5 Lessons From Monica Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair Essay

Monica-Lewinsky

Monica Lewinsky offers us a look at 1998 through her eyes (Twitter.com).

Monica Lewinsky’s back. Twenty years after becoming internationally known, the former White House intern has an essay in Vanity Fair reflecting on the scandal that bears her name and its cultural aftermath. There’s a Groundhog Day aspect to the whole thing, as Lewinsky writes:

I’m sorry to say I don’t have a definitive answer yet on the meaning of all of the events that led to the 1998 investigation; I am unpacking and reprocessing what happened to me. Over and over and over again.

That said, Lewinsky has some thought-provoking observations:

I’ve also come to understand how my trauma has been, in a way, a microcosm of a larger, national one. Both clinically and observationally, something fundamental changed in our society in 1998.

While I’m not sure I’d cast Lewinsky as a stand-in for all of American society, I wholeheartedly agree that 1998 changed America, how we viewed ourselves, and our leaders.

With the distance of two decades, Lewinsky tries to draw some lessons. It’s a worthwhile exercise and one that would be even more interesting if all the central players had participated and spoken honestly (which I don’t foresee happening in this lifetime). But if Lewinsky is going to use her narrative as a keyhole into one of American history’s great scandals, I’d suggest adding these additional topics for discussion:

  1. Are Apologies Owed?

Lewinsky opens her essay with an extended vignette about running into Ken Starr and his family at a Manhattan restaurant on Christmas Eve. It was the first time they’d ever met in person. Lewinsky clearly wants an apology, which Starr declined to offer. That made me wonder, of all the people who made 1998 difficult for her, is Starr really the person Lewinsky most believes (still) owes her an apology? Or is he simply the most politically palatable person to call out in this way? After all, he’s a pretty easy target at this point. Of course, I’m also curious whether Lewinsky believes she owes any apologies (she offered none here).

2. The Clinton Contrast Isn’t Pretty.

Coming out of 1998, Hillary won a Senate seat, became Secretary of State, and then the Democratic nominee for president. Bill Clinton became an elder statesman within his party who travels globally and gives expensive speeches. They’ve mostly managed to move on and accomplish big things in a way that Lewinsky has not. That must feel incredibly unfair — and it’s pretty striking considering America’s post-Sexual Revolution ethics.

3. Not All Sex is Empowering.

Lewinsky tells us,

I struggled with my own sense of agency versus victimhood. (In 1998, we were living in times in which women’s sexuality was a marker of their agency — ‘owning desire.’ And yet, I felt that if I saw myself as in any way a victim, it would open the door to choruses of: ‘See, you did merely service him.’

It may be stating the obvious in the era of #MeToo, but not all sex is empowering. Can we stop telling young women that it is? A sexual relationship with a man who’ll publicly toss you overboard to salvage his career is simply a bad idea.

4. Feminist Leaders Disappointed Women. If Lewinsky is going to claim her story is a microcosm of national lessons, we must talk about the organized feminist reaction to her scandal, which alienated many young women. After having defined and rightly stigmatized sexual harassment in the workplace, many feminists disgracefully defended Bill Clinton’s behavior and threw Lewinsky under the bus.

Gloria Steinem took to The New York Times to defend President Clinton because “consent” (never mind the age or power differential.) For her part, Betty Friedan announced,

Whether it’s a fantasy, a set-up, or true, I simply don’t care.

And former Time White House correspondent Nina Burleigh famously proclaimed,

I would be happy to give [Bill Clinton] a blowjob just to thank him for keeping abortion legal. I think American women should be lining up with their presidential kneepads on to show their gratitude for keeping the theocracy off our backs.

How’s that for journalistic objectivity and treating women respectfully?

5. Post-Christian America Can Be Ugly (Says This Jew). Lewinsky writes,

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.

There’s something to that. Mercy has gone by the wayside in our social media era, along with other important Judeo-Christian values.

The unfortunate truth — from Lewinsky’s point of view — is that an America that believes deeply in mercy is likely to also be an America that holds fast to the Ten Commandments. It’s not clear that one can exist without the framework of the other. Maybe the “theocracy” Nina Burleigh despised wasn’t all bad.

This article appeared in Iron Ladies.

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