When the Starr report was published in September 1998, the first instinct of many people who read it, or who cringed at the sexually explicit extracts conveniently made available by the media, was to deny that its contents could possibly be true. Here was a right-wing Republican conspiracy to blacken the name of a popular Democrat president.
It was the Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, in an op-ed piece for the New York Times, who alerted us to something fundamentally unsettling about the tone of the report. He compared it to the depositions in the 17th-century Salem witch trials. "The only other texts in which I have encountered comparable details - cold accounts of humans stripped of all the protective covering with which we contrive to cloak our nakedness - are the legal documents of the witchcraft trials in the Middle Ages and renaissance, trials that extended in our land well into the 17th century."
Greenblatt was referring to now-infamous matter-of-fact testimony starting with phrases such as, "According to Ms Lewinsky, she performed oral sex on the president on nine occasions," and proceeding gratuitously to itemise the precise details of these encounters, as if performed in a morally neutral environment by robots. What such inventories of "wickedness" shared with the testimony of outraged inhabitants of 17th-century Salem against an unfortunate collection of vulnerable women, in Greenblatt's view, was the absolute, obsessive certainty of the prosecuting counsel that the conduct of the "accused" threatened to undermine the very foundations of civilised America. "Prosecutors and judges were so certain that the alleged crimes were a monstrous threat to the fabric of society, so convinced that the accused were absolutely evil, so determined to achieve the public finality of conviction and execution that they proceeded (legally, for the most part) to violate every principle of equity, respect, ordinary common sense and decency. After all, the enemy was Satan, and in the struggle against Satan all measures were justifiable."
Violating every principle of decency, Greenblatt concluded, Kenneth Starr and his team had demonised Monica Lewinsky and the president, translating their possibly innocuous conduct into grotesque perversions of human relations. Now, however, we have Monica's Story, the ghosted autobiography in which Monica herself attests to her own "culpability". Whereas six months ago the sub-pornographic details documented in the Starr report seemed altogether too lurid to believe, now Monica " 'fesses up to it all". Yes, it's true, on their very first encounter inside the White House in 1995 she "put her hands on her hips and with her thumbs lifted the back of her jacket, allowing [the president] a fleeting glimpse of her thong underwear".
Contriving another meeting, just hours later that same evening, the encounter indeed became "a good deal more intimate, their clothing unbuttoned, their hands exploring each other". And, oh yes, on Sunday, 31 March 1996 Monica "moistened one of the president's cigars in a most intimate fashion" and "realised that she had fallen in love".
But in Monica's Story, as told to Andrew Morton, Princess Diana's unauthorised biographer, as indeed in Monica's televised interviews with Barbara Walters and Jon Snow, these are not shameful incidents, guiltily or reluctantly recounted. Rather, she emerges as a determined, if insecure, young woman who knew what she wanted and how to get it. She embarked on a flirtation with a president with a reputation for his wandering eye, pursued the sexual liaison as far as she could, and persisted with the relationship even after the president panicked and tried to end it. In her Barbara Walters interview for prime-time American TV, under considerable emotional pressure from Walters, Lewinsky neither broke down nor backed down. She refused categorically to say she regretted the affair, and suggested she would do the same again. "I'm a sensual person," she said. Sex (including phone sex) was fun, intercourse an intrinsic part of a relationship, even outside marriage, even with a married man.
Monica Lewinsky is utterly misguided in her belief that she was in any sense in charge of events as they unfolded. There is something troubling about the way she represents herself as on the brink of being totally in control of her life. Her description of "pulling" the president of the United States reads as if she, rather than he, were making the running. Her response to his attempts to break off the relationship is to doubt that he means it, and contrive ingenious ways to gain access to him and win him back with her erotic charms. Just as disturbing is Andrew Morton's complicity in producing a narrative which is, spuriously, driven by Monica.
She would have been in control, she explains, except . . . over and over again in Monica's Story comes a single refrain. Everything would have been all right, she could have controlled everything, she could have had her president, and outwitted Starr, and had her revenge on Linda Tripp. She could have had all this if only she hadn't had a weight problem. If she could only have kept herself slim, nothing dreadful would have happened to her. Morton, as onlooker and occasional commentator, agrees, regularly emphasising the fluctuations in Monica's weight, her diets and exercising, her counselling and the "fat camps" she goes to.
The historian Lyndal Roper has shown us how, heartbreakingly, women accused of witchcraft in the 16th century produced vivid confessions, in graphic detail, of sex with the devil, of exhuming and eating their dead babies, of damaging crops and hurting neighbours' children. Admitting their guilt, glorifying in the damage they had supposedly done, gave them a kind of power in the midst of their helplessness. Abused, insulted and ultimately put to death, they sustained themselves for a brief commanding moment by becoming the absolute incarnation of evil in female form their male accusers were looking for.
Witch and prosecutor enter into an unholy alliance. The witch confesses, the prosecutor persuades her that her "powers" have deserted her, she is guilty and despicable. That is exactly what Starr and his team did to Lewinsky. Here, I think we have the obscene heart of the "Lewinsky affair": its obscenity is that of unmitigated oppression of women, and it troublingly recalls the Salem witch trials. Hounded by viciously determined, unscrupulous prosecutors, held in isolation in contravention of her civil liberties, threatened, cajoled into confession, terrified into submission, Lewinsky, like the victims of the witch trials, entered into the belief-world of her enemies. Misogynists to a man, they passed the blame for everything they regarded as rotten in Bill Clinton's Democratic administration to the vulnerable, self-deprecating woman with an eating disorder.
Morton's biography bears witness to the hypnotic power of such persecution to persuade the victims to become, paradoxically, the desired object of their oppressors.