The vanilla story

Our long national bad date is almost over

By James Poniewozik
Published February 7, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

There's a line from Monica Lewinsky's Senate-trial deposition that, after all these brutal, cynical months, broke my heart a little. It wasn't important enough to make Saturday's Senate battle of the snippets, but you can read it on page S1216 of her transcript:

Q. Did [Vernon Jordan] ask you why you wanted to leave Washington?

A. Yes.

Q. And what was your answer?

A. I gave him the vanilla story of, um, that I -- I think I -- I don't remember exactly what I said. I -- I believe I've testified to this. I think it was something about wanting to get out of Washington.

Q. The vanilla story.

The vanilla story. Isn't that a touching little phrase? Monica Lewinsky has given up on everything she wanted. The man she loves doesn't love her back. That high-powered Washington career is out of the question. All her hoping and scheming and wishing comes down to this crappy little meeting with Vernon Jordan so she can clear town. And she thinks back to it now, and even after all this, after the rain of shit in the ensuing 14 months, she still comes up with this little ice-cream word, this little innocent word, this little waffle cone and a walk with your boyfriend word. (All the more poignant, mind you, from the one woman in America who can never again eat an ice-cream cone without inviting a dirty joke.)

The vanilla story.

Isn't that a touching little phrase?

Monica Lewinsky gave the House managers the vanilla story last Monday --the innocuous story, the stick-to-your-story story that the Clinton defense was hoping for -- and Saturday she shared it with the rest of us. Oh, sure, her testimony included, as the hype had it, three "human faces" (if we graciously include the serpentine Sidney Blumenthal -- "troubled people can get you into a mess. You have to cut yourself off" -- under that rubric). But you and I know that there was only one human face anyone tuned in to see.

Of the broadcast networks only NBC stuck with the trial all day; ABC never bothered, opting for Saturday-morning cartoons, and as CBS gave up around noon, Dan Rather gave a rambling quasi-apology for the lack of drama. "Real life," he drowsed, "isn't like the television show 'Perry Mason.'" (Doesn't somebody at CBS vet this stuff, by the way? You'd think the network would avoid reinforcing its atherosclerotic image by having its doddering anchor pulling pop-culture references from the Cretaceous Era of television.)

Dan had a point, though. The GOP questioning of Monica Lewinsky wasn't like a courtroom drama or a police interrogation. It was more like a bad date. Like an awkward widower trying to get back into the saddle, you could almost see Ed Bryant slicking on some Brylcreem and dropping the needle on an Esquivel platter -- all to impress this 25-year-old honey who showed up with chaperones, pinched lips and knees locked like iron bars. The air of inept seduction has permeated the courtship of Monica Lewinsky since the sting operation last January -- all those hotel assignations, breakfasts, sweet talk and passed notes. It's not a sexual vibe, just a really, really sad one. A glum Bryant characterized himself as Charles Laughton from "Witness for the Prosecution." But he really seems more like the sad sack from the Brian Wilson song "I'm Waiting for the Day," unable to understand how the girl he's courting still carries a torch for that slick dirtbag who did her wrong. In the managers' minds, she should be running into their arms as we reach for our hankies. They're the nice guys. He hurt her.

That, at least, would explain the managers' puzzling insistence Saturday on harping on the president's caddishness; they can't help themselves, even at risk of playing into the "it's just sex" rebuttal. One minute James Rogan's telling us that adultery is not an impeachable offense, the next, he's reminding us, gravely, that Clinton began "using (Lewinsky) for his gratification the very first day he spoke to her"; the president "responded not in love, not in friendship, not even in concern." And Lindsey Graham closed with a petulant personal attack that implied that if he ever runs into the president outside Pop's Choklit Shop, Bill's really gonna be in Dutch.

Maybe there's a strategy here. The House managers have moved from bloodthirsty to dogged to merely pathetic and, at long last, it seems pathetic is where they're most comfortable. How else to explain Henry Hyde's Eeyore-like arias of self-pity in the Senate well? Ever more haggard and bitter, the managers seem to positively wallow in defeat, glorying in posing as dejected nice guys holding their wilted daisies on the front porch.

Having tried the aggressive approach, threats, sweet talk, and bad-mouthing Monica's true love, the House managers are finally giving up and turning to the electorate and history for a little sympathy nooky, which, as any failed lover knows, is the last refuge of a schmuck.

- - - - - - - - - -

So this weekend we got the chance, as the spurned suitors implored wistfully for weeks, to "look into her eyes" at last. What did we see? The managers characterized Lewinsky after their preliminary meeting as an "impressive," self-possessed young woman. We were meant, one assumes, to take that as a compliment. But it seems now to have meant something else, for the woman we see in the deposition -- an impressive, canny subject, refusing to be trapped, asking to see her earlier testimony in context -- was, her interlocutors said, not at all the young woman they knew. (Caroline, no!)

What had they expected? What most of us did, I suppose. An impressive young moron.

What they got was a canny professional witness of Kenneth Starr's creation: a cool, charming spinner. And why were they so surprised? Over the past year and 20-odd interviews, she's had a crash course in realpolitik worth three degrees from the Kennedy School. Remember, by the way, the laugh we all had over Monica's job search? One doubts that she's still interested in a life of flackery, but any employers who turned her down must be kicking themselves now. Hey, if you're a cosmetics company trying to defuse an animal-testing controversy, who do you want in your corner? You can have the spit-polished Barnard grad with 1,500 SATs: I'll take the middling Lewis and Clark grad who left a team of hostile Washington lawyers looking like tongue-tied country flatfoots.

What was ultimately interesting about Lewinsky was not her looks (though, despite her documented and understandable stress-eating, she looked pretty damn fine), her clothes or even the substance of what she said. It was that she had mastered that art of cautiously dispensing sincerity that separates public figures from mortals. We've been told, after all, that the face we were finally going to see in action was one that transparently showed any emotion behind it -- the face we remember grinning absurdly, foolishly wide at Bill along those rope lines. She was emotional, impetuous, given to crying jags and mood swings. But it turns out that spending 14 months as a nightly monologue is a damn good finishing school. While that core of emotion and whimsy burst out occasionally -- a bug-eyed grimace here, a "vanilla story" locution there -- when she needed to be, she was ice.

The Monica Lewinsky we would finally see, we had been told, would likely be a nervous, scatterbrained girl, "much younger than her 25 years." Whatever your birthdate, my friend, the Monica Lewinsky we got was far, far older than you.

So: winners? Losers? From a political standpoint, the day was probably a push (which benefits Clinton) -- as of course it was bound to be unless the president burst into the chamber to confess shooting Vincent Foster after raping a Jane Doe. Nonetheless, Jeff Greenfield of CNN gushed over the managers' argument after their closing and Nina Totenberg of NPR lauded the White House team for "jumping all over" it in the response. Both sides have repeated what amount to closing arguments over and again since the beginning of the trial, yet with every iteration the analysts seem to be hearing it for the first time.

From the public-image standpoint, the managers did little to erase the strident image encapsulated in the first line of Asa Hutchinson's little time-line placard: "Dec. 5: Witness list -- Lewinsky!!" There's the rocket-scientist House strategy in miniature -- if we just tack one more exclamation point on, the public will finally wake up!! For their part, the White House team came off again as little more than another segment in the long train of expert shit-shovelers who have followed the Clinton circus parade for years. Dale Bumpers' nauseating phrase, echoed by Nicole Seligman Saturday, that the managers "want to win too badly" captures Clinton's whiny sense of entitlement to a tee. What? How much, pray tell, is the prosecution in a case supposed to want to win?

But there are bigger stakes here than the political one (it's not as though Alan Greenspan were being impeached). Let's not forget, the Senate Republicans aren't the only ones looking for an exit strategy; the White House is not the only one drawing up a post-trial road map. Saturday was the first day of the rest of Monica Lewinsky's public life. The political figures in this event are pretty much running out the clock; the people with a significant stake in Saturday's events were, in no particular order, Monica Lewinsky, Andrew Morton and Barbara Walters.

The lovelorn Republicans suggested Lewinsky's reticence must have to do with the lingering spell of that hound dog on Pennsylvania Avenue, and that may be true. But legal and political and emotional motives aside, who says Monica was uncooperative solely for the president's sake? If she has a brain -- and at last we've been forced to recognize she does -- then she damn sure should be holding something back for her post-impeachment victory lap. Having garnered a $600,000 advance for Morton's "Monica's Story" and a comparable sum for an interview with Britain's Channel 4, likability and mystery are money for America's sweetheart. And she walked away with both, neatly breaking Ed Bryant's little heart and mentally checking her date book. For her efforts, she will get to dish out a new and sweeter vanilla story one pricey scoop at a time, and there can be no greater satisfaction after a year as a national punch line than getting seven figures to tell us all to lick it.

James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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Barbara Walters Bill Clinton