The giggles were excruciating. Monica Lewinsky took such obvious delight in regaling us with details of her encounters with her sexual soulmate–her wide eyes crinkling happily, her full mouth struggling vainly against a triumphant grin at the impressive number of times he called–you felt you’d wandered into Lord of the Flies, the female version. What adultless colony did this girl come from? Could she possibly believe her teen fantasies of secret love? Is sucking the presidential penis really to be her greatest accomplishment in life?
The probable answer is yes. You could see this realization dawning on Barbara Walters’ grave face. At least you hoped that’s what you were seeing. You hoped Walters was feeling some pity for the life thereby wasted, was suppressing a grandmotherly impulse to shut this child up. For what was much more gruesome than the spectacle of the giddy Lewinsky was that of the cynical Walters. Having sat the girl down in her den; having posed with a social worker’s concern questions still unthinkable in their prurience–“Did you ever try to have intercourse?”; having exploited an insecure person’s lack of internal censors to help a network score a ratings coup, Walters turned blithely into Linda Tripp. It was the primal scene of maternal betrayal, the older woman eliciting the confession all too easily from the younger one and then using it to make her the laughingstock of the nation: Walters asks Lewinsky to imagine hypothetical children; Lewinsky tells them that “Mommy made a big mistake”; Walters concludes with a stunning outburst of moral hypocrisy, “And that is the understatement of the year.”
Let’s correct the record here. Lewinsky’s was not the biggest mistake made over the course of this debacle. She is guilty of a lot of small ones. But it is not a crime to have an affair with a married man and then be indiscreet about it. Her behavior was stupid and hurt a lot of people, but if the point here is to measure the size of her errors, they are barely perceptible next to those of the people who ruined her: a literary agent with profit and something akin to treason on her mind; a federal prosecutor who chose to hound and harass a citizen with overweening force and little justification; and journalists who cooperated by exposing every last detail of her private life.
The New York Times today joined much of the rest of the media in censuring Lewinsky for cashing in on her fame. That can’t be right. Lewinsky did not choose her notoriety. Being a blabbermouth doesn’t mean you’ve sought national exposure; it means you’re a blabbermouth. Lewinsky did not ask to be saddled with hundreds of thousands in legal fees. She could not have known that messing around with the president meant losing the likelihood of economic independence when the day comes, as one hopes it will, when she finally achieves the emotional maturity to take care of herself. But not even Bill Clinton is to blame for that, or for her understandable need to make herself human after having been reduced to a national joke. One can pity her for neither seeing the unsettling impression she creates nor grasping that there’s no way to talk about the affair that will restore some measure of dignity to her life. But Monica is road kill here, and Walters the latest in a series of hit-and-run drivers, and there is something sickening about the way we have watched this woman be knocked down again and again and again, yet still feel the need to vilify the object of our voyeuristic pleasure.