For several years, I was tethered to Bill Clinton on pool duty, in which reporters from national magazines and newspapers take turns traveling with the president. I had done it so often, Air Force One almost bored me, with all that windy waiting on the tarmac, Clinton's practiced wave on the steps, the Secret Service men shoving and glaring at us through their mirrored lenses.
Pool journalists get closer to the President than most people but rarely closer than fifteen yards before being restrained by armed agents. Unless Clinton decides to wander back in the plane to talk to one of us, we need a telephoto lens to read his expression.
On one of these trips last year, I found myself in the plane's front cabin with only senior White House advisor Bruce Lindsey and a deck of cards between me and the President. On that flight from Chicago to Jasper, Arkansas, where the President was stopping for a funeral, they needed a fourth for hearts. I volunteered. Before we were at cruising altitude, I was sitting across from Clinton, trying to concentrate on the cards, watching his hands shuffling the deck. His white shirt cuffs were starch stiff, his cufflinks glinted gold. He kept score-with a gold pen on a white notepad with an embossed golden-eagle Presidential seal.
I knew all about the President's alleged attractiveness. His "zipper problem" had provided hours of dinner-party amusement for my friends and me. Although I was one of the people in Washington who didn't believe Hillary Clinton stayed married for the power alone, I had always seen the President's charms only in a theoretical way. I had interviewed some of the women who were accusing him of sexual misbehavior. I talked to Gennifer Flowers in 1992. Later, I met with Paula Jones at a Capitol Hill townhouse. Both women were believable-although in Jones's case, I suspect she had been more willing than she was willing to let on.
Sex was not on my mind when I sat down across from the President. I was more worried that I had forgotten how to play hearts. He looked older in the flesh than from afar or on TV. He had crow's-feet and creepy skin. He seemed lonely, as if the adulation of crowds and aides had given him a craving for more of the same. I felt perversely sorry for the most powerful man in the world. Maybe that explains his allure: We women love a lonely man.
I hadn't expected to be so near Clinton that summer day. I was dressed for hot, humid Washington. My hair had been whipped into knots while waiting on the tarmac and was restrained in messy braids. I was wearing a short, green Betsey Johnson seer sucker suit, sandals, and no stockings-probably just the kind of outfit Clinton's former deputy chief of staff, Evelyn Lieberman, would have sent an intern home to change out of lickety-split. My knees were scarred from a recent bike wreck. Bare legs still offend Washington propriety, and I now understand why: You never know when you'll need to protect your modesty, and perhaps your chastity, around a powerful man.
To my left at the card table was Clinton's boon companion, Bruce Lindsey, in his dark suit. Lindsey is a taut, wired man with the density of lead. His silent communication with the President was unsettling. Everything Lindsey uttered seemed suggestive. "Bet you've never been to Jasper, Arkansas, before," he said to me with a sly grin at the President. They laughed. I wondered what they'd gotten up to together in Jasper.
For an hour or so, we only spoke about the game. I made a valiant effort to seem deadly serious - the professional woman's automatic defense against encroaching sexiness. In a White House photograph of the scene, I could be conducting an interview about the federal budget. Clinton didn't say much, but I tried to preserve his few remarks for posterity. The only comment worth remembering was that Hillary doesn't like the game of hearts. "She says she doesn't get a game where you lose by winning points," he said.
Of course, nothing happened. The President's foot lightly, and presumably accidentally, brushed mine once under the table. His hand touched my wrist while he was dealing the cards. When I got up and shook his hand at the end of the game, his eyes wandered over my bike-wrecked, naked legs. And slowly it dawned on me as I walked away: He found me attractive.
No doubt the President's lawyers and spin doctors would say I wishfully imagined that long, appreciative look, just as all those other women have fantasized their more explicitly sexual encounters with Clinton. But we all know when we're being ogled. The weird thing was that I didn't mind. There was a time when the hormones of indignant feminism raged in my veins. An open gaze like that, at least from a man of lesser stature, would have annoyed me. But that evening, I had the opposite reaction. I felt incandescent. It was riveting to know that the President had appreciated my legs, scarred as they were. If he had asked me to continue the game of hearts back in his room at the Jasper Holiday Inn, I would have been happy to go there and see what happened. At the time, it seemed quite possible. It took several hours and a few drinks in the steaming and now somehow romantic Arkansas night to shake the intoxicated state in which I had been quite willing to let myself be ravished by the President, should he have but asked. I probably wore the mesmerized look I have seen again and again in women after they have met him. The same silly hypnotized gleam was displayed on the cover of Time magazine in Monica Lewinsky's eyes.
I like to think I have rejected the old customs and mores. Masters of the Universe don't do it for me. The richer and more famous they are, the less appealing. Donald Trump? Ugh. John F. Kennedy, Jr.? A knockout, but imagine the maintenance. Not that I prefer lumberjacks and day laborers, but men who run Big Things and attract a lot of attention are a full-time job for their mates. And we have all seen powerful men apply the callousness that gets them through the day to their private lives. Give me a sexy, funny man who finds me as interesting as the Dow Jones or his office politics, and I'm happy. I like the statisticians who report that the strongest marriages are couples where the woman has some status-equalizing attribute, such as age or more education. That makes sense to me. The happiest I've ever been is with the man I'm going to marry, a younger man whose charm, looks, and wit are considerable, but who no interest in being a CEO.
And yet there I was, walking away from a close encounter with the President of the United States, stupefied and vaguely hoping that he'd sent an aide over to my hotel room to ask me up for a drink. What is it in some of us, that powerful men make us pliant and willing with a mere glance?
In Greek mythology, Zeus so lusted after a mortal woman that he took the form of a swan and flew down from Mount Olympus to have his way with her. William Butler Yeats's poem "Leda and the Swan" celebrated the scene with erotic imagery. "A sudden blow: the great wings beating still /Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed /By the dark webs . . ."
Yeats was warned by his editor that this poem might cause conservative readers to "misunderstand" it. The poem is hardly ambiguous. Yeats honored the magnetic sexual pull a powerful male can have on a weaker female. The beating wings of the giant swan enwrap the helplessly infatuated woman, whose "terrified vague fingers" cannot push the "feathered glory from her loosening thighs."
I hated that poem as a college student. I thought Yeats's imagery celebrated a rape. Fifteen years later, I reluctantly acknowledge the wild, unexpected attraction that "important" men have for women, even for a feminist like me.
I have thought about my mothlike encounter with Clinton in the months since Monica Lewinsky became world famous. Distracting a powerful man from his business is one of the highest forms of flattery available to women. Vanity makes us weak. To feed it makes us feel strong. To be so distracting that a great man's career is on the line, even if you are despised afterward, is a tremendous show of power, when - still - too few women can acquire power any other way. The last lines of Yeats's poem suggest a kind of reward for the woman who submits. "Being so caught up, / So mastered by the brute blood of the air, / Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?"
I still cling to the faith that there are women of good order who are immune to this stuff. They were sensible clothes and keep their legs well covered. I trust that Janet Reno, Donna Shalala, and Madeleine Albright are not rendered willing and pliant around Bill Clinton. They don't need to put on his knowledge with his power when they have their own. For the rest of us, a powerful man's admiring gaze is an intimation of all that is inaccessible, and that is the ultimate seduction.