True romance

Why did President Clinton risk everything for a perky intern? Because he was in love.

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

Why did President Clinton wear that necktie? I'm referring to the $100 silk Zegna in audacious gold-and-navy patterns that Monica gave him with the remark, "When I see you wearing this tie, I'll know I'm close to your heart." Clinton donned it for a gun-ban rally in the Rose Garden the very morning Monica was testifying before the grand jury. The New York Times suspected that it was "a plea for solidarity," while Newsday thought it was a White House threat to Lewinsky "that she was being watched."

But there was something off in the timing. "Ms. Lewinsky did not learn of Mr. Clinton's choice of neckties until she turned on the television that evening," the Times noted.

Now, any two-bit G-7 knows that Clinton would have had to wear the tie the day before so that she would see it on the evening news prior to her testimony. Certainly Clinton, of all people, would have known such media fundamentals. So think like Sherlock Holmes for a minute. If it wasn't witness-tampering or a threat, then what was Clinton signaling?

I was on my third day of noodling this riddle (along with a few others I will get to shortly) while strolling to a friend's birthday party in Central Park when I looked up to see Woody Allen's familiar building. Woody and Soon Yi, Bill and Monica. Could it be? What if it wasn't just meaningless sex by a groupie eager to try out her presidential kneepads? What if Bill and Monica were actually in love?

Stay with me here, because if you suspend the belief that everything Clinton says is a lie, then a good number of mysteries disappear, patterns surface and a coherent theory emerges.

What if Clinton wore the tie for no reason other than to communicate to Monica, after the ordeal of testifying, that "I'm close to your heart"? Impossible? Does it help to know that Clinton also wore the Zegna when he left Washington for his historic trip to China, and on the day of his return -- two occasions with major television exposure for coded "I love you, Monica" messages? Bill and Monica seemed to have a thing for secret signals. One source alleges the infamous beret was a gift from Clinton. Now what better way to send a message to Dreamboat amid a massively attended White House function? And how about the "Romeo and Juliet" ad placed in the Washington Post on Valentine's Day by Monica? Assuming that Clinton wasn't looking for a dishwasher's job or wasn't out to buy a used El Camino, why would he be cruising the classifieds unless it had been pre-arranged by the two of them? (Watergate buffs will note that the Washington Post was the preferred medium of the ur-Deep Throat.)

How about this one: Last winter, just before the scandal broke, Linda Tripp set up a trap for Clinton when she told the Paula Jones lawyers that the president had given Lewinsky gifts. So a Dec. 19 subpoena served on Lewinsky commanded her to hand over "each and every gift including, but not limited to, any and all dresses, accessories, and jewelry, and/or hat pins given to you by, or on behalf of, Defendant Clinton." Almost immediately, there's the whole business of Betty Currie and the retrieval of the gifts.

But nine days later, on Dec. 28, upon the first opportunity for Bill and Monica to have a Christmas date (and their last meeting face to face, or whatever), Clinton gives her more presents. A bunch more. He gives her a throw rug, a gold brooch and an Alaskan stone carving of a bear. You can muse on the hidden meaning of such a troika of gifts on your own time, but consider this: Is there anything more domestic than a throw rug. A throw rug, for Christ's sake. I don't even know where to begin with that. A gold brooch is an intimate gift, but it's not as overtly sexual as, say, earrings (piercing the flesh) or a necklace (embracing the body). A gold brooch suggests sexual intimacy, as any piece of jewelry does, but with the implication of a mature future. And a bear carving? I'm betting that one day we will learn of a certain ursine nickname Monica once employed for the First Stud.

But to get back to the problem. Why would OIC-savvy President Clinton risk giving even more presents to Monica? As a Clinton insider told the Washington Post, it just didn't make any sense from a Machiavellian point of view: "The moral of the story is, if he was orchestrating an obstruction campaign, why was he giving her gifts on the 28th?"

Perhaps the simple answer is that this was a guy who loved his gal. It's a hard concept, admittedly, to wrap one's mind around since such a plain and boyish explanation flies in the face of Clinton's conniving reputation for "using everybody." (A preposterous accusation, by the way, since presidents are Darwinianly selected for such behavior. Reagan, Nixon, Kennedy, Roosevelt -- famous users all.) Of course the rashness of the Christmas presents is nothing compared to the insanity of the entire affair. It was initiated after the Paula Jones lawsuit was green-lighted. Hubris? Or maybe enchantment.

The full list of presents, as it has accumulated from leaks out of the grand jury, holds other clues. Consider the joke sunglasses. That's right, one of the presents Monica received from the Leader of the Free World was a pair of joke sunglasses. Silly, goofy, sure. But just who do we feel most comfortable being silly and goofy with? Here, visualize this: Clinton giving joke sunglasses to Hillary. Hard to bring that little mind picture into focus, isn't it?

Clinton gave Monica a "souvenir from Radio City Music Hall" when he was there to celebrate his 50th birthday party. So he's giving her presents from milestone events in his life, thus suggesting that, for him, she participates in them. He shares with Monica the solemnity of his office (a signed copy of a State of the Union address) but also gives her something hinting of future vacations (a Martha's Vineyard Black Dog bag). One gift was as romantically straightforward as it gets: a box of chocolates.

Then there are the books, which hint of a deep but spiritual kind of Eros between them. Clinton gave Monica "Leaves of Grass." Let's just put aside the easy fellatrix jokes ("I Sing the Body Electric") and think about what this particular book means to a man of Clinton's generation. Metaphorically, it's about the beauty of rollicking carnality when it yearns to defy death, a book that signifies the elevation of old-fashioned lusty monkey-love as a plaintive reach toward immortality. For a liberal-arts dilettante like Clinton, "Leaves of Grass" is the book that yokes the sacred and the profane into meaningful union. It's what you give your lover before you move on to a Henry Miller novel or James Joyce's letters to Nora from the winter of 1909.

And what is the book Monica gave Bill -- Nicholson Baker's phone-sex tour de force "Vox" -- but a Gen X attempt at signaling the same complex of spiritual longings bound up in physical desire? Yet, the differences are interesting. "Leaves" is hopeful, even defiant, while "Vox" has an almost tragic quality to it, an acknowledgment that the real world will never allow the couple's profanity to bloom into holiness. The book ends with the woman hanging up the phone because "I have to put a load of towels in the laundry." (Knowing now of the DNA-stained dress, one wonders if Monica ever finished the book.)

According to the usual sources (Monica's "friends"), she and the president actually participated in some phone sex. Given the intimacy of the gifts, this revelation is significant. By and large, phone sex happens between absolute strangers or serious lovers. You don't have phone sex with a friend or even a groupie. Among committed lovers, phone sex is the foundation of something deeper and meaningful. One doesn't whisper one's own degrading but arousing fantasies to anyone except someone you trust and love -- and love passionately.

If you accept this, then it becomes even clearer why Hillary has decided to stand and fight. She, perhaps alone except for Monica, realizes what is really at stake here. Her marriage.

- - - - - - - - - -

Then there are the other clues. Clinton apparently left messages on Monica's
answering machine -- a deeply risky thing to do. Such messages can be
preserved or overheard (as perhaps they were -- recorded by Linda Tripp, who
had Monica play them over the telephone to her). The sheer madness of leaving
icky-poo messages suggests a kind of puppy-love giddiness. I have had friends
describe such details and then rant in disgust: "He's acting like a teenager
stricken by first love." Exactly. (The incredulity may soon end. This week, after Linda Tripp's agent, Lucianne Goldberg, leaked some
of Clinton's humiliating love-whispers to Monica, the "true-love" scenario
made it into the pages of the National Enquirer, which, let's be honest, is
the real newspaper of record nowadays.)

It's this adolescent quality of the affair that leaves Clinton defenders almost
breathless. The unthinkable romance -- youthfully indiscreet, reckless and
passionate. He's the president, Democrats howl in private, why couldn't he keep it
zipped for his eight years?

Why? Because the American public has misunderstood the critical key to Clinton's
character from the beginning. He has been repeatedly interpreted as a
baby-boomer politician, a New Democrat, a child of alcoholics -- all of which miss
the critical factor in Clinton's psychological development. He is a Southern White
Male. As am I, so let me clue you in: If you really want to peel the onion of Clinton's
psyche, you must eventually hunker down with the Bible of Southern Studies, W.J.
Cash's "The Mind of the South."

It was Cash who, for the first time in American literary history, explored the
deepest impulses of all those who preceded Clinton and all those who will come
after. (Cash published the book in 1941 and then, horrified at the profound truths
he had unearthed for the delectation of cackling Yankees, hanged himself with his
necktie from the door of a Mexican hotel.)

From Day 1, every Southerner contends with the vestigial pillars of Dixie Chivalry,
one of these being the Cult of Southern Womanhood, or, in Cash's lovely
neologism, "gyneolatry." The result was the highly stylized figurine on a pedestal
famously known as the Southern Belle. As a statue, she was perfect; as a wife,
she was thoroughly desexualized, resembling more a mother than a lover. The
curse of every Southern boy is the feeling that he must marry the proper (but
boring) girl. From birth on, the notion of goodness and sexiness are cleaved. (It's
also why Southern racism has about it the fury of sexuality denied: Because the
good belle has been drained of sexuality, the natural vessel to contain animal
passion is negritude, or if miscegenation is unthinkable, white trashiness.) As a
result, "many Southerners," Cash wrote 50 years before Clinton slinked into the
side chamber of his Oval Office, "find positive pleasure in the furtive itself [and]
require secrecy and the guilty sense of sin as necessary conditions of the highest

Clinton probably thought he had escaped the traditional Southern curse of
marrying a well-behaved belle, but the fact is he just married the liberal
simulacrum of a belle: a completely desexualized feminist. Thus, Clinton is
irresistibly drawn to a woman who in his mind embodies the animal passions --
not a well-bred (or well-educated) female with a proper hairdo, trim, shapeless
bosom and modest callipygian tush. But a woman who trumpets her sexuality
with big hair, crimson lipstick, great Willendorfian titties and a high-water booty.

Yet all Southerners are incurable romantics, Cash says, battered by "the two
currents of Puritanism and hedonism." Thus, it's not that Clinton merely wants
some hot sweaty romping with a little cigar diddling thrown in. He also longs for it
to mean something. It may shock the rest of the country but it will come as no
surprise to his co-regionalists that Clinton might fall desperately in love with the
young zaftig woman who gave him his first glimpse of post-presidential passion --
after 30 years of doing precisely what he was supposed to do, marrying the right
woman, containing (as best he could) all of his desires, holding in check
everything that might jeopardize the steep ramp of his career path.

Most of the media and public have expressed near revulsion for Monica because
she connived her way into his office, quoted "Romeo and Juliet" in her Valentine
ad, called him the Big Creep -- i.e., treated the president as if he were a
high-school boyfriend. Maureen Dowd recently vented yet another variation of her
weekly Monica abuse that honked at the girl's adolescent stalking of the president
and expressed contempt that Monica presumed she and the president of the
United States had "a future together."

But everything that Monica did, Bill did. He left messages on her machines,
recklessly gave her gifts, sent her coded signals, said that they had a future
together after he left the White House (even fantasizing aloud about having a
longed-for son with her, according to one account). Maybe he was stalking her too.
Maybe this was a two-way stalking, or in the plain language that Al Gore wants
Americans to reclaim, we might just call it love.

By Jack Hitt

Jack Hitt is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and PRI's "This American Life."


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bill Clinton Hillary Rodham Clinton Infidelity