It’s easy to carp and criticize, to tweet and retweet the scandals and outrages of the day. In all this high emotion, let’s not lose sight of the goodness and beauty in our midst, the bright moments in the darkest hours. As we pause on the 20th anniversary of the impeachment of Bill Clinton, it may be fitting to revisit what seemed then to be “the worst of times.” Maybe, just maybe, it was not so bad after all.
Conversation: We were never, ever at a loss for words. If a conversation was losing steam or there was an awkward silence during a job interview, a chat with Grandma, or on a first date, all you had to say, sotte voce, was “Monica,” and words tumbled forth like water over Niagara Falls. So much to discuss and debate: Was she pretty or just sexy? Was it OK for a much older man who happened to the President of the United States to respond to the flirtations of a 22- year-old, or should he have taken her chastely by the shoulders and turned her away? If he had turned her away, could he be faulted for noticing her hips and rear end wiggle as she shuffled dejectedly out of the Oval Office? Shouldn’t he have known that she would confide in someone? Was Linda Tripp a worse human being than Ken Starr, better, or about the same?
These questions eventually brought us to deeper levels of inquiry: Why is power such an aphrodisiac? Why were feminists so willing to forgive Bill for his dalliance with a besotted intern and all the other truly appalling behavior of his that came out? Was the worst thing to have had the affair, lied about it on TV, lied about it to the Grand Jury, or lied to nearly everyone on your staff both before and after they hired lawyers and refinanced their houses? Was there really a Right Wing conspiracy or was that just Hillary’s feeble excuse? When all was said and done, was Bill worse than Richard Nixon, better or about the same? Is lying about your sex life really “lying”?
Finally, should Monica have listened to Linda Tripp and kept the blue dress?
Lessons in linguistics and philosophy. This was not just another tawdry sex scandal that breaks up marriages and ruins careers. It was a wordsmith’s and linguistics professor’s dream. We were asked, as a nation, to ponder what the meaning of “is” is as well as what the meaning of “was” is and, as time went by, what the meaning of “is” was. Also, philosophers and physicists could analyze the proposition, put forward by President Clinton in the fever of self-preservation, that it is possible to have sex with a person who is not having sex with you.
Sex Education. The puritanical country finally had to reckon with the concept of “oral sex” and more specifically the word “blowjob.” At the time, this was deeply mortifying and unbelievably difficult, especially because there were no trigger warnings or safe spaces. Parents said silly things to their children by way of explanation, and adult children said silly things to their aged parents, before realizing that their parents already knew. And phone sex got a boost in popularity, just before it was eclipsed, a few years later, by Internet sex, which only requires one person, a computer, and a modem.
Everyone was an expert. Public intellectual Roz Chast pointed out this phenomenon in her 1998 Year End Round-up cartoon, one of whose banners reads: “The best thing about the story was how easy it was to understand. It didn’t require knowledge of foreign affairs or economics or anything. No, this was a total no-brainer.” In short, it was possible to be an expert on the subject even if you had no idea where Bosnia was.
Lessons in Dramatic Writing: It’s not often we get to eavesdrop so thoroughly on another couple’s tortured sexual/romantic relationship as we did on Monica’s and Bill’s in the 445-page Starr Report. Literature, fiction, drama, even memoir, give us distilled versions of relationships, condensed and shaped for dramatic effect. By contrast, the Starr Report offered a Large Keyhole view of nearly every word and gesture that passed between the President and the Intern in their most private moments.
Yet for those who toil in words and stories, the Starr Report reminds us that a good story is not just a pile of dates, times, and accounts of going into and out of a room, even if it is the Oval Office. It’s impossible to read the Report without wishing that Ken Starr had hired a writer or two in his quest to uncover the truth and capture some more of the real life sizzle. Instead, taxpayers had to slog through too many passages like this one:
White House records corroborate details of Ms. Lewinsky’s account. She testified that her November 15 encounters with the President occurred at about 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., and that in each case the two of them went from the Chief of Staff’s office to the Oval Office area…. Records show that the President visited the Chief of Staff’s office for one minute at 8:12 p.m. and for two minutes at 9:23 p.m., in each case returning to the Oval Office…. She recalled that the President took a telephone call during their sexual encounter, and she believed that the caller was a Member of Congress or a Senator… White House records show that after returning to the Oval Office from the Chief of Staff’s office, the President talked to two Members of Congress: Rep. Jim Chapman from 9:25 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., and Rep. John Tanner from 9:31 p.m. to 9:35 p.m.
A real writer would also have made readers more aware of the narrator’s point of view and his motivations. Was this a reliable or an unreliable narrator? Was Ken Starr worse than Joseph Stalin, better or about the same?
The Impeachment Express. Once the Starr Report was sent to Congress on September 9, 1998 and, two days later, published online and in major newspapers, it was a thing of beauty to behold how swiftly the Republican House moved to impeach the President. They would not have moved faster to wipe out the Ebola virus had it penetrated the men’s rooms of the U.S. Capitol. The House Judiciary Committee began its inquiry on October 5, 1998, and on December 19, the House approved two of four articles of impeachment (lying under oath to a grand jury and obstruction of justice) along party lines, voting 228-206 and 221-212.
Clinton’s popularity barely took a hit. In a Gallup poll, his personal approval reached an all-time high of 73 percent. Nearly 70 percent opposed the Senate convicting Clinton in an impeachment trial, and hardly anyone (30 percent) wanted him to resign.
Though the Senate conducted 21 days of hearings, it failed to garner the 2/3 majority needed to convict. On February 12, the vote was 55-45 on the perjury charge, and on obstruction, 50-50.
President Clinton was acquitted of high crimes and misdemeanors and served the remainder of his presidency while battling ongoing sex scandals and legal troubles that left him $16 million in debt. Monica Lewinsky finished the 20th century with a mountain of legal bills, a case of PTSD, and a name that, even then, we knew would never fade into obscurity.
It’s got legs. The legs, some might say, of a marathon runner. There have been few, if any, scandals in presidential history that have had such continuing relevance. Barely a day has gone by that the scandal and its ripples have not been seen, felt and/or revisited by huge swaths of the world population, starting with Monica Lewinsky. While Clinton’s portfolio of legal troubles grew after the acquittal (an $850,000 settlement with Paula Jones was just the beginning), the country’s troubles would take longer – and cost much more – to play out. When Al Gore refused to have Clinton campaign for him in 2000 and the election went to Bush by a five-margin electoral college vote (Gore won the popular vote), it’s widely agreed that a less tarnished Clinton could have made enough of a difference to swing it, sparing the world eight years of Bush and Cheney. As we close out 2019, Bill Clinton teeters into senior-citizenry in top shape. His net worth is about $45 million and his marriage survived. He has several grandchildren, and the prefix “President” is often spoken in front of his name.
Ken Starr’s fortunes have gone up and down, down and up. But even when they’ve been down, even after critic Renata Adler described the Starr Report, in the December 1998 Vanity Fair, as “in many ways, an utterly preposterous document: inaccurate, mindless, biased, disorganized, unprofessional, and corrupt … a voluminous work of demented pornography,” Starr lands on his feet. He thrives even after being fired from Baylor University, as president, chancellor, and finally law professor, for his flagrant inaction regarding a series of rape accusations against Baylor football players. And even after we learn, in November 2018, that he was one of the lawyers who defended pedophile Jeffrey Epstein in 2011, working along with Alan Dershowitz. Starr has enough stature and GOP public service cred to dust the dandruff off his shoulders and march on to the next high status job – these days, a law firm in Houston.
And then there is Monica.
The thousands of blowjob jokes do not age well, and who among us has not made a few dozen? All right, a few hundred.
The jokes age so poorly that some of the late-night TV comedians who made them for a living apologized to her. Bill Clinton, when asked on a recent book tour if he had apologized to her, said that he had said he was sorry in public, and that was enough. When she ran into Ken Starr in a restaurant in 2017, uncertain at first who he was (they had never met; she’d been worked over for hundreds of hours by his minions), and then determined not to run away as she would have years before, they spoke for a few awkward minutes that both of them have written about. She pointedly introduced Starr to her family, including the mother and aunt he had threatened with prosecution if they did not reveal their personal conversations with her (the threats were settled eventually with immunity deals). He had the chance in the restaurant, but he did not apologize either.
Not that apologies from them would have erased or made up for what they did to her, what they put her through, Clinton because of his libido, his narcissism, his recklessness, and his insistence that she lie about their relationship, and Ken Starr because he didn’t pack up his Special Counselor bag when the Whitewater investigation ended in 1997. Instead, Starr petitioned to expand the investigation into Clinton’s sex life, which he pursued with a perverse zeal that is evident in every line of the Starr Report, including the table of contents:
Nature of President Clinton’s Relationship with Monica Lewinsky
B. Evidence Establishing Nature of Relationship
C. Sexual Contacts
D. Emotional Attachment
E. Conversations and Phone Messages
1. Mutual Understanding
2. Cover Stories
3. Steps to Avoid Being Seen or Heard
4. Ms. Lewinsky’s Notes and Letters
5. Ms. Lewinsky’s Evaluation of Their Secrecy Efforts
If this were a story created by a fiction writer tasked now with the “what became of Monica?” chapter, the writer would likely not come up with the bleakness of the truth unless she were, say, Margaret Atwood writing a cautionary tale à la The Handmaid’s Tale. Philip Roth, that great rewriter of history, addressed Monica’s troubles in The Human Stain, and said that if only Clinton and Monica had had anal sex instead of oral sex, the affair would have been kept secret. Monica would never have shared confidences with Linda Tripp or anyone else. Voilà – case closed. He doesn’t offer an alternate ending to what really happened, but surely most fiction writers would have introduced a deus ex machina or two that would have pointed Monica’s life in another, gentler direction.
After dropping out of sight in the early aughts for ten years, Monica emerged on Twitter in 2014 and in a TED talk in 2015, “The Price of Shaming,” that’s been viewed by nine million people. Presenting herself now as an anti-bullying activist, she’s notably well-coifed, bright- eyed, articulate, and full of good humor – and regret – about the mistakes she made when she was twenty-two. And she talks about herself in a way I hadn’t understood when the scandal broke – as “patient zero” of the Internet shaming machine, which is now a thriving industry. She describes “losing her personal reputation overnight” as the result of the first major news story broken online rather than in traditional media. I hadn’t known that the right wing Drudge Report had broken the story after Newsweek killed the piece that its reporter, Michael Isikoff, had uncovered.
Though this is surely a media scoop worth mentioning, my own sense as a consumer of news was that the story would have caught fire just as quickly, and burned just as brightly, if it had broken in Newsweek. But from that day forward, life was never the same for Monica, and it’s worth noting and accepting that, from where she sat, the Internet intensified the flames.
News traveled faster and wider, and everyone could hurl comments at her and about her. For the rest of us, it’s hard to imagine that her experience was actually worse than what we could guess from turning on the nightly news and reading The Times.
It is haunting to hear her speak now about the mortification she felt when the Starr Report came out online, two days after being given to Congress, and the particular horror of seeing that anyone with a computer could listen to tapes of her that Linda Tripp secretly recorded for Ken Starr’s benefit. It is horrifying to hear that as part of “the investigation,” Starr’s henchmen made her listen to all twenty hours of these tapes, in order to “authenticate” them. It is horrifying to read, as I did recently, that Starr’s men threatened her with 27 years in jail if she did not cooperate. In 2019, when Paul Manafort was sentenced to 47 months in jail, Monica tweeted: “I was threatened with 27 years for filing a false affidavit + other actions trying desperately to keep an affair private.”
In March 2018, she penned a moving personal essay in Vanity Fair, “Emerging from the House of Gaslight in the Age of #MeToo,” about her new understanding that, given the age and power differential between herself and Clinton, “the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.” We learn that she has had years of “personal-counseling work (both trauma-specific and spiritual)” and that “I meet Regret every day.” That though “the Internet was a bête noir” to her in 1998, “its stepchild – social media – has been a savior for millions of women (notwithstanding all the cyberbullying, online harassment, doxing, and slut-shaming).” She recognizes that “virtually anyone can share her or his #MeToo story and be instantly welcomed into a tribe.” As it has for many women, #MeToo has made her feel less alone.
A year later, in an episode on public shaming on Last Week Tonight, John Oliver broadcast a 20-minute interview he did with Monica. It’s worth watching for many reasons, not least of which is her appealing sense of humor and her explanation of the difficulties she had trying to “put being Monica Lewinsky behind me and move on to be so-and-so’s employee.” In 2005, she got a Masters Degree in Social Psychology at the London School of Economics, and returned home to look for a job.
She told Oliver: “Either someone offered me a job for the wrong reasons, like, oh You’ll be coming to our events and there’ll be media there. Or people saying the opposite to me. They’d say, Could you get a letter of indemnification from the Clintons because we rely on government money and Hillary might be president. So there was this wide range of not being able to support myself and also have a purpose, which is equally important. To feel that you matter.”
She doesn’t reveal how she puts food on the table, but her Twitter biography contains a few clues:
Her Twitter page has a small round photograph of herself – with a radiant smile – against a dull salmon background with these words in teal green, as large as they can be and still fit into the box:
As this piece goes to press, it’s just been announced that Monica has been hired to produce an episode of FX’s American Crime Story, which will dramatize the impeachment, and which she was reluctant to agree to. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the producer of the show, Ryan Murphy, lured her back to the territory she’d wanted to escape: “I told her, ‘Nobody should tell your story but you, and it’s kind of gross if they do. If you want to produce it with me, I would love that; but you should be the producer and you should make all the goddam money.”
What compelled her to say yes? I’d guess the respect, the money, the enticement of a complicated project on which she is an expert. Who knows what it’s like to be Monica Lewinsky, or to have been her way back then, but nearly everyone can remember falling hard for the wrong person – maybe even the worst possible person – and many of us can remember how insanely seductive Bill Clinton was, even from afar.
Producing the TV show isn’t the happy ending Jane Austen would have written for Monica.
It isn’t the happy ending that Monica would have written for her own life. And of course this isn’t the ending. It’s where we are 20 years after the Impeachment, two years into #MeToo, and at an historic moment when a number of hugely impressive women are running for President of the United States, none of them related to former presidents. All I feel confident saying is that if Gallup did a poll comparing the public’s approval of Monica Lewinsky to Bill Clinton and Ken Starr, I have no doubt who would come out on top.