Monica and Me by Laura Fokkena

Some people remember where they were when they heard Kennedy was shot. Others remember where they were when they watched the moon landing. I remember where I was when I first realized Bill Clinton was lying about his sex life: Falls Church, Virginia, on the balcony of my friend Erik's apartment.
 
My daughter and I were crashing at Erik's while we waited for the triple stars of housing, job, and day care to align in exactly the right combination. It's a trick, that. Find day care without a job and you won't be able to afford it. Find a job without day care and you won't be able to go to it. And find either without an apartment and, well, let's just be thankful that Erik had a couch.
 
I'd never assumed Clinton to be a big fan of fidelity. I knew he'd "caused pain in his marriage." Whatever. But that afternoon, reading what was surely the millionth article on his female troubles, it occurred to me that maybe the reason that these women were so unbelievable was because he had selected them accordingly. When a woman like Anita Hill accuses you of unsavory behavior you suddenly have a serious public relations problem on your hands. But Gennifer-with-a-G "Flowers"? Who sold her story to the Enquirer? I mean, c'mon.
 
But hear too many of these stories and soon it's not enough to make snarky comments about Clinton's taste in women. Pretty soon you have to start asking yourself if this man -- the one who wanted to be president since he was sixteen years old, the one who couldn't possibly be so dense as to think marital infidelity would be irrelevant during an election, whether or not he wished that were the case -- perhaps this man shrewdly chose his mistresses not because he thought they'd be discreet, but because he thought they were the kind of women who'd never be believed if they did one day come forward. It was a chilling realization to see him in such a cunning light, but then again he'd married Hillary, which was hardly the political move of a lumbering doofus.
 
I've never known what to think about Clinton, and judging from the outrageous sales of his new autobiography, My Life, I know I'm not alone. Watching Clinton speak was my first real taste of the power of charisma in politics. Like the husband who breaks your jaw and then brings you roses, Clinton had a way of bombing Third World countries but making you feel like he didn't really MEAN it. And as with the abusive-but-apologetic husband, you're always afraid of criticizing him too much lest other people start asking why you married him in the first place.
 
At minimum, we can agree that Clinton was no progressive. I didn't have health insurance when he was elected in 1992 and, oh look, it's 2004 and I still don't. The sanctions against Iraq killed hundreds of thousands of civilians -- some estimates place the number closer to two million, most of them children -- a number far higher than both of the Gulf Wars combined. And then of course there was his welfare-slashing and his sexual escapades, the-personal-is-political issues which return me to Erik's couch.
 
I'd arrived in Virginia with $40. My second day in town I applied for WIC and food stamps and got myself on the list for public housing, which fortunately I didn't end up needing because the waiting list was half a year. Within a month I'd found a temp job, an efficiency apartment, and a place for my daughter at one of the cheapest day care centers in Washington, D.C. Every day I would leave work and walk past the White House on my way to collect her, and every day I worried that if I was even a quarter of an hour late the center would start charging me by the minute. After paying for rent, day care, groceries, and my subway pass I had only twenty-nine dollars a week to spare, and I needed at least two of those for laundry. Being late was not an option.
 
This financial situation was not sustainable. I was now earning too much to qualify for public aid but not enough to buy my daughter a winter coat. Her father was a student and had nothing to offer in the way of assistance. I told myself that I'd just finished a master's degree and that eventually I'd be promoted or find another job, but it was the "eventually" that worried me. In a few months the grace period for my student loans would be up and there was no place in my budget to accommodate such an expense. In the meantime my single mother status made it impossible to work late, take on extra projects, or do any of the other things that one typically does to distinguish oneself early in one's career. One day the water pipes at the day care center burst and I couldn't go in to work at all.
 
Still, I clung to the linear model of success: like a sturdy character in a Willa Cather novel, I would claw my way out of this situation step by step, counting my pennies, and soon I would be rewarded for this period of striving. That's the way it's supposed to work. Right?
 
And then I learned what I really should have been doing all along was blowing the president. As it turned out all the time I'd been walking past the White House worrying about paying for extra minutes of day care, Monica Lewinsky had been inside, taking the wiser career path by showing Bill Clinton her thong.
 
The story broke in January of 1998. Again, it seemed that Clinton had chosen a woman of questionable credibility, this time a 21-year-old intern, and indeed there was immediate speculation that Monica was a pathological liar whose fantasies about a relationship with the president would be almost cute if they weren't so pathetic. Of course we all know how that turned out.
 
Monica was my age, graduated from high school the same year I did, like me a recent college graduate who had moved to Washington and taken an entry level job. We even lived on the same street. Unlike me, however, Monica must have been taking notes during the 80s. She understood the meaning of terms like "networking," "nepotism," "fast track," and "sex appeal." Watching her story unfold I felt profoundly embarrassed for having slogged to my dumb job day after day, in my dumb K-Mart pants, with all my dumb dreams of rising out of my situation by cutting corners and coupons. I didn't begrudge her the affair; by all accounts she truly loved the man. I did, however, begrudge her letter of recommendation from Vernon Jordan.
 
Throughout the entire scandal and resulting impeachment process, I read only two smart articles that captured both my sympathy for Monica and my sympathy for myself.
 
One was in the April, 1998, issue of George, in which Naomi Wolf argued that the case didn't matter because Clinton had been unfaithful to his wife (that was none of our business): it mattered because in having an affair with a subordinate and then using his connections to get her a promotion in exchange for her silence, Clinton gave lie to the whole notion of meritocracy.
 
The other article was by Susie Bright, in the June, 1999 issue of Ms., which discussed Monica's family's ambivalent attitude toward her education. I'm perhaps less willing than Ms. Bright to pin Monica's downfall into public schooling and a community college solely on her father, believing as I do that a top-notch education should be the prerogative of everyone regardless of their parents' inability (or in this case, refusal) to pay for it, but Bright does make one salient point, and that is this:
 
"'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned' -- we understand that scorn to be one of sexual rejection. But what results when a woman's intelligence is disdained just as cruelly? Gifted young women like Monica dwell in a purgatory of thwarted ambition. They find that while braininess and aggression are not encouraged, artful manipulation is available as the most powerful device in the feminine arsenal. Monica's byzantine designs to further her affair with Clinton are the brilliantly neurotic symptoms of someone, who, as we say, 'has too much time on her hands.'
 
This big girl should have been mentored to run the world, not run little games around the little men who inhabit it. To hear the mandatory matrimony crowd tell it, single mothers and their children wouldn't have any problems at all if they'd just find themselves a man. Putting aside the fact that this is neither accurate nor practical, what message does it send? I find conservatives to be particularly disingenuous when they decry the sexpot images of women in the media on one hand and then decry higher wages, affirmative action, publicly-funded day care and education, socialized medicine and more funding for welfare programs on the other. I'd be the first one to argue that using one's beauty to get ahead is unfair to both men and women, since attractiveness is doled out arbitrarily by nature and appreciated just as arbitrarily by a fickle fashion industry -- there's that "meritocracy" thing again -- but if we are to avoid a situation where trading on one's sexuality and connections is the surest route to success for young women, then we need to acknowledge other methods of creating a level playing field. And to find the roots of that particular dilemma, the conservatives should be looking in the mirror.
 
As should Clinton, much as I hate to say it, much as I find myself inexplicably drawn to the man. Certainly I miss him in these dark times, certainly I long for the lighter, happier, pre-Patriot Act days of the 1990s, when watching the State of the Union address didn't involve so much wincing. But there's still that dour, resentful me in dumb K-Mart pants who just can't let the man off the hook. Clinton's views of women contain much more crafty nuance than do those of the back-to-the-kitchen set, but in the end I don't really think it matters.
 
Laura Fokkena lives in Boston. She occasionally wears a black beret but so far it hasn't gotten her anywhere.