For a young White House intern eager to get a closer look at the president of the United States, the week of Nov. 13, 1995, was a dream come true. A budget impasse in Congress had forced a shutdown of the government, and thousands of federal employees deemed "non-essential" were ordered to stay home. In the White House, unpaid interns eagerly took their places.
Monica Lewinsky, 21, found herself plucked from the corridors of the Old Executive Office Building to White House chief of staff Leon Panetta's suites down the hall from the Oval Office. At least twice, President Clinton came through to thank the volunteers for pitching in.Lewinsky had shaken hands with Clinton before, and along with dozens of other interns, she attended a party on the South Lawn on Aug. 19 in honor of his 49th birthday. But it was the government shutdown that began on Nov. 14 that opened the doors to the Oval Office.
Lewinsky's first day of work in the West Wing of the White House was the next day. It also was on Nov. 15, Lewinsky told her friend Linda Tripp, that she had her first sexual encounter with Clinton, according to Tripp's affidavit in the Paula Jones lawsuit.
Whatever the nature of Lewinsky's relationship with the president, it was during those days in November that it was formed.
Lewinsky left the West Wing after the emergency ended, but she did not go far. She briefly returned to sorting mail for Panetta at the Old Executive Office Building, and then on Nov. 26, she began a paid job in the East Wing of the White House, handling correspondence in the office of legislative affairs, a job that gave her an opportunity to linger in the West Wing.
There, the young intern caught the eye of Evelyn Lieberman, the White House deputy chief of staff and a friend of the first lady, and who also acted as the unofficial etiquette commissar. Lieberman took one look at how Lewinsky behaved around the president, witnesses recall, and told other staff members to "get rid of that girl." It was five more months before Lewinsky was reassigned to the Pentagon.
Who she is, exactly, and why she, of all interns, was showered with so much attention by high-powered friends of the Clintons, has fascinated the entire country. What she eventually might say to Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel, about her relationship with the president could help put the cascade of questions about Clinton's veracity to rest. Or it could forever change the course of his presidency.
The smallest details of her life have been stretched in starkly opposite directions. Friends, in Washington and Los Angeles, portray her as bubbly, well-meaning and naive. Her detractors use other details to paint a more sinister portrait of a self-centered, manipulative young woman who used sex to smooth her way in the world.
Amid the blizzard of accusations, some of the most harmful to the president are accusations that after Lewinsky was served a subpoena on Dec. 17 in Paula Jones' sexual harassment suit against Clinton, the president's closest friend, Vernon Jordan, got Lewinsky a job in New York to secure her silence.
But the same inquiry raises yet another disturbing image of Lewinsky: a 24-year-old woman who appears to have been stubborn and self-possessed enough to hold out against some of the most powerful people in the country in her own self-interest. For if it was in Clinton's interest that Lewinsky swore under oath that she had not had an affair with him, it was Lewinsky who stood to gain by holding back her testimony until she secured a prestigious job.
Prosecutors say that Lewinsky wrote out an affidavit on Jan. 7 denying the affair. The next day, Jordan called Ronald O. Perelman, the chief executive of Revlon, to recommend her for a job. A copy of that affidavit was sent by Federal Express to Jones' lawyers on Jan. 12, about the time Lewinsky received a firm job offer from Revlon.