Monica vs. Maureen

While a New York Times editorialist denounces Lewinsky's willingness to expose her lips and legs, her own paper takes cheaper shots at the First Intern's most private parts

Published June 18, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Blame the wind, the angle of the sun, the suppleness of a clinging, freshly laundered dress. What else could explain the body of Monica Lewinsky captured in the most sexualized image yet? Her thighs -- poised in classical contrapposto -- are as round and blooming as a Venus de Milo; the dappled triangular crevice bridging two hips and a belly has enough texture to send Sister Wendy into appreciatory seizures; and the dark shadow of her bosom fading to clinging fingers of wrinkles around her ample yet girlish waist requires little imagination.

Nature may create the stuff that smut is made of -- flesh, flesh and more hormones -- but Demeter doesn't do images. That's the work of humans, or more specifically, photo editors. So why did this eye-popping picture of the country's First Intern appear in, of all places, the Good Gray New York Times? Was this really the only picture they had to choose from? Or was it a genteel leer, a prime example of the disingenuous, we-didn't-mean-to tabloidism that is common practice at even the most "respectable" of publications?

That the Times chose to run this soft-core photo on Saturday was particularly interesting, in light of the fact that just three days earlier, the paper's voice of snide moral outrage, Maureen Dowd, had torn into Lewinsky's photo shoot in Vanity Fair, characterizing it as "sickening" and "pornographic" and accusing Lewinsky of having "immunity only for one thing: brains."

Actually, compared to the Times' "documentary" photo, the Vanity Fair photos are downright tame. Granted, they evince something of the coy sexuality of 1950s movies, the last era when full-figured women ruled as sex symbols: Cavorting in a red-and-white gingham shirt and blue jeans like a young Marilyn Monroe, Monica looks carefree and silly. Barefoot on the beach in a black knee-length dress, she holds an antique flag. Over a fan of fuchsia colors, she gazes with sleepy seductiveness at the reader, but the only thing pictured is her face.

Tasteless? Sure -- although the idea that any kind of national "taste" remains to be defended after five months of nudge-nudging about Monica and Bill is dubious. Embarrassing? Perhaps. But though people have roundly decried her former lawyer William Ginsburg's explanation that his client needed such a photo shoot to improve her "self-esteem," there is probably a sad truth to it. Her parents and new lawyers have rushed to smooth over this PR catastrophe and shore up her image as the doe-eyed victim of Starr's Wars, but at least in Vanity Fair she had some control over how she was being represented.

Not so with the visual images and verbal characterizations she's been tarred with in the New York Times. Like most of the women in this whole private-public sewage system known as the White House sex scandal, from Paula Jones to Hillary Clinton, Lewinsky has been depicted as either a victim of manipulative men or an underhanded operator. But only Dowd has managed to do both. And in an extremely strange column that appeared yesterday, she returned yet again to the Vanity Fair shoot.

It was peculiar enough that Dowd claimed to discern in Monica's portrait a "come-hither look at the President." Even odder, however, is her unintentionally revealing account of her "cat fight" with Lewinsky when they met by chance at an Indian restaurant in Washington. Dowd writes that Monica asked her point-blank why she wrote such scathing things about her -- something many readers must have wondered during the past few months. Dowd lists a litany of pathetic reasons that she might have given: Women shouldn't mess with married men, the photo shoot was a tactical mistake, she reserves harsher criticism for Clinton and Ginsburg. But in the end she "wimps out" and answers simply: "I don't know."

Actually, this may be the truest answer of them all. Pieties about married men are all well and good, but are they really worthy of space in a national political column? And by what mysterious moral alchemy do these maternal homilies turn into mean-spirited attacks? After all, Monica Lewinsky was dragged into this blizzard of scrutiny and criticism unwillingly, and until this goofy little photo shoot had done everything short of wearing a bag on her head to extricate herself. So why the rancor, the pity, the near-obsessive interest?

Aren't there better things to get riled up about?

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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