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9 November 1998

Smile-a-while: Still forever young

Synopsis: The press corps just keeps missing the age of that apocryphal 21-year-old intern.

Commentary by Mark Shields
The Capital Gang, CNN, 10/31/98

Commentary by Mario Cuomo
Tim Russert, CNBC, 10/17/98

During affair, Clinton fired envoy for sex misconduct
Jerry Seper, The Washington Times, 10/30/98

The Clinton Enigma
David Maraniss, Simon & Schuster, 1998

Monica Lewinsky observed her 22nd birthday on July 23, 1995; she first flashed The Big He three months later. Hence, Clinton never did have an affair with that “21-year-old-intern” whom the press so dearly love. Nope--when Bill first gazed on Mo-mo’s thong, she was already twenty-two years of age. In fact, as we’ve pointed out in THE HOWLER before, she was almost 22 and a half!

But it just sounds so much better to say “21” that it has now become a press corps urban legend; it’s de rigeur to misstate Mo-mo’s age. We first chuckled about this a few weeks ago, when we showed how figures within the conservative press have misstated Mo’s age in the Washington Times (see “Forever young,” 10/8/98). But as it turns out, it isn’t just the conservative press which is mouthing this fun-but-false line!

No, so widespread is the Monica Myth--and so reliably incompetent is this celebrity press corps--that even those inclined to support The Big Creep are now spreading the tale about town.

Example: here’s Mark Shields, on The Capital Gang, looking ahead to last week’s election:

SHIELDS: Let’s get this straight right now: there will be an absolute even wash in the Senate next Tuesday. And let’s get this one thing further straight--can you imagine what kind of a day it would be...if the leader of their party had not had an inappropriate relationship with a 21-year-old intern, and then lied about it for seven months?

Yep--even the seer who foresaw the Senate stand-off was now mouthing the “21” line!

Mario Cuomo had taken it further some two weeks before--though Cuomo had spun the Monica Myth to stick the knife into Ken Starr. Cuomo was talking with host Tim Russert about that high approval rating for Clinton:

CUOMO: I think part of the approval rating is also “He’s been a very good president,” which he has, no question about that. But also: “We don’t like Starr.” And, “We don’t like you talking about sex and we don’t like you carrying on this way, and we don’t like you wiring up a woman and listening to another woman and we don’t like you dragging a mother into a grand jury and surrounding a little 21-year-old with nine guys in suits and pummeling her for information...”

Believing that Mo was 21 at the start, in Cuomo’s mind, she was 21 for all time. But for the record, by the time Mo was surrounded by Starr’s henchmen and goons, she had in fact turned 24. (Let the record further show that, in Cuomo’s fertile mind, she was not only “21”--she was “little!”)

David Maraniss, Clinton’s biographer of record, ought to have turned up a few basic facts. But he found another way to spread the Monica Myth. He put it in his new book, uncorrected, when it was voiced by a psychiatrizing commentator:

MARANISS: [Clinton’s] ability to survive only exacerbated a self-delusion of invincibility...“It reminds me of the Titanic,” said E. James Lieberman, a Washington psychiatrist. “Lots of power. Big. Sexy. Thinks he’s invulnerable, like the builders of the ship. And here is this twenty-one-year-old iceberg.

Brrr. But it’s Jerry Seper who wins our heart, because at least ol’ Jerry is trying. He describes President Clinton’s firing of the ambassador to Eritrea last year, for sexual misconduct with two embassy employees. According to Seper, the ambassador’s misconduct began in January 1997, and he was relieved of his post that summer. Jerry puts it all in perspective:

SEPER: Mr. Hicks’ recall came at a time that Mr. Clinton was having sexual relations in the Oval Office complex with Miss Lewinsky, then a 22-year-old White House intern.

Time passes slowly up here in the White House! Lewinsky turned 23 in August 1996; she was perhaps 24 when Hicks’ recall occurred. (Age isn’t Seper’s only factual sinkhole; he never mentions the date of the Hicks recall.) And of course, Lewinsky had long stopped being a “White House intern,” however old she was by this time. She was barking out orders as a Pentagon major domo by the summer of ’97.

But that beguiling image of the 21-year-old intern is one that the press can’t get out of its mind. It permits them to sketch an appealing tale that editors simply swoon for. Even when Seper adds on one year, he keeps Mo on in her pristine intern state. The image of that sweet, young, subservient aide--well, it’s an image the press corps will spin for.

And do we even have to say it again, the thing we’ve told you all year long? How it’s all just a part of what we do love to call: “Life in this celebrity press corps?”

But seriously though folks: Sure we’ve had a couple of chuckles over this inept, hapless press corps performance. But trivial though this matter might seem, it shows the corps’ commitment to telling good stories at the expense of basic facts. Thirty-eight weeks into Monica Madness, the press corps still can’t get her age right. It’s hard to find any normal expression for incompetence so pathetic and vast.

Just how hard is it for reporters to determine Mo’s age? Have they read The Starr Report?

STARR REPORT: On Thursday, July 24, 1997, the day after her 24th birthday, Ms. Lewinsky visited the White House from 6:04 to 6:26 p.m., admitted by Ms. Currie.

How hard would it be for Seper to learn that Lewinsky was not an intern in 1997? The facts are quite nicely laid out by Starr. But then, “the facts” aren’t the point of reporting like Seper’s. Seper is there to relate pleasing stories.