An affair to remember

What about Monica? President Clinton is trying desperately to salvage his reputation. She has lost hers forever.

Published July 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Here's a new one for you: the guy who ruined a girl's reputation by telling everyone they didn't have sex.

Monday night President Clinton copped to a lie that is the reverse of the standard one. As a rule, the guy says he did something with the girl or she did something to him that, in fact, she did not do. He does this to enhance his reputation at the expense of hers. But now the biggest man on campus has admitted that for the last seven months he had flipped the script: "Let's do it and say we didn't."

Either way, the lesson is the same: Sex between a man and a woman may take two in private, but once it gets into the public arena, he's the one who gets to define it -- and to define her. Should this lead to a scandal, the first thing to go is her "credibility," her right to be the one who says what happened, what it meant. "I never had sex with that woman." There was even speculation that she had imagined the whole thing; reporters dug up childhood friends and high school yearbooks in an effort to assess her sanity.

Knowing this, who could begrudge Monica her unwashed dress, both souvenir and proof? Or her scanning TV screens for the blue and gold tie, a signal that it did mean something? It's all she's got now, besides a reputation that will dog her all her days.

In these post-shame days, a "bad reputation" is not a product of how many men you sleep with, how public you are about it or how much skin you show -- Madonna hasn't got one, nor does Li'l Kim. A reputation is by definition unsolicited, something you cannot acquire by design. It's reserved for women who get themselves into situations they can't control. "No one would believe a girl like you."

The other lie men tell about women and sex is the lie they tell to women about sex -- that it mattered. The Monica tapes let on that she thought her 18-month relationship with the president was a romance, even love; the gift trail indicates that she was encouraged to do so.

The president described it differently to friends. "I just slipped up with that girl," he reportedly told his buddy Dick Morris (a fellow bad boy whose own sexual scandal with a prostitute forced him to resign as a Clinton advisor), as if it were a one-night fling. And so the relationship, once marked by late-night calls and gifts of verse from the president, is emptied of content, reduced to "not appropriate. In fact it was wrong." To be "legally correct" about it -- and reduce its significance even further -- the sex wasn't even "real" sex.

Looking the nation square in the eye Monday night, Clinton offered no apology to "that woman," as he initially described her to the public, for the "inappropriateness" of the affair, not to mention the inappropriateness of his silence as she faced the threat of criminal prosecution. He did not apologize to her or her family for dragging them through the legal hell and public humiliation of the last several months. The matter now is between the man, his family and their God. Period.

A family man once again and fiercely so, the president vowed to protect his privacy even as Lewinsky's was irrevocably shattered. Admitting not only the relationship but the lie, Clinton retains a prerogative that is less presidential than universally male -- to control the story, define it, say what it didn't mean.

On the morning-after talk shows, and in coffee shops, the talk was of leaders and their wives. What will this do to Hillary? What are we going to do with Bill? The girl, that woman, may as well never have existed. Ironically, to give the whole circus a shred of credit, she has been elevated from "that woman" to "Miss Lewinsky" -- but only to be entirely obliterated.

Lewinsky's "friends" are now telling reporters that she still avidly scans the TV screen for the telltale tie she gave Clinton. But whether or not blue and gold diamonds are a girl's best friend, Clinton's public message to Lewinsky remains unambivalent: What was your name again?

The lie the president told about Monica Lewinsky may have been a variation on the standard theme, but it leaves her in the same place as any woman conquered and dismissed. She is at once branded and erased.

By Nell Bernstein

Nell Bernstein is the author of "A Rage to do Better: Listening to Young People from the Foster Care System."

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Bill Clinton Dick Morris Love And Sex Sex