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Dear Monica
ILLUSTRATION BY MARK ZINGARELLI

Watching a Barbara Walters interview is the equivalent of reading Cosmo while snacking on Doritos and Yoo-hoo. It's a total surrender to junk. You know it rots your insides; you know it contributes to the degradation of our culture. But still. Sometimes the cheap, yummy thrill of it is simply irresistible. That's probably what Bill Clinton thought after seeing Monica's thong. It's certainly what I thought the evening of March 3, 1999, when I settled in to participate in the biggest orgy of voyeurism this country has ever seen. Here in Washington, D.C., at least, Walters' interview with Monica Lewinsky was considered the Super Bowl of gossip.

I wish I could say my interest was high-minded. After the scandal first broke, the so-called Beltway intelligentsia walked around with giant cataracts over their eyes: for more than a year, all people saw, talked, and thought about was Zippergate. But you had to be "smart" about it. When the Washington Monument was placed under wraps for renovation, I suggested that this might provide Bill Clinton with a visual aid. The response? Eye rolls. In a town that breeds opinions like viruses, humor is generally frowned upon. Serious commentary is the hard currency.

But to me, the whole scandal was a Rubik's Cube for feminists. No matter what angle we viewed it from, no matter how diligently we tried to align the facts or move the various pieces into place, no coherent argument or picture ever emerged. And now, in the aftermath, there's still no clear, even surface.

I watched because Monica Lewinsky had given the most expensive blow job in history--and I wanted to hear all the details.

Yeah, the president acted like he belonged on a leash. Yet Ken Starr was a right-wing pit bull. Yeah, Lewinsky was a victim and Clinton abused his privileges. But Lewinsky was also the daughter of privilege; to a lesser degree, she abused her own store-bought opportunities. While the president exploited the aphrodisiacal power of his office, Lewinsky used her sexuality inappropriately. Both navigated without any moral compass. Both were consenting adults. Both were what my grandmother would call "pieces of work."

This was a lose-lose situation for us feminists. Even Hillary came out shining only because she was a better Tammy Wynette than Tammy Wynette ever was.

So I didn't watch the interview with hopes that a clear-cut feminist argument would finally emerge from the wreckage. Oh no. I watched because Monica Lewinsky had given the most expensive blow job in history--and I wanted to hear all the details.

Besides, when the news first hit in January 1998, I got a lot of calls from people asking what I thought about the president having an affair with an intern young enough to be his daughter?

This is every insecure girl's erotic revenge fantasy come true. Let's not kid ourselves.

"I'm very, very upset," I told them. "I mean, why didn't the president hit on me? I'm a voluptuous Jewish chick with no discernible morals. And I would've kept my mouth shut. Well, afterwards at least."

They thought I was kidding. Look, let me say this up front: I actually do think it's immoral to sleep with a married man. Never mind that my libido could use its own zip code--or that someone once called me a "sexual socialist." I've come dangerously close to having affairs with married men, but the feminist in me believed I couldn't do that to another woman. The karma cop in me believed that if I slept with somebody's husband, one day somebody would sleep with mine. Moreover, I grew up in a family where philandering occurred. I know firsthand how, when one spouse betrays another, it breeds cancer in the family--everyone, including the children, becomes sick from it.

This being said, however, I also know that had I been in Monica Lewinsky's situation, I would have done the exact same thing she did.

I am not saying this with bravado. I'm not proud. I just know what it's like to be an insecure 21-year-old in a culture where only beauty, celebrity, sex, and power are valued. I know how your own sexuality can become a heady source of affirmation. I know how your own neediness and desire can eclipse everything else in the world.

And I know that if the current president of the United States of America had flirted with me when I was a little younger, I, too, would've dropped to my knees.

For a woman who claimed to have little self-respect, Lewinsky's narcissism was breathtaking. She seemed to bask in the spotlight.

Remember, we're talkin' the president here. We're talkin' Bill Clinton, the most powerful and celebrated man in the world--and a total hottie as far as I'm concerned--thinking I'm a total hottie. Who could resist? This is every insecure girl's erotic revenge fantasy come true. Let's not kid ourselves.

So I approached Monica's interview with a perverse sense of empathy and kinship, for she briefly lived out a fantasy that I myself had once entertained in some shape or form. In a different time and place, I might have been her.

My inquiring, dirty little mind wanted to know, just what did it feel like to have the president's dick in your mouth? Did it occur to her that she could change the course of history just by biting down? What did he say to her during those 50 phone calls? What was it like to see Clinton on television after a night of heavy breathing? How did she deal with the power and danger of the situation? And where did she get the chutzpah to do it? (Frankly, I also wanted to hear Barbara Walters say "fellatio" on national television. I mean Elmer Fudd couldn't mangle the word like she could.)

Monica Lewinsky is the ultimate democrat; she insisted on viewing the president in a vacuum, devoid of all power.

Instead, of course, all I got was the pabulum that everybody else in the nation got: Walters saying without irony, "I don't want to get too personal." Monica Lewinsky, with perfect hair and lipstick, giggling discreetly about Clinton's "sensuality." Oh, pul-leeze.

For a woman who claimed to have little self-respect, Lewinsky's narcissism was breathtaking. She seemed to bask in the spotlight. The fact that she'd been playing with fire from day one had still, incredibly, escaped her. And that she kept insisting the affair was "about a man and a woman and not the president and the intern" just stunned me. What can a feminist say about a young woman who feels so entitled that she sees herself as being on equal footing with the president?

The founding fathers would have loved Monica, actually. They wanted the nation's president to be a regular citizen, not royalty. In this context, Monica Lewinsky is the ultimate democrat; she insisted on viewing the president in a vacuum, devoid of all power. If we are to believe her, Bill Clinton was just another guy she had a crush on--the equivalent of some gigolo she met at the Jiffy Lube, maybe, or a high school drama teacher.

By the end of the interview, I loathed Monica. Her immaturity, her cluelessness, her sexual amorality--all of it angered me. Certainly, it was not good P.R. for the rest of us. But beyond that, I wanted her to be more than a pampered ingenue starring in her own real-life episode of Beverly Hills 90210. I didn't want her to be a victim, but I wanted her to be someone who'd at least grown smarter from her year of living dangerously, someone who didn't scoff at the White House "meanies" who had tried to avert the mess, someone who was at least conscious about more than herself and her inner circle. As I switched off the TV, I found the voice of my inner rabbi--something I never knew I had--winning out over that of my inner thighs. I felt suckered and a little disgusted with her and myself.

Susan Jane Gilman has written humor for the New York "Times," the Los Angeles "Times," "Us," and "HUES." Her book, "Kiss My Tiara," will be published by Warner Books next year.

 
           
     

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