Columbia University Press
The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America
The Human Stain
Lately I’ve been thinking about Monica Lewinsky, off and on. This even though, back when she was all over the news, I tried hard not to think about her. Back then I was mainly just annoyed by her. And I was clueless: I told myself that the whole thing was going to pass in a week or in a month, and that Monica would get some gig as an advertising spokesperson (which eventually did happen), and that life would go on. At the time the scandal first “broke” in January of 1998, I was in Amarillo covering the Beef v. Oprah Winfrey trial for this publication, and I watched dumbfounded as all the reporters and camerapersons packed into their vehicles and sped off, since Oprah was No Longer News. The courtroom emptied out, and the few remaining scribes lamented that they were not “in Washington.” Doing what exactly? I wondered. At the time, if there was one thing that sounded worse to me than listening to expert testimony on the use of rendered animal remains in cattle feed, it was running around the nation’s capital with a pack of journalists, all trying to break into that emerging field of, as Anthony Lewis dubbed it, sexual investigative reporting.
But a few weeks ago I happened to walk by the White House, and the first image that popped into my head, as I looked through the iron fence and across the great lawn, was of Monica wearing her beret. The first residence seemed to glow almost blue in the twilight, distant, impenetrable, and suddenly I said to myself, She made it in there. Then: All the way in. And then I had this weird moment of: You go, girl. I walked on, and shortly afterward I thought back not to the revelations of 1998 but to the dark days of November 1995, when the whole business started. I too was an intern in Washington that fall (though mine was a non-fellating internship) and I remember going around in a kind of daze, baffled and depressed by what was in the air and on the news. It was the fall of the Unabomber Manifesto and the Gingrich Revolution, surely one of the sorriest seasons in American political history, at least by pre-impeachment standards. Our elected representatives were at their screechiest, the guillotine had been hauled onto the floor of the House, and rather than compromise on so-called principles and pass a budget, the Congress shut down the government. Tens of thousands of bureaucrats and secretaries were exiled to the Maryland suburbs – and that’s when the first blow job happened, during the government shutdown. It doesn’t exactly redeem Bill and Monica, and yet it puts their encounter in a different light. The Republicans were going berserk, and here was our unzipped President giving them not just the finger but that wooden, larger organ, his unflagging commander-in-chief, and murmuring to Monica what he surely would have liked to tell Newt and all the rest of them: Blow me.
Just when you think the scandal has been finally put to rest, it surges up, yet again, out of the recycling bin. Monica survives in print. Last year and the first part of this one saw a string of recaps by journalists – among them Jeffrey Toobin, Joe Conason, Gene Lyons, Michael Isikoff, and Susan Schwartz. (Bob Sherrill reviewed Conason’s and Lyons’ efforts in the July 21 issue.) Then the tide of eyewitness-to-history accounts subsided, marking the end of Phase I: the Scandal Revisited. But there is still Phase II: Theories of Monica, which began at around the same time as Phase I but promises to last longer, since the academics who produce the theories are not under the journalistic requirement to stay current.
I think I like Theories of Monica, not least because their random, theory-buttressing historical details, taken out of context, point to just how absurdly funny some of these little moments were, at least in retrospect. A few days after my walk past the White House, I came across The Starr Report Disrobed, by Fedwa Malti-Douglas, picked it up, turned to a random page, and came across the following:
…[H]ow does President Clinton first appear as a voice speaking in the first person in the referral? The first time the president’s voice is heard, he is being asked “to identify all women who were state or federal employees and with whom he had ‘sexual relations’ since 1986.” The president answers “None.”
I giggled. It’s pitch perfect, this question of state and federal employees (but excluding, one assumes, that roads commissioner from back in winter of ’84), and reading it now, I almost regretted not having followed the scandal closely enough to pick up on it the first time around. But then again no one seemed to be laughing the first time, except for the late-night television hosts and maybe those elusive Ordinary Americans. Most of the media coverage seemed earnest and long on commentary. It was like a play in which the rude mechanicals came out on stage and started whacking at one another, and the critics took it for violent drama and wrote about what a bad play it was.
Unfortunately, most of The Starr Report Disrobed is less delightful. Malti-Douglas, a humanities professor at Indiana University, throws out phrases like “the discourse of semen” and declares that the Starr Report is (surprise!) an “unstable text.” She spends many paragraphs translating the obvious into academic gobbledygook:
And just as the White House solidifies the American space for this intrigue, so the various games in the Report contribute to redefining the contemporary American cultural and political scene. As the two principals exchange gifts, they exchange unspoken cultural assumptions that emanate from those artifacts. When the president goes to Martha’s Vineyard as a tourist and then brings items from the Black Dog Restaurant to give to Monica Lewinsky as a gift, he is extending the cultural reach of the restaurant beyond its narrow geographical borders but nevertheless staying within America. His role as tourist is an act that participates in a larger discourse of geography and notions of place.
Even so, since she isn’t out to moralize or to defend any of the parties, Malti-Douglas is able to hone in on some of the more bizarre elements of the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship, for instance the potlatch nature of their romance (those four dozen gifts) or the curious enabling role played by Betty Currie. She also points out certain oddities of the Starr document, such as the fact that Yitzhak Rabin is listed in the Table of Names at the front of the report, yet appears nowhere in the main narrative. But the weirdest thing of all is the character of Monica Lewinsky herself, who seems to have been as hopelessly impulsive when it came to confessing as Clinton was when it came to unzipping. She was in the habit of divulging explicit details long before Starr’s bullies made her spill the beans. After messing around in the Oval Office she related play-by-plays to her friends, and told her aunt, Debra Finerman, about the President’s having concluded one particular encounter “masturbating into a bathroom sink.” (This aunt finally had to tell Monica that she didn’t want to hear it.)
She is disclosure personified. At the heart of all Monica theories are the disclosures, the inquisition, the confessions, the revelations, the deposition-taking, the grand jury appearances, the report, the Barbara Walters interview – that entire deluge of intimate information. One big question is, what made so much disclosure possible?
Law professor and writer Jeffery Rosen’s The Unwanted Gaze addresses the too-much-information problem from a legal standpoint. What happened to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky happened because of the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit, and because of Kenneth Starr’s office. The Independent Counsel Act having been disposed of by Congress, Rosen focuses on the former. Sexual harassment lawsuits, he argues, have turned into fishing expeditions, harming not only the accused but his (or her) past partners, not only Bill Clinton but also Monica Lewinsky. They have “permitted unreasonable invasions of the privacy and dignity of women and men in the workplace.” Monica’s purchases at Kramerbooks should not have been subject to subpoena.
To bring the situation under control, Rosen writes, we need to take another look at sexual harassment law and redefine the alleged offense, in some cases, as itself an invasion of privacy, rather than quid-pro-quo sexual favoritism. If a man in the office is forever leering at and making lewd comments to a woman in the office, then the issue is not whether she is being discriminated against in a quid-pro-quo fashion, but whether his acts constitute an intrusion on her dignity, and whether that intrusion has an adverse effect on her conditions of employment.
If this had been the basis of the Paula Jones suit, Rosen suggests, then Jones’ lawyers wouldn’t have been able to go trolling through Clinton’s past to try to find evidence of favoritism based on sex. This makes some sense, even though Rosen rests his argument on the debatable claim that the fundamental offense in any invasion of privacy is a taking-out-of-context, a potential misdefinition of the person whose privacy is being violated. (I don’t want to get into that here, but I think in many cases the fundamental offense is an actual or implied threat, rather than simply “getting someone wrong.”) Rosen’s intuition is a sound one, though: Details about the sexual lives of strangers or mere acquaintances call up the wrong version of that person, and in so doing violate both their privacy and our own. Beyond the courtroom, the broader cultural threat to privacy comes from lack of discretion, from that icky confessional impulse, from Monica herself. Not to say she should be blamed for everything, but surely we all would have been better off if she had just kept her big trap shut, and if we ourselves, like Aunt Debra, had made it clear that we weren’t interested.
Instead, gossip-mongering and moralizing both attained new heights, as Philip Roth complains in his contribution to Monica Theory, The Human Stain. Although it’s a novel, the book reads more like a one-man show. The narration, while shifting from character to character, never loses its distinctive riled-up-Roth quality, and from the get-go what Roth is riled up about are the dismal events of the year 1998. In the first chapter, Roth’s alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, recalls the summer of ’98 as a time when the country fell into an “ecstasy of sanctimony,” and Bill Clinton invaded the dreams of ordinary people: “I myself dreamed of a mammoth banner, draped dadaistically like a Christo wrapping from one end of the White House to the other and bearing the legend A HUMAN BEING LIVES HERE.”
After the opening pages the Clinton mess fades into the background, making way for the story, but midway through the book it returns, in the form of a dialogue between three unnamed professors, whom Coleman Silk, the book’s main character, overhears. “If Clinton had fucked her in the ass, she might have shut her mouth,” the dialogue begins, and continues in the same vein:
“What happens in Arkansas? If you fall when you’re still in Arkansas, you don’t fall from a very great height.”
“Right. And you’re expected to be an ass man. There’s a tradition.”
This is signature Roth humor, vulgar and maybe a little too easy, but it is also a thought experiment: What would it have taken for there to have been shame? The voices have little regard for Monica: “She’s part of that dopey culture. Yap, yap, yap. Part of this generation that is proud of its shallowness.” And: “Well, whatever she is – a total narcissist, a conniving little bitch, the most exhibitionistic Jewish girl in the history of Beverly Hills….” But she is also, to them, the key to the scandal: “Still, you have to admit that this girl has revealed more about America than anybody since Dos Passos. She stuck a thermometer up the country’s ass.” And: “the extreme innocence was the corruption – it was her corruption and her madness and her cunning.”
The addictive confession-making somehow threaten the very quality of self in an era of exposure. In a novel about a man’s disintegrating battle to construct and present his own version of himself, the figure of Monica shows up as the wrecking ball, corrupt because she is two-dimensional, not just shallow but a menace to depth. But Zuckerman and Silk voice more outrage toward the climate that produced her, the confession-mongerers; the purificationists and the exhibitionists are two sides of the same coin, ignorant of what it means to be human. It is, thinks Silk, “as though Babbitt had never been written. It’s as though not even that most basic level of imaginative thought had been admitted into consciousness to cause the slightest disturbance.” Witness the booboisie’s eternal return. If it’s not Gingrich, it’s Starr. There they all are on the television, live in two dimensions.
I sat next to Monica Lewinsky on a plane the other day. Okay, it wasn’t the real Monica, and actually, there was an empty seat between us. But I sat close to a young woman who could have been a Monica impersonator, were there a market for that sort of thing – a big, buxom, raven-haired, fetching gal in pinstripes and an open collar, who seemed to want to talk. You know when you get that feeling about a fellow passenger. They keep turning your way expectantly. We were stuck on the runway, and she seemed to want to discuss that fact; she would turn my way, but I wouldn’t look up from my magazine. Then she would dial up someone on her cell phone and tell them about how we were stuck on the runway.
I am not always so unfriendly, but there was something about her that suggested that even the most incidental conversation might quickly get out of hand. Maybe it was the Monica resemblance: She seemed like a blabber, like it would start with flight delays and jump way too quickly to thong underwear, and before the plane even took off we’d be on to past boyfriends and dreary aphorisms about men in general.
So I avoided her. And ever since then, I haven’t wanted to think about Monica any more.
Karen Olsson is a former Observer editor.