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Expecting reporters to be 'nice' may have been the second mistake for HBO documentary subject Monica Lewinsky.

January 18, 2002|GREG BRAXTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Monica Lewinsky wore black. But many of those who went to listen to her saw only red.

The infamous Washington intern dived back into the media spotlight on Wednesday during a stormy session with television critics as she attempted to promote an upcoming HBO documentary about her involvement in the scandal that nearly brought down the Clinton administration.

Instead of asking specific questions about the documentary, which combines archival tape and public record with footage of Lewinsky answering questions for college students, several reporters pressed her on why she has reappeared to call more attention to herself instead of trying to live a more private life. The atmosphere was contentious, even hostile.

One of the tenser moments came when one reporter posed this question: "If a professor had consensual sex with a student, he'd be out of there in a New York minute. If a cop stopped someone and they had consensual sex, he would be fired on the spot. Why do you think we did not hold our president to the same moral standard we expect of others?"

Lewinsky seemed thrown by the question and had difficulty responding. She started dabbing at her eyes with her fingers.

Asked about the principal misconceptions she's trying to straighten out with the documentary, Lewinsky replied, "That I sought this celebrity by seducing the president and going to the White House with an agenda and then turning on him so that all of this could happen, so that I could enjoy it, so that I then could cause trouble for the country and then make millions and millions of dollars, and then continue to perpetuate that celebrity, and enjoy and make the most of it.

"And that I'm stupid!"

Lewinsky, flanked by Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, the producers and writers of "Monica in Black and White," was visibly nervous during the session, which took place in front of a standing-room-only audience at the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton Hotel. She was often halting and awkward in her responses.

Said one HBO executive, "It's like they hated her from the moment she walked in."

And when the producers or Sheila Nevins, executive vice president of original programming, attempted to flesh out answers or assist Lewinsky, several reporters, in tones similar to those used by the Washington press corps, shouted that Lewinsky should be allowed to fend for herself. "Why the hell is she here, then?" bellowed Gail Shister of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Shaken at one point, Lewinsky turned to Nevins and quipped, "I thought you said they were going to be nice."

Answered Nevins: "They are being nice. You should see them when they're not nice."

HBO executives after the session debated with some of the reporters about the propriety of berating Lewinsky when they had not seen the documentary.

Chris Albrecht, president of original programming for HBO, said in an interview Friday, "I was surprised by the aggressiveness and what seemed to be hostility almost from the very beginning. Monica was there to answer questions without repeating [what she addressed in] the documentary. She's not a professional public speaker. She came in a bundle of nerves and quickly became very flustered."

Albrecht added, "Also, here were these professional journalists asking the same questions that the college students asked."

The Lewinsky session was preceded by a long excerpt from the documentary, which was filmed in black and white and is scheduled to premiere March 3 on the pay cable network. Lewinsky was shown entering the auditorium at New York City's Cooper Union alone and sitting on the stage to face her audience. .

She tells them that they can ask her anything and that she is no longer bound by restrictions following the Jan. 22 termination of her immunity agreement with former independent counsel Kenneth Starr. A note at the beginning of the clip explained that she was paid for her participation.

Following the clip, Lewinsky, dressed in a black leather coat, cream-colored blouse and knee-length black leather skirt, took the stage with the producers, to tepid applause. Lewinsky explained that she had wanted to participate in the project because she had heard that there were several movies in the works about the scandal and she was concerned about inaccuracies.

In addition to clearing up misconceptions about her and her involvement in the scandal, Lewinsky said she had also wanted to address other issues, such as the right to privacy and the "misguided, prosecutorial zeal, abuse of power and so on."

She said, "In thinking about all this, I really realized that when you're forced to remain silent while you're in the center of this legal, political, media cyclone, you realize very painfully that a vacuum is created. And to be filled, I guess, by people who have their own agenda, or others who hare misinformed about the facts."

Lewinsky added that she is still designing handbags and taking classes at Columbia University.

When asked how much she was paid for the project, she smiled and said, "Not enough to quit my day job."

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