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The Wages of Fear

What Really Happened During Those 11 Hours at the Ritz-Carlton

MONICA'S STORY;\o7 By Andrew Morton; (St. Martin's: 288 pp., $24.95)\f7

March 14, 1999|RENATA ADLER | Renata Adler is the author of "Reckless Disregard: Westmoreland v. CBS: Sharon v. Time" and the novels, "Speedboat" and "Pitch Dark."

People lie, certainly. People forget. People make mistakes. One difficulty in following the narrative of the past year's scandal--which is both utterly frivolous and the gravest threat to our constitutional system in living memory--is that the major characters are not, and as it turns out, never have been, President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. They have always been, it is now clear beyond question, Linda Tripp and Kenneth Starr. Tripp, Starr and the office of independent counsel have made every effort to conceal this long, intense connection. Lewinsky, perhaps more than most people, thinks she is the main character in any narrative in which she plays a part. As a result, "Monica's Story" by Andrew Morton does not add much to our understanding of it. Morton refers constantly, as does Lewinsky, to her "insecurity," her lack of "self-worth" and "self-esteem," as an explanation for whatever happens to her. What is more credible, and vastly more interesting, is her astonishing force of will, her single-minded, ineluctable, even imperious, determination to get her way. Someone more easily daunted would never have managed, for example, after 10 months--during which the President, his secretary and virtually everyone else in the White House was trying to ward her off--to make her way to the President again. Her sole argument for returning, for constant meetings, conversations, reproaches and demands, was that in early April 1996, when she was transferred from the White House to the Pentagon, the President had "promised" to bring her back to a White House job "after the election." (Never before can the breaking of an alleged campaign promise have had consequences of this kind.)

If Lewinsky were more attuned to rejection, less determined to prevail, she would, on the other hand, have detected from Tripp's bored inflections, her bossy and steering remarks disguised as questions, her tolerance for endless (and somewhat scolding) repetition of details Tripp claimed not to remember, that Tripp was an informer. Which, of course, she was, it now seems fairly obvious, from the first. Neither Lewinsky nor Morton makes a connection between Tripp and the office of the independent counsel quite that early. Since they think what they have is a love story, they cast Tripp as just an envious treacherous rival who betrays Lewinsky in the end. On Starr and his deputies, however, they have it right: They add detail to Lewinsky's already powerful testimony, before the grand jury, about the circumstances of her 11-hour detention, on Jan. 16, 1998, in Room 1012 of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, by nine prosecutors and FBI agents from the office of the independent counsel. It is the only time the book comes to life.

I

One major strategy of the office of the independent counsel has always been to generate misinformation and outright falsehood in such confounding mass and lurid detail that by the time any one instance, large or small, has been detected, the discovery seems pedantic. Who cares? The news, as lascivious as the independent counsel manages to keep it, has moved on. Allegations of a rape, for example, once denied under oath, are revived (in response to the now infamous range of inquiries and pressures by the independent counsel) and shown in secret to members of Congress, then made public. The recantation (in every possible forum, in the midst of an impeachment) of the earlier sworn denial is said to be "reluctant" and to "have no motive" other than "ending the lies" or setting the record straight. A new inquiry is called for, and so on.

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