A Tale of Two Princesses

The fact that royal biographer Andrew Morton wrote the stories of both the late Princess Diana and Monica Lewinsky has made the comparison irresistible, and it turns out to be apt: They were both childish women whose self-involvement nearly brought down their respective governments. Disregard the quasi-coincidental similarities–the paparazzi, the eating disorders, the overprivileged backgrounds, the parents’ divorces, the educational failures (Diana was a finishing-school dropout; Monica made it through college with difficulty). A deeper affinity seems to have drawn Morton to them, ghostwriting fees aside: Here were two massively unself-aware individuals who had maneuvered themselves into positions of national awkwardness, women who were all but impossible to defend. Morton has met the challenge with gallant efficiency. From what I’ve read of his oeuvre –two books on Diana, this latest one on Monica–he is our poet of female self-pity, a man for whom no excuse is suspect, no outrage inexplicable, as long as the explanation is given by a woman who can claim to have been hurt by a man, and as long as the man is a prince or a president.

Consider Diana, the baby sitter to the Sloane Ranger crowd who apparently threw daily temper tantrums from the moment she entered the royal palace, who developed a pathological jealousy of her husband’s ex-girlfriend that may have driven him back into her arms. Or Monica, the inexperienced flirt who blithely tried to blackmail the president of the United States, who in fact was something of a stalker, even if the supposedly hateful Sidney Blumenthal was the one to call her that. Morton’s ambition is to make these women’s monstrousness pale beside that of their torturers. In Diana’s case, that’s easy, because her husband happened to be an equally self-involved prince who clearly married her because he thought she would be a docile breeder.

Monica’s case is more difficult: Whose pathetic victim is she, exactly? Going into the book, we think she’s the president’s. After all, that’s the symbolic valence of the scandal: Just as bulimic Diana was a people’s princess driven to vomit up the monarchy, gullible Monica is the citizen seduced and abandoned by an untrustworthy, poll-driven presidency. She is the sexual metaphor for all our feelings about political slickness, its uncanny ability to tell people what they want to hear before leaving them high and dry.

But Monica won’t have any of that, thank you very much, and that is what makes her book–and she herself–so much more interesting than the New Age princess and her story, more interesting, in fact, than any version of the scandal narrative so far. In Morton’s hands, Monica’s is the same old tale of female victimization, but–just as she did before the Senate, thereby helping to forestall impeachment–she manages to shift the blame. It is not the president who traduced the morals of an immature girl. It is the prurient prosecutor who imposed his Puritanical moralism on a sexually liberated if somewhat confused woman–a man who held her against her will, denied her the right to call her lawyer, harassed her mother and brother, flagrantly violated her constitutional rights.

To accept this, of course, you have to accept her version of Bill Clinton as a helpless, goofy romantic, a emotional isolate tormented by the barrenness of life in Washington. That is a fantasy that is admittedly hard to take. But when it comes to Kenneth Starr, at least, poor crazy Monica has finally got it right.

–Judith Shulevitz