kids at the White House, the Branch Clintonians. Now half those kids are deputy secretaries, half are jaded and long-gone, while Monica's head hangs on Wolf Blitzer's mantel.
If Clinton took advantage of those characteristics, that makes him incredibly common in all regards. Common for letting his hog take down his presidency, but common as well in the sense that the town is full of junior Clintons without the intelligence and charm. Does it need saying that too many of the producers, reporters, and editors who are currently busy putting him and Monica in stocks have done the same thing in just as tawdry ways? Feed a drink to any woman reporter—especially in TV—and she will spill all about her first job, about the fossilized proboscis monkey who pushed her up against the teleprompter, or the tan, dashing reporter who had breath like a warthog and hands like a squid.
I don't expect to see Monica again. To be honest, I'm not sure I would have seen her even if she hadn't ended up buried beneath the headlines.
It's not that we didn't hit it off, it's just that D.C. tends to be a town where things are compressed. In order for something to last, it has to rear up huge to begin with. We're busy; we have schedules. I'm already booked for half my nights next week, and little of it involves fun. The way Monica and I came together—at a goodbye party for someone else, with her right on the cusp of leaving herself—wasn't exactly the stuff of commitment.
And to be brutally honest, I got with her because I figured that behind her initial aggressiveness lurked an easy, perhaps winning, bit of no-frills hookup. Nothing of the kind happened, so either I am eminently resistible (which is certainly within the realm of possibility) or Monica is not the tart she is being made out to be.
Yeah, maybe if I had the Marines under my command, things would have been different, but I'm not so sure. Power does weird things to people. More than once, I have found myself laughing my ass off and nodding in agreement while some fading star has held forth on something I could care less about. Offended me, even. Does that make me a nitwit, a himbo waiting to happen? I think it just makes me toweringly average in Washington, just another creature who is here because this is where the national vat of power lies, and I'm sitting here waiting for my bowlful.
So in between Bud Lights, Top 10 lists, and over/under bets on Clinton's tenure, we shrug her off like a gnat. Somewhere along the way, you might want to give sweet, ruined Monica a thought, a Washington archetype who is being impaled for the sake of gluttony and boredom.