It was in November last year that a British Sunday newspaper reported that Andrew Morton, a household name thanks to his best-selling biography of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, had embarked on a book about Monica Lewinsky. (It has now been written, as all the world is aware.) The paper had it wrong; Morton was doing no such thing. But days later, he received a call from Lewinsky's lawyers in New York. They had heard about the article and they were tickled. How about it? Would he do it?
Morton tells this story himself in the foreword to the book, Monica's Story. He is not, by his own admission, much of a fan of journalism or journalists. Indeed, the pages of this book are laden with scorn for the profession - even though it was once his own. But for that one report, inaccurate though it may have been, Morton must surely be grateful. What a commission! Here was a story that was gripping the globe and which, at the time, was threatening to topple the presidency of Bill Clinton. It was his to write, from start to finish, with an impeccable source providing the information, Ms Lewinsky herself.
Morton brackets the book with a foreword and a preface, and, at its end, with a conclusion and a postscript. (The postscript was apparently added at the last minute to catch up with the final dramas of Senate trial earlier this year). These sections are arguably the most interesting. What we have in between is a chronological journey beginning with glimpses of Monica's childhood in Beverly Hills and ending about the time of the President's impeachment. Maybe there was no other way for Morton to handle it. But it means that the bulk of the book has a slightly trudging feel - after that happened, this happened. And so on. At the same time, the sheer rawness of the original Starr Report that made it such a compelling read - it sold 1.5m copies in book form in America - is necessarily absent here.
Not that the book lacks juice. It is Morton's burden, of course, that so much of Monica's story is already known. There is a lot of familiar territory here. But he still finds plenty that is fresh. The reader will feel the flutter in Monica's heart when she first treads the "powder-blue- carpeted corridors" of the White House, even before she progresses to unzipping the trousers of the President. (Morton, by the way, is meticulously coy in his descriptions of their "making out" - his favoured phrase - in the Oval Office.) And there is a gripping chapter on the events of 16 January 1998, when Lewinsky is confronted by prosecutors and FBI agents in a 10th-floor hotel room in a Washington suburb and realises that the jig is up.
And Lewinsky, of course, supplied Morton with some nice, not-before-known details. They range from revelations about an affair with another man at the Pentagon - it led to an unwanted pregnancy and an abortion - to her description of the "Pamela Anderson-style wig" worn during a plane ride from Los Angeles to New York shortly before the deal with Starr that gave her immunity from prosecution. "The subterfuge worked: no one gave them a second glance on the five-hour flight." And there is good reading in the lovers' quarrels between Lewinsky and Clinton, which always ended in remorse. Choosing Morton was a smart move by the Lewinsky camp. They knew from his Diana book that he could be most sympathetic to his subject. They will not have been disappointed with what he turned in. To be fair, the title is Monica's Story, and nobody should be surprised by the bias of the book. But told from just that one point of view, the book becomes rather predictable and its good-versus-evil tilt will grate with some. Monica and her family were - still are - the victims of a legal and partisan process gone haywire. Just about every other member of the cast, however, is evil. Kenneth Starr, his cohorts, Linda Tripp, the media, everyone. Only one character comes out more multicoloured and that is the President. That, as Morton reveals, is because even now Lewinsky cannot quite sort out her feelings about him.
Morton, who has a clear, uncomplicated writing style, occasionally lets indignation run away with him. Lewinsky, he says, became "a piece of meat to be chewed on by the mass media, the Special Prosecutor and the White House". She was the innocent "thrown into the political piranha tank". And it is the author, not Monica, who lets rip in the Conclusion. "The whole partisan affair bore the hallmark of the political show trials that marked Stalin's regime in Communist Russia." Whoa there, Andrew! Starr was the "personification of the `Big Brother' of Orwell's future". The whole saga, moreover, "spotlighted the underlying misogyny that still permeates American life and particularly the media".
If the book is ultimately unsatisfying, it may be because it was intellectually too easy for Morton. It was not hard to join Lewinsky in deriding Tripp, the "lumpy figure", or to castigate Starr and the "gimlet gaze" he cast on the President, or the Republicans in Congress. Nor does it tax Morton to conclude, as he does so roundly, that there is something amiss in the American legal and political system that the whole saga came to hold the whole nation hostage in the way that it did and for so many months. What is missing is any explanation for it. Why does America get so hung up on matters of legal process? Why is there so little leeway for legal discretion in Washington? Why can't Americans distinguish between corruption that matters and corruption that, well, matters less? Morton does not broach any of this, perhaps because he did not have time. What you cannot take away from the author is the speed of his labours. Remember, it was only last November that that newspaper article set him running on the Lewinsky course. Oh that this reviewer could ever be capable of reporting, distilling and committing to paper so much information in so short a period of time. (And, oh, that he could earn as much for the effort as Morton will doubtless earn for having written this book.)
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