Strange Bedfellow

Betty and Monica

Guess what? They really are close friends–or were.

Jeff Danziger’s cartoon, originally in the Los Angeles Times and reprinted in the Sunday New York Times, shows Monica Lewinsky and Betty Currie sitting at a booth in a fern bar. Lewinsky, slathered in makeup and dressed in what presumably is intended to represent a designer outfit, clutches a frilly cocktail and gabs away in Valley speak: “So, I’m like, yuh, and he’s like, duh, and I’m like thinking about a new car.” Currie wears a raincoat and stares uncomprehendingly at her companion over a cup of coffee. “That’s nice,” she says. The caption is: “Now we are asked to believe that Betty Currie tried to get Monica Lewinsky a job because they were actually great friends.”

Danziger was probably borrowing his joke from a column by Maureen Dowd, who also finds the idea of a friendship between Currie and Lewinsky laughable. “Mr. Clinton said it was Betty who became friends with Monica,” Dowd wrote in the March 8 New York Times. “It makes sense that the 58-year-old secretary, known for her dignity and discretion, would have enjoyed the dithering visits of a shopaholic who thought she was having a high school romance with the President, like, of the United States.” The general belief seems to be that Clinton or his minions have essentially concocted the notion of a bond between Currie and Lewinsky in order to explain Lewinsky’s many visits to the White House and the high-level help she received in searching for a job in New York.

We may be at the stage in the scandal where any assertion by Bill Clinton or his partisans has everyone not only doubting it but also immediately assuming the opposite. And often for good reason. In this case, however, it turns out that Currie and Lewinsky were friends. The original link was apparently Walter Kaye, the New York advertising mogul, Democratic donor, and friend of Lewinsky’s mother’s who sponsored Monica for an internship at the White House. The Kayes and the Curries are friends who have socialized together in New York City. It is not surprising or intrinsically suspicious then, that Currie, who has a reputation for looking out for White House interns with whom she has no personal connection, would have been helpful and friendly to Monica.

Because none of the principals is talking, it’s hard to discover much about how close a relationship Lewinsky and Currie developed. But the two do seem to have been friends. Interesting detail: Mourners who attended the funeral of Betty Currie’s brother–Theodore Williams Jr., who died in a car accident last December–recall seeing Lewinsky there. Lest anyone assume that Monica showed up at the Metropolitan Baptist Church that day to ogle the president, a source who asked not to be named says Lewinsky was spotted in the kitchen back at the Currie home in Arlington. She helped clean up and serve food to the out-of-towners. In fact, she brought a dish.

This background casts a rather different light on the plausibility of Clinton’s claim in his Paula Jones deposition that Currie helped Lewinsky find a job in New York. Another fact that has been largely ignored, according to friends of Currie’s, is that she and Vernon Jordan have been friends for 30 years. She also has a long-standing friendship with White House Deputy Chief of Staff John Podesta. Like most everyone in politics, she uses her connections on behalf of her friends. Thus when Jordan says that Currie called him to ask him for help in finding Lewinsky a job in New York, there is every reason to think he is telling the truth–and it’s at least plausible that Currie was calling at her own behest, not Clinton’s.

None of this is to say that Clinton wasn’t sexually involved with Lewinsky, or that he wasn’t also interested in Jordan’s efforts to find her a job. But the automatic presumption that a personal relationship between Currie and Lewinsky couldn’t have existed says less about the president’s lack of credibility than about the assumptions of certain white people. An older black secretary and a rich white airhead, many reporters and pundits have glibly conjectured, couldn’t have enough in common to be close. This testifies to a failure of imagination. It also embodies a mentality that is not quite racist but smacks of condescension.

The attitude is not limited to journalists and cartoonists. One of the first Washington Post stories about Currie quoted an anonymous White House official. “She dresses nicely and she speaks well, and she’s neat,” the official said of Currie. “Her sweaters are probably stacked up nicely in her closet.” This was someone who worked with her, sounding as if Currie was applying to be a domestic servant. Who would ever assume that the president’s executive assistant wouldn’t be neat or use proper grammar? You can’t imagine anyone describing a white presidential assistant–Evelyn Lincoln or Rose Mary Woods–this way.

Another grating manifestation of this mindset is the way Currie is constantly referred to as “dignified.” This compliment threatens to become for black women what “articulate” is for black men such as Vernon Jordan. Though meant as praise, it is in fact highly patronizing. A middle-age white person would seldom be characterized as “dignified” or “deeply religious” (unless he is some kind of religious fanatic). The clichés that have been employed to describe Currie embody an assumption that most African-American women are not dignified.

Lots of people writing about this sex scandal want to make Betty Currie out to be the ultimate victim, taken cruel advantage of by a truth-evading president who happened to be her boss. What Currie has been put through is certainly unpleasant. But let’s remember that a lot of innocent bystanders have been subjected to swarming reporters and unexpected legal bills–and perhaps faced with hard choices between loyalty and integrity. Currie, who has had a long career in politics, is no naif. As one old pal of hers told me, “There is a kind of worldly-wise woman in there–this has been lost in all the saintly religious stuff. She is very good to her friends. And those friends include Monica.”