Twenty years ago, Monica Lewinsky became a household name – for all the wrong reasons.
In a new essay for Vanity Fair reflecting on her relationship with then-President Bill Clinton – and everything that followed from it – Lewinsky wrote these two striking paragraphs:
“Just four years ago, in an essay for this magazine, I wrote the following: “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.” I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. (Full stop.)
“Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot. (Although power imbalances—and the ability to abuse them—do exist even when the sex has been consensual.)”
Lewinsky’s willingness to re-examine her conclusions about what her relationship with the president meant – particularly amid the ongoing #metoo movement – should occasion a broader conversation in American politics about Clinton and how his affair with Lewinsky is viewed by all of us.
In her essay, Lewinsky rightly notes that 1998 was, in retrospect, a turning point – and not in a good way – for American politics. Smartly, Lewinsky writes:
“Both clinically and observationally, something fundamental changed in our society in 1998, and it is changing again as we enter the second year of the Trump presidency in a post-Cosby-Ailes-O’Reilly-Weinstein-Spacey-Whoever-Is-Next world. The Starr investigation and the subsequent impeachment trial of Bill Clinton amounted to a crisis that Americans arguably endured collectively—some of us, obviously, more than others. It was a shambolic morass of a scandal that dragged on for 13 months, and many politicians and citizens became collateral damage—along with the nation’s capacity for mercy, measure, and perspective.”
Within weeks of the allegations about Clinton’s affair with a White House intern named “Monica Lewinsky” – the story was first hinted at by the Drudge Report in January 1998 – reactions to the news began to sort themselves into partisan camps.
That hardening only worsened that fall when independent counsel Kenneth Starr, initially charged with looking into the Whitewater real estate deal, released his findings about the intimate details of Clinton and Lewinsky’s relationship and outlined the case for Clinton’s impeachment. (Lewinsky opens her Vanity Fair piece with a fascinating anecdote about meeting Starr for the first time earlier this year.)
By the time the House voted to impeach Clinton – the Senate eventually acquitted him – the die was cast.
For Democrats, Republicans had grossly overreacted to a personal foible. Because of their blind hatred for all things “Clinton,” the argument went, Republicans had grossly overstepped their mandate and their responsibility to the country. They had turned a molehill into a mountain.
For Republicans, Clinton’s prevarications about the nature of his relationship with Lewinsky – “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” – were proof of everything they believed about him: He didn’t think the rules applied to him, he lied with ease and he put his own selfish desires before the country’s.
Voters seemed to side with Democrats, handing the party major (and ahistoric) victories in the 1998 midterm elections and driving Newt Gingrich out as House speaker.
Two years later, however, George W. Bush beat Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, running on a message of restoring family values to the White House and the country – a not-at-all subtle rejection of the Clinton years. (Gore ran away from Clinton for much of that campaign for fear of getting dragged down in voters’ distaste for the personal life of the 42nd president.)
Lost amid all of that analysis of who benefited and who lost from the Lewinsky scandal was Lewinsky herself – and the raw facts of what happened.
A president of the United States pursued a sexual relationship with a White House intern. He was 49, she was 22. When confronted with the details of the relationship, Clinton lied about it.
There’s zero in those three sentences that anyone – and I mean anyone – can dispute.
We, as a society, never really dealt with those facts because almost instantly Monica Lewinsky the person – a 22-year-old INTERN – disappeared, and Monica Lewinsky the political football appeared.
“With the introduction of the World Wide Web (in 1992-93) and two new cable news networks (Fox News and MSNBC in 1996), the lines began to blur between fact and opinion, news and gossip, private lives and public shaming. The Internet had become such a propulsive force driving the flow of information that when the Republican-led Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives decided to publish Ken Starr’s commission’s ‘findings’ online—just two days after he had delivered them—it meant that (for me personally) every adult with a modem could instantaneously peruse a copy and learn about my private conversations, my personal musings (lifted from my home computer), and, worse yet, my sex life.”
It was a perfect political/media storm – and Lewinsky got blown away by it. (To her immense credit, Lewinsky has emerged as a outspoken advocate against bullying, a cause near and dear to my heart as well.)
What happened in 1998 in many ways created the political reality we are still living in today. Political differences are seen as irreconcilable. Those who disagree with you are regarded as not just dumb or misguided but evil as well. Everything – from school shootings to the American dream – is seen through a partisan lens. Views are set in stone; changing them is regarded as a sign of weakness, not strength.
And yet, as Lewinsky notes, the #MeToo movement has forced a rethinking of the dynamics between powerful men and women who work for or with them. What we once wrote off to “boys being boys” or accepted as an unsavory but inevitable element of our society is now being understood for what it is: An abuse of power that calls into question the very idea of “consent” itself.
That re-examination should not preclude Bill Clinton. We owe Monica Lewinsky that.