Dear Daughter: Go to jail. Love, Mom

Pro-family advocates would rather pass judgment on Monica Lewinsky's mom than on the government forcing her to testify against her child.

By Dawn MacKeen - Lori Leibovich
Published April 8, 1998 5:06PM (EDT)

Distraught and appearing physically ill as she emerged from the grand jury chambers in February, Marcia Lewis was the picture of a woman ripped apart, torn between her duty to the law and her instinct as a mother to protect her daughter, Monica Lewinsky. Lewis had become a key witness in Kenneth Starr's investigation, her intimate conversations with her
daughter potential evidence that could incriminate the president and
possibly land her child in jail.

The image of the shaken Lewis created one more public relations
disaster for the independent counsel. Already weary of the costly investigation and Starr's hardball tactics, much of the public seemed to agree with the charge made by Lewis' ex-husband, Bernard Lewinsky, that the prosecutor had gone too far in "pit(ting) a mother against her daughter." Obviously concerned about another public outcry, last week Starr quietly called Lewis back to the stand, interrogating her this time
without a jury and the attendant media fanfare.

Lewis is not the first parent called on to testify against her child, but the case has spotlighted the law invading the parent-child relationship. Certainly there are cases when parents should be required to divulge what they know about a child's involvement in a crime, but is this one of them? Was Starr's action a necessary prosecutorial step or a frivolous intrusion?

The issue would seem to pose a particular dilemma for pro-family advocates, who must decide whether the Clinton presidency represents more of a threat to "family values" than forcing a mother to testify about her daughter's personal life. Normally outspoken conservative groups such as the Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum refused to comment on the issue. Other pro-family organizations, however, scoffed at the idea that Starr's subpoena threatened family values. "As I understand it, it is perfectly within the law," said Arne Owens, a spokesman for the Christian Coalition. "I believe the efforts to imply that [Starr's investigation] is somehow wrong are a partisan, ongoing public relations campaign by the administration to discredit the independent counsel and impede his work.

"The White House is very particular about pointing out what's legal and what isn't," Owens added. "So in that sense, I guess I agree with the White House."

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Barbara Ledeen, executive director for policy
of the Independent Women's Forum, a Washington, D.C., organization that promotes individual responsibility and strong families, laughed out loud at the suggestion that Starr's actions violated the sanctity of the family. She recalled that her family's personal records were subpoenaed by a grand jury during the Iran-contra affair because her husband, Michael, was a consultant to the National Security Council during the Reagan administration. "Then, no one could be bothered to hear about it," Ledeen said. "This is standard prosecutorial conduct. It's
too bad if they don't like it."

Barbara Olson, a former prosecutor and a member of the Independent
Women's Forum national advisory board, agreed that the public has been pretty fickle on the issue. "No one said anything when Paula's
[Jones] mother and sister were called in by the president's lawyers," she pointed out.

Although the law protects spouses against being compelled to testify
against each other, Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a political commentator for CNN and president of the
Polling Company, a political consulting firm in Washington, D.C.,
says the parent-child relationship should not be afforded the same protection. "We tend to let the emotional arguments overcome the pursuit of justice," said Fitzpatrick. "The law
doesn't recognize privileges for mothers or confidantes, and I think that is good because privileges should be narrowly prescribed. I understand that it is unsavory, but it is not unseemly."

Yet most of the pro-family advocates interviewed didn't seem to find the idea of a mother being forced to reveal details of a private conversation with her daughter particularly unsavory -- in this case, at least. Rather, they disapproved of the relationship between Lewinsky and Lewis -- one in which, in their view, the mother played the role of a girlfriend while the daughter confided in her about her sexual relationships and sought her advice.

"This relationship -- in which the daughter is
basically bragging about her sexual exploits with a powerful man -- seems to me to be very perverse," said Linda Chavez, a syndicated columnist and president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a
think tank "devoted exclusively to the promotion of colorblind equal
opportunity and racial harmony." "I cannot imagine such a conversation with my mother. I can't imagine one of my adult children having such a conversation with me. If everything on those tapes is accurate ... you sort of wonder where
[Lewis'] motherly instinct was when her daughter was telling her of this relationship."

Olson was equally critical of Lewis' parenting style. "One aspect of this that troubles me is, are you teaching your daughter not to abide by the law?" she said. "It's her responsibility as a citizen to go before the grand jury and tell them what she knows. But the mother is not doing this and instead is making a big deal and crying and upset -- well, I would be upset for a whole lot of reasons, and the grand jury would be the least of them if it was my daughter."

The plight of Lewinsky's mother failed to arouse sympathy even among the mothers interviewed. Chavez said she would feel "a lot more sympathetic to Mrs. Lewis if she had
played a somewhat different role -- if she had said to her daughter, 'This isn't good for you, the guy is a louse.'" Instead, Chavez said her heart went out to Lewis' daughter. "I think she is a very, very sad girl. She's looking for a mom and she ends up with Linda Tripp. She's looking for a dad and she ends up with Bill Clinton. This seems like a girl looking for love in all the wrong places."

So when a daughter goes to her mother with a problem, should the mother first consider whether their conversation will be protected by legal privilege? The Christian Coalition's Owens said that was simply not an issue. "Responsible parents would work in tandem with law enforcement to ensure that laws are upheld because no man or woman in this nation is above the law. Parents should reinforce the law."

Dawn MacKeen

Dawn MacKeen is a former senior writer for Salon, and author of a forthcoming book about her grandfather’s survival of the Armenian Genocide, "The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2016).

MORE FROM Dawn MacKeen

Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

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