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Monica Who?

Confused about what to talk about at a dinner party? Here are a few tips

By Lance Morrow

TIME magazine

There is a crisis in dinner-party conversation, brought on by the continuing Monica Lewinsky matter. It may be wise to review the rules in order to deal with this emergency.

I became aware of the urgency of the situation the other night when I went to dinner at a neighbor's house.

Talk turned, as it does these days, to Bill Clinton's sex life, to Ken Starr's pursuit and Monica Lewinsky's dilemma. The atmospheric pressure in the room abruptly changed, from light and bantering to something like road rage.

The Clintonian Permissivists chanted, "It's nobody's business! It's nobody's business!" The Moralists spluttered back, "Would you want your daughter...!? That creep...!" And the Permissivists chorused in return, "They all did it! Look at Roosevelt! Kennedy, for God's sake! Johnson!" and so on, pointlessly, grimly, until the dinner was more or less ruined. By the time we arrived at dessert, all present realized that an ugly weather system had moved in, something like the greenish air before a tornado.

Some people love dinner-party brawls. They hope, under the influence of several glasses of wine, to score a Churchillian bull's-eye along the lines of "Yes, madam, but tomorrow I shall be sober!" It never happens.

What then are the rules?

First basic new rule: no Lewinsky.

To broaden the context: never rise to a provocation, especially on that subject. Do not! Turn aside temptation. Go deeply Zen. Repeat a mantra. Think of Rhett Butler at Ashley Wilkes' place early in Gone With the Wind, when he confronts the naive Southern glory-talk. Clark Gable bows slightly and ironically and works his mouth in that sly, urbane way, saying, with a tricky formality of self-effacement, "I apologize for all my shortcomings."

That's you next time the subject of Lewinsky or Starr comes up--Gable refusing the duel.

That said, let us review the classic taboos. Religion? Unsafe, unless you follow the example of Henry R. Luce, who had no small talk and once asked a dinner partner in all seriousness, "What do you think of the resurrection of the body?" The woman was, I believe, struck dumb. (I wonder if Luce ever used the line to try to pick up women.)

Politics? Remember that you have not sat down at someone's table in order to vindicate your social and political agenda. Except when dining with like-minded fanatics, do not rant. Ranting is unforgivable in polite society, the sort of spittle-spraying boor's game played by the McLaughlin Group.

Taboo subjects besides Lewinsky: anything that comes under the old culture-wars rubric. Sexual harassment? Leave it alone. Gays in the military? Don't. Gay marriage? Ditto. Lesbian couples adopting children? Smile with an enigmatic calm and say, "Mmmmmmmmmmm."

Gossip? Gossip is fine, as long as you know that the person gossiped about is not the best friend of the woman across the table. Do not make ugly generalizations, especially not in the ethnic vein. To illustrate: it's O.K. to gossip about a man who happens to be Irish, who got drunk and did something appalling, but don't make sweeping statements about the Irish being drunks.

Which leads to a central truth: there is no such thing as an interesting drunk--ever. Do not drink more than two glasses of wine, three at the most. After more than that, you think you are funnier and more charming than you are. I once sat next to New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan at a formal dinner and watched him consume three double Scotches, five glasses of red wine and three glasses of port, after which he got up and gave the after-dinner speech. The 6-ft. 4-in. Senator swayed above me as if in a high wind and delivered a swoopingly post-Modernist oration that sounded like James Joyce addressing a Rotary luncheon on the planet Mars. His extraterrestrial gibberish nonetheless communicated to the diners an elegant music that left them well pleased and warmly mystified. Do not attempt this feat yourself. Moynihan is a trained professional.

The guest's duties are simple: you have an obligation to earn your dinner by asking questions of the person on the right and then listening carefully to the answers. People want to talk about themselves. Sometimes that is even interesting. Keep it light. Don't talk too much. Don't brag. Interview fellow guests as if you were, say, David Letterman or Jay Leno, except without the wisecracks.

Do not use four-letter words, unless you have known the host and hostess at least 10 years and the other guests at least five. And even then don't use them.

Do not talk about Viagra.

The most important rule is no Lewinsky, until further notice. I'll let you know when it is safe.

In TIME This Week

Cover Date: June 22, 1998

As Good As It Gets
Incite to Abort
Victory For Vouchers
Topic A
Starr's Fellow Traveler
Monica Who?
Oink If You Love Pork
From A Different Shore

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