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A Study in American Fame

So I wake up the other morning and decide to write a column about Monica Lewinsky, and I spend the rest of the day trying to figure out what approach to take.

Should I be outrageous and satirical, like a David Letterman Top Ten list? Should I be wry and observant, like a Calvin Trillin magazine piece? Should I be fiery and indignant, like a hot August sermon in a backwoods church? 

I decide on the latter. It is the least fashionable. It is also the most true to my feelings. 

It seems that Ms. Lewinsky, who once showed bad judgment by not being able to get enough of Bill Clinton, is now showing even worse judgment by not being able to get enough of herself. She has approached HBO about making a documentary on her affair with the former president. 

She is afraid Americans are forgetting her. She does not think we should. 

"The last couple of years have been such a time of intense growth and perspective for me," she says. "I want to do something that really reflects the way I felt then, the way I feel now." 

Never mind that Andrew Morton wrote a book about her. Never mind that Barbara Walters did an hour-long interview with her. Never mind that she dominated the news shows and the talk shows and the private discussions in this country for month after endless month as the old millennium wound down for no better reason than that she could not keep her mouth shut. 

She still cannot keep it shut — and HBO will be her latest enabler. 

According to a network spokeswoman: "It's not just Monica: it's Monica in history; it's Monica in privacy; it's Monica in trauma." 

It's HBO in heat. 

So I take to the pulpit and pound on my missal and, at the risk of seeming blasphemous, shout to the heavens that what troubles me most about the documentary is not that it will glorify an adulteress, but that it will glorify a nonentity. 

"Fame," said Ralph Waldo Emerson a century and a half ago, "is proof that people are gullible." 

But is Monica Lewinsky famous? Is that the right word? Perhaps not. 

"Celebrity," wrote Michael Novak, long after Emerson, "is a substitute for fame. The latter is earned by extraordinary achievement. The former is manufactured by freakiness." 

Monica Lewinsky is freaky. 

Chyna, the lady wrestler whose memoir is No. 2 on The New York Times best-seller list despite being ghost-written by someone whose IQ is lower than the barometric pressure, is freaky. 

Richard Hatch, who won on Survivor and was promoted to a box on Hollywood Squares, is freaky. 

Darva Conger, who recently appeared on CNN's Larry King Live to reunite with a man to whom she had never been united in the first place, is freaky. 

James MacGregor Burns, on the other hand, is not. The 82-year-old historian has recently published The Three Roosevelts, the latest in a lifetime's worth of brilliant studies of the American experience. 

And David S. Newburg is not. The Harvard Medical School's Ph.D. is learning more than anyone has ever learned before about the relationship between diet and cancer. 

And Michael Lind is not. The noted political theorist is crossing new frontiers of thought about the American electorate, positing the radical center, envisioning the growth of third and fourth parties. 

Meanwhile, Robert Downey, Jr. is on the cover of Newsweek and 20/20 is interviewing Macauley Culkin and Al Roker is helping chef Charlie Trotter do a rack of lamb on the Today show. 

Freaky, freaky, freaky. 

Fame was once a country club with exacting standards for membership. Now that it has sunk to celebrity, it is a hole-in-the-wall in a bad part of town that doesn't even have a bouncer at the door. 

Anyone can get in, and it is no consolation to people with taste and discernment that the stay is usually brief; once the Monica Lewinsky ducks out the back, a Monica Lewinsky will slip in the front, grinning at the fools who admit her and bid her welcome. 

And who are these people? Who are the waiters and waitresses and bartenders and coat-checkers and shoe-shiners and lickspittles in the dive called modern renown? Their names, ladies and gentlemen of the congregation, are you and me. 

The sermon is ended. Go in angst.