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Revisiting the Clinton/Lewinsky affair

There have been a bunch of projects reexamining Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern in the late 1990s.

There have been a bunch of projects reexamining Bill Clinton’s affair with a White House intern in the late 1990s. I listened to the second season of Slowburn and watched this docuseries too. I was 11 when the affair was revealed in 1998. I remember that year well because Kildare made it to the All Ireland Final which was obviously a big deal! I have vague memories of talk of blowjobs on RTE news. In part, my generation got its sex education from sex scandals. 

Lewinsky was treated appallingly by almost everyone. Maureen Dowd won a Pulitzer for slut shaming a 22 year old. She called her a ‘narcissistic doo da’. People talked about ‘another eruption of mount bimbo’. Katie Couric asked if she was a predatory girl. The kindest thing I could say about the media is that it was “unsophisticated”. They didn’t seem to have the cultural or conceptual language to convey what happened. We can’t limit this to the news media either. It was everywhere - talk shows, rap songs, Saturday Night Live. For 20+ years, this woman’s name has been a punchline. Clinton lied and denied it. Lying bought him time. Contemporaneous opinion polls show that the electorate supported him. His presidency survived. He still doesn’t seem to get it. 

Women shouldn’t be responsible for the bad behaviour of men. Neither his wife nor his mistress should have to answer for Bill Clinton’s sexual misconduct. Whether or not, a consensual affair “qualifies” as an abuse of power when the man is POTUS and the woman is an unpaid intern seems entirely beside the point to me. Even as I type these words, I feel myself sinking into the combative sinkhole that has kept this question alive for two decades. 

This has been positioned as a wedge issue which divides people along gender and generational lines. I’m not interested in that fight. I think we can all agree that what happened was wrong. We didn’t need to know the intimate details to know that. I’m conscious too that this has become a cultural touchstone, something that signifies much more than the unique experiences of the people involved. But we’re still talking about a young woman whose life was irrevocably changed by what happened. She’s not a punchline or a symbol. She’s a person with a right to her own life. We owe Monica Lewinsky an apology. 

If I’ve any critique of the these projects, it’s that they sometimes place their bafflement at Bill Clinton's behaviour as their central driving question. He was under investigation for multiple allegations of sexual harassment and rape when he began the affair. He’s a smart guy. How could he be so stupid? I’m not that interested in the psychology of sexual predators. I’m much more interested in hearing from women. If you’d like to read more, Monica’s TED talk and her pieces in Vanity Fair are a great place to start. 


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