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Monica and Hillary

Sunday, August 1, 1999

JOYCE MILTON. The First Partner: Hillary Rodham Clinton. WILLIAM MORROW & COMPANY. 435 pages. $27.00

ANDREW MORTON. Monica’s Story. ST. MARTIN'S PRESS. 288 PAGES. $24.95

HILLARY CLINTON and Monica Lewinsky. What is it about them that appealed so strongly to Bill Clinton? Or rather — since the mere presence of two X chromosomes may be all it takes to appeal to the president — what is it about him that calls out to their souls? On the face of it, there could hardly be two more diametrically different women.

Just try to picture, for instance: a youthful Hillary Rodham, raised in the salt-of-the-earth Midwest, fresh from her triumphant scolding of her elders and betters in that famous Wellesley commencement speech. Picture her, legs and armpits ostentatiously unshaven, taking up a position as a White House intern. Is it possible even to begin to imagine the dogmatic and determinedly dowdy young bluestocking coyly exhibiting so much as one thread of her (no doubt plain white cotton) undergarments to the Leader of the Free World?

One can, of course, all too easily see Ms. Rodham administering to the president one of her well-known lashings of the tongue — berating him for this or that misguided policy and condescendingly showing him the path of true enlightenment. One might even (albeit with something of a shudder) imagine her offering — in the kind of direct and earthy language her generation of women thought they found liberating — to perform for him the act Bill Clinton swears is just this side of adultery. But soulful eye contact? Flirting? Snuggling up in the hallway outside the presidential toilet? Cigars and Altoid mints? Not hardly.

As to Monica Lewinsky, child of L.A. privilege, one would be hard put to imagine her stepping out of her house unaccessorized, let alone going out into the world unwaxed, uncoiffed, or unmade-up. Of course, should the Divine Miss Monica by some miracle have managed to muster the academic success to make it to the hallowed halls of Yale or Oxford, she might happily enough have joined in the fun and games of the young Bill Clinton (as indeed she did with the middle-aged version). But could it have been in her repertoire to forgo the glitz and follow him to the wilds of Arkansas on the strength of a mere conviction that the fellow would be president one day? Or, once ensconced as the first lady of the Razorback State, to exercise the calculation cold enough to turn her adopted state’s comfortable corruption to her own advantage in the matter of jobs, campaign funds, and commodities profits? Unlikely in the extreme.

Even in relation to the one obvious commonality of their lives, Bill Clinton, the contrast between the two couldn’t be clearer. Hillary is said (by numerous anonymous friends) to love her husband truly, even despite her most recent and most public humiliation. And Monica is said (by herself, on every possible occasion) to have loved the president truly as well — she reportedly has twinges even now, despite his determined campaign to smear her as a liar and a desperate stalker. But my, how these ladies differ in experiencing that love. Perhaps, after all, it depends on what the definition of the word "love" is.

HOWEVER HILLARY defines it, there was never a shred of doubt in anyone’s mind, almost from the beginning of their relationship, that she didn’t trust her man as far as she could throw him. She even sent her father and brothers down to Arkansas, ostensibly to work in her then-fiancé’s congressional campaign, but actually to keep him in line when she suspected (correctly, of course) that he was having a fling with a young volunteer. David Brock, in The Seduction of Hillary Rodham, reports that she once hired a private eye to look into Bill’s wanderings — a story the White House has never disputed.

Monica, on the other hand, was snookered early on. She fell for every one of Bill’s lies — the more tearfully delivered the better. She believed that he might leave his wife for her someday. She even thought he took her policy ideas seriously.

And now we have two books, Joyce Milton’s The First Partner and Andrew Morton’s Monica’s Story, which fit the pattern of contrast between their subjects very well indeed. It might even be said that each got the book she deserves.

The Milton book on Hillary is about as earnest, heavy-handed, and wonkish a compendium as you could hope to find — filled with nothing much new, and dry as toast into the bargain. Milton’s biographical quest, was, of course, hampered by the fact that Hillary herself, along with everyone who knows her well, followed standard operating procedure and declined to cooperate in the project. Milton has attempted to correct the deficit by treating us to some rather tedious historico-political disquisitions on various Communist and radical pies the first lady has had her finger in (i.e., Jessica Mitford, the Black Panthers, the children’s rights movement) during the 1960s and beyond. For the most part, though, Milton was left to fall back on such Hillariana as were already available in the public record.

Though it is a less than scintillating read, however, The First Partner is not without interest — if only as a comprehensive catalog of the pervasive dishonesty and immorality the Clintons brought with them when they moved into the White House almost seven years ago. For all that it’s not really news, there is something to be said for seeing it all tied up in a neat package. It is de rigueur on the left these days to decry the right for its obsessive Hillary-loathing. But here’s the problem:

There’s Hillary’s slick and tricky $99,000 commodities profit — made in a very questionable way, and at the very time she was railing publicly against speculators’ "greed." There’s Hillary as Arkansas’s first lady (and Rose Law Firm honcho), arranging without a qualm for her child’s nanny to be declared an employee of — and, thus, paid by — the state. There are the loan principal payments deducted from the Clintons’ taxes as interest payments. There’s Hillary, shrilly adamant about firing — and publicly smearing — the White House Travel Office staff, as a favor to Clinton money man Harry Thomason. There’s Hillary forbidding then-White House Counsel Bernard Nussbaum to allow representatives of the Justice Department to participate in the search of Vince Foster’s office after his suicide. There are the Rose billing records, which some believe might have implicated Hillary in bank fraud, which went missing for two years after being subpoenaed. There are the 900 confidential fbi files purloined by a Democratic Party apparatchik said to have been recommended by Hillary for his White House job. And always, when questions arise, there are the evasions, the misdirection, the half-truths, and the outright lies. Above all, there’s Hillary spouting feminist dogma, while all the time passionately protecting her husband’s "political viability" — and thus her own ability to parlay his success into money, power, and patronage for herself.

If one comes away from The First Partner once again deeply impressed by Hillary’s ample capacity for cheating, hypocrisy, and lies, one emerges from Andrew Morton’s Monica’s Story as from a particularly deep mud puddle. Morton, best known as the amanuensis for the late Princess Diana’s sad and sordid tale of her marital woes, brings to Monica’s story the same combination of low gossip, gushing partisanship, and superficial psychobabble that made his Diana: Her True Story an international best seller. (That the hope of that kind of bestsellerdom — i.e., the big bucks — was clearly behind the choice of Morton in the first place hardly makes the book less repellent.)

Morton’s Monica is no Valley Girl bimbette. Her favorite poet is T.S. Eliot, for Pete’s sake. Her affair with the president, furthermore, was not just another episode in the squalid Clintonian sexual saga: "It was obvious that here was a fascinating human story of love, betrayal and obsession." And to make Andrew Morton’s day, one of the humans involved in that story "exhibited a degree of courage and trust to allow me to delve into the inner recesses of her heart without any editorial control."

And just who inhabits those inner recesses? A young woman riddled with anxiety about her appearance, who insists on viewing her neurotic entanglements as evidence that she is "comfortable" with her "sexuality." A young woman who ascribes Bill Clinton’s reluctance to move beyond his preferred non-coital method of sexual congress to discomfort with his own sexuality — and sees that discomfort as the result of his "religious upbringing" (in that notorious bastion of Puritanism, Hot Springs, Ark.). A young woman who swore to her lover that she’d never reveal their affair, and then quite casually shared with numerous girlfriends (even apart from the nefarious Linda Tripp, chief villain of the Morton book) the sordid details of her presidential "relationship." A young woman who still for the life of her cannot understand why everyone made such a big deal about a little thing like lying under oath.

In short, for all the differences in style and substance, Hillary and Monica have a lot in common. Obviously, they share a certain weakness for that cad, William Jefferson Clinton. But beyond that, though not unrelated to it, they share a distinct character defect: These ladies have no morals.

Though their moral deficits have manifested themselves differently — professionally in Hillary’s case, sexually in Monica’s — there’s no doubt at all the deficits are one and the same. It all comes down to a fairly simple proposition: Hillary and Monica want what they want when they want it, and they can’t see any earthly reason for not getting it, by hook or by crook.

Ironically, as a proud member of the ’60s vanguard of the revolution that threw tradition, taste, and morality on the ash heap of history, to be replaced by nothing more than the conviction that whatever it was they wanted was by definition fine, true, and good, Hillary may be said to be the founder of Monica’s feast in this regard. If it turned out that what Hillary wanted was nothing more elevated than money, power, and status, the venality of it all could be (and was, as in most revolutions) disguised by the feminist terms of art — freedom, equality, dignity.

Poor Monica, on the other hand, with not a political stance remaining to be taken, is left with no more weighty desire than to be comfortable with her sexuality — not to mention the illusion that performing oral sex on the president of the United States as he chats on the phone about Bosnia is an indication of such comfort.

And as to the object of their desire, Bill Clinton. He might be said to meld the ladies’ separate aspects into one complete whole: the perfectly amoral man.

The best known thing, perhaps, about Clinton is his voracious desire for sexual gratification — and his recklessness in satisfying it. Long-term and short-term, from the parking lot of his daughter’s elementary school to the Oval Office, he’s always had something quick and easy on the side. What is less obvious — both because of his congeniality and because the sexual adventurousness seems more scandalous — is the man’s cold and utter ruthlessness in pursuit of his ambitions.

So it’s no accident that Bill Clinton chose as his life’s partner someone willing to do just about anything, including accepting the worst public humiliation known to woman, in exchange for political power. Nor is it coincidence that he chose as his sexual liaison someone willing to do just about anything, including the cigar, in exchange for no more than a rich fantasy life about romancing the world’s most powerful man.

Which is not to say, in the case of either of the two women, in exchange for nothing. Hillary got the chance to try to parlay her humiliation into a seat in the United States Senate. Monica got the chance to try to transform her eager ministrations into enduring celebrity. All, in a way, at Bill’s expense. As for him, maybe we can say that as his scandal-wracked presidency drew to a close, he got a chance to take a good look at the female side of his nature.