This week, after watching U.S. senators wipe the drool from their lips before appearing on television cameras to lecture the nation on grand issues of justice and foreplay - uh, fair play - I found myself in College Park, standing in front of my old dormitory, where it became the evening before my first day as a freshman a long time ago.
There were about a dozen of us standing in front of Harford Hall that evening, the numbers giving us great masculine strength and courage as the young ladies of the University of Maryland strolled past, cloaked in their vulnerability.
"There goes Sweet Rita," an upperclassman announced to us. It sounded like a sexual scouting report. He said she was from his hometown in Harford County, and proceeded to describe a few liberties granted him in the dark. The descriptions were greeted with hoots all around. The upperclassman seemed a very knowing fellow. The girl named Rita, thus marked in public, kept walking and pretending not to notice.
"This one's from Montgomery Hall," the upperclassman said, pointing to a second girl. He furnished another description of sexual play. It seemed a promise of great undergraduate possibilities for all of us.
"And that one," the upperclassman declared, in a voice loud enough to be heard all the way to U.S. 1. "That's The ----," using the vernacular term that will forever be linked now to the life and misguided lusts of Monica Lewinsky.
At age 25, Monica's that girl from 35 years ago in College Park. The voice of the upperclassman has been replaced by Kenneth Starr and Henry Hyde, and by Linda Tripp, and by all those on Capitol Hill who gather in large groups to give themselves courage against Monica and Bill Clinton and what they did in the dark.
In front of my old dormitory that evening, the girl in question, The ----, pretended she heard nothing. A few guys hooted her way, as though imagining it a college requirement. I stared at the girl, trying to commit her features to memory, and never saw her again. She probably went back to her dormitory room and stayed there forever.
Monica Lewinsky doesn't have that option. She's on television whenever she ventures into America. She's Jay Leno's favorite target, she's the figure around whom politicians wrap their august pronouncements about constitutional crises, she's the subject of endless talk of cashing in with paid interviews and tell-all books, she's a hoot, she's a howl, she's a ruined human being whose previous life is over.
And we make the mistake of thinking it's all right, she'll get over it. We ascribe no human emotions to those in the public eye, imagining cash takes care of everything, removes them from mortal hurt. She'll make a killing, we tell each other. Whatever pain she's in, the book deal and the interviews and the movie they'll make from the book will set her up for life. And this seems to make things all right.
We live in a time when money is all. The presidency's threatened, but there's the Dow Jones ticker in the corner of the TV screen to assure us our money's safe. The girl who precipitated this crisis has been humiliated beyond all measure, but the system will make it up to her later, when she's sunning herself by some pool.
Yesterday came a survey from the New York Times and CBS. It's the latest evidence that maybe Americans have grown up, not only from a time of college boys leering at college girls 35 years ago, but in even greater distance from those politicians who listen to the Monica Lewinsky sexual episodes with Bill Clinton and then gather in their little caucus groups to relive the details.
The new poll says we want it stopped. It says two-thirds of us don't want any Senate witnesses. It says three-fourths of us don't want this week's video depositions to be made public. It says 56 percent of us disapprove of the Senate's handling of the trial - including 33 percent of those who call themselves conservative Republicans.
Those conservative Republicans on Capitol Hill say they can't figure this out. This is about the Constitution, they tell us, quite full of themselves. It's about morality. They ask, what's happened to Americans' values?
Here's what's happened: We know an act of bullying when we see it. We can spot somebody with power picking on a pathetic young woman with none. We know a bum's rush when we see it. We know this president is an embarrassment, but it's an embarrassment of the flesh and not a sellout of his country.
And maybe it's finally hit us about Monica Lewinsky. She's that pretty girl with the weight problem who can't resist throwing herself at boys. And the boys respond, as boys sometimes do, by spreading the word, which will now stick with her and her entire family for the rest of their lives.
Maybe we've finally gotten the hoots out of our system, and we're sickened at what we've become: a nation of voyeurs, pretending we don't have our own flaws, and our own desires, realizing millions of us are just as vulnerable as those who simply got caught.