Bill’s fatal distraction

Neurotic, needy, naive . . . what more could a president want in a mistress, wonders Amanda Foreman

Monica’s Story by Andrew Morton 288pp, Michael O’Mara, £16.99

Just towards the end of Monica’s Story there’s a single line of intelligent commentary. Suffice to say it does not come from Andrew Morton himself, but from Alan Dershowitz. Morton quotes the American lawyer who saved from prison that other shining light of probity, Claus Von Bulow, as saying that Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr turned a “tawdry series of Oval Office encounters into a constitutional crisis”. Morton has gone one better. He has turned a tawdry tale about a groper, a slut and her treacherous best friend into an international bestseller.

I feel outraged by what subsequently happened to Monica and I hope the book makes enough money to pay off her legal bills. But frankly Monica’s Story is not worth the £16.99 when you can get the unexpurgated version on the Internet for free. Morton tries very hard to jazz up his story with a couple of flashy references to Diana. However his usual free-flowing style has clearly been constrained this time by the threat of lawsuits from interested parties. As a result, there is a certain amount of uncharacteristic pussy-footing as well as a hilarious delicacy in some of his descriptions. On other hand, of course, Morton may truly believe that Monica’s mother, Marcia Lewis, the author of a gossipy book about the Three Tenors, is a “quietly self-effacing women who lives for her family”.

Monica’s Story is really Monica’s explanation for three things. First, why she never cleaned her blue dress. Second, why she sniveled and whined in such a toe-curling manner on the Linda Tripp tapes; and third, why she performed oral sex on a married politician and was indiscreet about it. Morton’s answer to number one is that she is neurotic; to number two that she is needy, and number three that she is naive. This is all very well for soap opera aficionados who want some Mc-Ology with their human disaster stories. But what most people want to know is how did this neurotic, needy, naive pain in the neck attract the most powerful man in the world.

Monica’s seduction of Bill Clinton – for that is what it was – is almost riveting enough to make the book worth reading in the shop. After all it takes some doing for an overweight office junior to catch her boss’s eye long enough to send the signal that she’s ready for anything. Monica and Morton insist that she wasn’t a “clutch” (the White House nickname for desperate, lovesick interns), but the supportive mistress of a selfish older man who controlled every aspect of their relationship. But the facts of the story contradict them. Monica was the clutch to end all clutches; Clinton never had much of a chance. She introduced herself by giving him an unsolicited peek at her underwear. Two hours later she was performing oral sex on Clinton while he talked on the telephone. Only a man of deep principle, or a happy husband, could have resisted such a cheap and easy gift. Clinton must have thought himself the luckiest 50-year-old in the world. Presumably he was too busy to see Fatal Attraction when it first came out.

Morton can describe Monica as Bill Clinton’s mistress, but the sad truth is that she was just a nameless fondle in the shadows who would not take the hint to leave. Clinton tried to end the ‘affair’ after just six weeks; by then it must have dawned on him that this delightful California geisha girl had a sense of entitlement bigger than the national debt. Over the next two years it was not Israel, or Iraq, or education, healthcare or employment which occupied the greater part of the President’s thoughts but the problem of placating Monica. She wanted a job to suit her self-image and by golly the President was going to give it to her if it was the last thing he did, which it almost was.

The ‘affair’ continued for two years because every now and then Clinton would give in to Monica’s relentless pleading and allow her to perform oral sex on him. Morton offers no clear reason as to why Clinton never consummated the relationship. Being a British writer he is obviously unaware that “eatin’ ain’t cheatin'” as locals below the Mason-Dixon line will say. Clinton is a Southern Baptist so presumably he was observing the custom that there is only one act which the Bible expressly forbids, namely fornication. The rest is venial but it’s not mortal.

Morton really wants to place Monica in the pantheon of mistresses that includes Madame de Maintenon and Lillie Langtry. In that case, she ranks somewhat lower than Katherine Howard but higher than the Whore of Babylon. Nevertheless Monica has earned a permanent place in the history books. She has become one of the most famous political courtesans in the world without having had sexual intercourse with the man in question or possessing the slightest interest in politics.

It is ironic how far the status of politician’s mistress has fallen in just a few decades. In a pre-democratic age the role of political mistress was one of the few jobs that genuinely provided women with fortune and power. Social attitudes towards the maitresse en titre, while being no less hypocritical, were far more tolerant in, say, the 18th century than today.

Although the phenomenon of the political mistress was a result of legal and social inequality, that does not lessen their impact or influence at the time. Princess Lieven, for example, was perhaps the most feared and even hated female politician of the Regency period. Her intrigues with Chancellor Metternich, George IV, George Canning and later Earl Grey are the very stuff of politics. Nevertheless, she was an aristocrat born to fulfill certain expectations. Far more impressive for its upward thrust is the picaresque life of Lola Montez, the Irish dancer who briefly governed Bavaria as the Countess of Lansfield. One cannot blame her for pursuing the liberal policies which resulted in the putsch against her government.

The advent of sexual equality and universal suffrage is meant to have eradicated the shameful presence of the political mistress. Shameful because women were exchanging sex, or friendship, for power and influence. Instead women now have the right to offer themselves freely and get nothing in return, like Monica. At the same time, society has become unforgiving of women who enter political life through any other portal except the ballot box. The late Pamela Harriman was probably the last great political courtesan of the 20th century. Her methods were neither worse nor better, simply different. At least she has been spared the humiliation of seeing herself compared with Monica.

The Americans have another saying, “If the milk is free, why buy the cow?” This lies at the heart of Monica’s Story; she gave away her milk for free and became upset when there were no buyers. The only politics involved here are ordinary sexual politics.

Copyright© 1999 The Guardian