Monica's betrayal

When Monica Lewinsky told more than all, she sold her man down the river -- and violated the adulterer's code of honor.

Published September 9, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

| Until Aug. 7, Monica Lewinsky had succeeded in preserving her dignity. Deposed in the now-defunct Paula Jones lawsuit, she refused to kiss and tell. Grossly betrayed by her confidant and thrust unwillingly onto the public stage, she remained silent. Voiceless, she stared through camera lenses at a world slavering over her most intimate secrets, which were brayed abroad by once-trusted friends and former lovers. She stood stoically beside her lawyers as the media and the American public mocked her weight, her hair, her smile, her less than virginal past. She refused to profit by the scandal.

Above all, she respected and upheld what one recent U.S. News and World Report story referred to as "the implicit promise of silence that accompanies any illicit affair." She kept her mouth shut.

In short, Lewinsky played her unwanted role as the exposed mistress of a powerful, famous man with a dignity and grace beyond her years -- and beyond her puritanical country's understanding.

Then she made her deal with Ken Starr, and threw it all away.

Lost in the tumult of accusations that President Clinton betrayed his family and country is Lewinsky's own betrayal. She violated the code that's as old as marriage itself, the set of rules governing the behavior of a married man and his mistress (or a married woman and her lover). When you knowingly have an affair with a married person, you agree to keep it a secret. You accept that you are not the wife, but the "other woman," and can never share entirely in your lover's life. You promise that, even after the affair ends, no one but you and your lover will know about it -- not the public, and certainly not an overzealous prosecutor.

Monica upheld her end of that deal -- until the threat of jail, the enormous pressure on her family and, perhaps, her belief that she had been betrayed by Clinton led her to spill the beans. And, crucially, she didn't just confess that she had an illicit affair with a married man: She gratuitously divulged the rawest and raunchiest details. She served up her man's head on a platter to his worst enemy, pulled down his pants before the entire world, and in so doing lost the single badge of honor she could claim: the honor of a thief.

L'affaire Lewinsky. When you get to the heart of this ridiculous scandal, when you cut through the endless op-ed pontifications, polls and moral hand-wringing, you find one very ordinary thing. An affair. A tryst. A romance between an older man and a younger woman. These things happen every day. They even happen to many occupants of the Oval Office. The current occupant simply got caught.

What happened between the two? We'll never know (unless Lewinsky, figuring her reputation is shot anyway, decides to kiss and tell to a more lucrative audience than Ken Starr). Perhaps Lewinsky had entertained fantasies of seducing this powerful, imposing man. Perhaps she was flirtatious. Perhaps he responded in kind. It's almost inconceivable that he made the first move. A man in his position, and with his reputation, simply could not take such a risk. But he must have sent a signal, made a subtle gesture indicating he was interested, that emboldened her to turn her fantasy into reality. And when confronted with temptation manifest, the president folded. Whatever Monica offered him was too good to pass up, even at the risk of his family, his job, his place in history.

I don't agree with the widespread belief that Clinton was just after crass sexual servicing. The gifts the two exchanged -- poetry, jewelry, mementos and clothing -- seem too intimate, too affectionate. There were late-night phone calls, which included explicit phone sex and an exchange of erotic poetry. If you believe the account of literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, as recently reported in the National Enquirer, of various taped exchanges between the two former lovers, the two talked about being together once he left office, running off to an exotic retreat. Even after she was whisked away from the White House to a less conspicuous Pentagon job, she visited the president numerous times.

The affair apparently never led to actual intercourse. Clinton, practicing rare caution in this one regard, wouldn't allow that. (Poor Monica: The level of longing she must have felt for the "real thing" must have been grindingly painful.) They did everything but, and it was risky, exciting and passionate. Then, around Labor Day, 1997, he ended it. According to Monica's friend Dale Young, Clinton cited his wife and daughter as the reasons. But there were other factors: The affair had become too dangerous to continue.

Monica was left to grapple with the blunt pain of rejection, and she was left to grapple alone. This was not the first time she'd been in such a situation. Monica had carried on a long affair with another married man, Andy Blier, a drama teacher at her former high school. The two remained in contact, even after her affair with Clinton began.

The burden of secrecy proved too great for the 24-year-old. She confided in her older friend Linda Tripp, who promptly went out and purchased a tape recorder at Radio Shack, and the rest is history.

On July 28, after months of holding out and negotiating, Lewinsky caved and agreed to tell everything to Starr. Clinton was forced to confess, first to Starr and then to the nation. He apologized to his family and to his fellow Americans, but -- reportedly under pressure from Hillary and his aides -- not to the young woman whose life was ruined. His relationship with her was simply "wrong."

After Clinton's confession, Lewinsky returned to testify again, and this time she held nothing back. Graphic accounts of fondling, groping, masturbating and sucking were leaked to the salivating press almost as quickly as they escaped Monica's infamous lips. One can't help but wonder whether she'd have kept the destructive details to herself had Clinton ignored his inner circle's advice and slipped in a plea for her forgiveness during his four-minute mea culpa.

Is it fair to expect Lewinsky to have risked prison to protect her man? Of course not. But would it ever have come to that? In the early days of the investigation, there was considerable speculation that it would be politically impossible for Starr, who is about as popular with the American public as Osama bin Laden, to bring charges against Lewinsky or her mother. A powerful federal prosecutor, already widely believed to be on a partisan witch hunt, couldn't really send a young, doe-eyed woman to jail for keeping her mouth shut about an affair.

Still, you can't be too hard on Lewinsky for not calling Starr's bluff -- if it was a bluff. But if she had to fold, she could have simply told Starr, "Yes, the president and I had an affair. Yes, it was consensual. No, he never asked me to commit perjury or lie in any way. And the rest is none of your business." After her long, stubborn silence, for Lewinsky to reveal the gruesome details was a disgraceful betrayal of her own principles, one that tumbled her down into the muck with the rest of the self-serving Clinton bimbos. There was a time when one could have argued that Lewinsky had been betrayed and deserved her life back. But now? Let her get her multimillion-dollar book deal, peddle her story to the world and live in wealthy, all-American ignominy forever.

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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