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PATT MORRISON

Saga of Political Party Girls, Then and Now

September 18, 1998|PATT MORRISON

The scorn, the small sympathies, the smutty derision clamor and blare from the many-voiced media choir: Monica, you're a predatory slut. Monica, you're a sacrificial victim. Monica, get a talk show. Monica, get a book advance. Monica, get lost.

Through these months of Fornigate, in a house in Newport Beach where the cats enjoy more freedom than their owner, lives a woman who has heard it before, because she heard it said about herself.

She is perhaps the only woman alive who knows this torment from the inside out, who can offer insight and advice that no one else is qualified to give.

She is 64; by the age of 40, Judith Campbell Exner was already a punch line and a punching bag for an age when presidents were de facto heroes, and nobody was supposed to let on when they weren't.

As the lover and courier of President Kennedy, she too believed in heroes, and conveyed JFK's money and messages in besotted ignorance of his payoff politics, his Mafioso ties, his other women. And she alone survived to feel the wrath of a nation that, like her, had been charmed and hoodwinked.

Having been publicly savaged herself--"outed" by a Senate committee that had promised confidentiality, then labeled and libeled as a "Mafia moll" and "party girl" to suit the agendas of Kennedy allies and foes alike--Judith sees the garrote of cyclical history again tightening, this time around Monica, and is appalled.

"She is so young; she doesn't know this is destroying her life. . . . If she's offered a book deal, she'd better take it and invest it wisely, because that girl is going to be the butt of every foul joke for years and years to come."

Most of all, Judith says, "Don't lie for him." Her own misplaced loyalty cost her privacy, reputation, friends. At first she was too discreet to tell the truth; then, after JFK and others she knew were killed, too scared.

Whatever else Monica does, short of win a Nobel Prize, her intern months--like Judith's years with JFK--will always be appended to her name: "the woman who. . . ."

Judith, whom I have known for about 10 years, faxed me a press release announcing $10 "sex tour tickets" for Playboy's "History of the Sexual Revolution"; her old house is there, with Mae West's and Hugh Hefner's. "This," she wrote across it, "is what [Monica] has to look forward to."

She senses that Clinton will skate just as his idol, JFK, did. "Any flak this man takes is going to be momentary. . . . Again, this is the good old boy network, and one man wouldn't tell on another." As with JFK, "they just thought, 'Lucky Jack, good for Jack.' "

Monica "is forever marked, as I am. . . . She will forever be used by the Republicans and the Democrats as I am and as I was."

*

*

Things were done differently in 1960. Decorum mattered. Society columnists were elliptical: One noted obliquely, "I hear Judith Campbell will be spending a lot of time in Washington from here on out."

"The atmosphere was so completely different," Judith says. "They didn't want anything to come out about Jack."

And these are two different women:

* Monica at 21--by all accounts extroverted, sexually aware--seems to me somehow older than Judith was at 25, the baby of a wealthy and socially connected L.A. family, so shy she was tutored at home. She was married at 18 and divorced by 25 from a philanderer. Even today she still calls a women's bathroom a "powder room."

* Monica confided in 11 people. Judith told only her parents, sister, and a friend, all of them silent to the grave. "I could barely stand [adultery] myself," she says of her discretion. "This nice Catholic girl bragging about going with a married man that everybody watches on TV every night? With his wife? God almighty, I didn't want anyone to know."

* Years of secrecy made Judith some nutty Cassandra until declassified files showed her story right. By contrast, there already seems little we don't know about Monica and Bill--all the Starr report omitted was the color of the thong underwear she showed the president. In spite of that, Judith expects that Monica, like her, may spend years fighting rear-guard legal actions, as she plans with HBO's portrayal of her in "The Rat Pack.")

*

These are indeed different times.

We have reordered the rankings of fame and virtue; famous and bad have become better than unknown and good. Judith has lawyers fighting to restore her public image; publishers have reputedly offered Monica millions to finish the job on hers.

Patt Morrison's e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

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