December 1, 2018

The Shaming of Monica Lewinsky

Monica Lewinsky 2014 IDA Awards (cropped)
Mingle Media TV [CC BY-SA 2.0], Wikimedia Commons
Roughly a month or two ago, I watched the Watergate mini-series on The History Channel. I thought it was interesting, and I found that there was quite a bit about the whole thing that I did not know. I guess that it not surprising given that I was too young to remember any of it, never learned about it in school, and never made any real effort to do so later in life. I was familiar with the broad strokes of what happened but had little idea about many of the details. I found it particularly interesting to hear how Nixon's advisors rationalized their behavior. And I could help noticing that antagonism between an elected president and the mainstream news media is nothing new.

More recently, I finally got around to watching The Clinton Affair on A&E. It was good too, although I was much more familiar with the story here. I remember much of it since I was old enough to be paying attention to such things at the time. And of course, I've heard plenty about it since in the form of anti-Clinton conspiracy theories pushed by some conservatives. Much like the Nixon scandal, this one pissed me off. The difference was that there were so many more targets for my outrage here. The Clinton's certainly did not come off looking good. They looked corrupt in many ways that had little to do with the Lewinsky affair. And even though I agree that a president's marital infidelities are not terribly important, the level of deceit, cover-up, and lying turned it into something that became important.

Beyond Bill Clinton's behavior, though, it was easy to be outraged at the Republicans for their quest to bring him down whatever it took and how they turned what initially looked like a valuable investigation into the Clintons' corruption into what it became. It was even easier to be outraged at the political left for how they treated Monica Lewinsky. Much like the right sought to destroy the Clintons, far too many on the left sought to destroy Lewinsky. And for what? She reluctantly told the truth about Clinton's behavior. She was #MeToo before there was a #MeToo, and she paid a high price for it.

At the time news of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair was first becoming public, I remember virtually all the late-night talk shows mocking Lewinsky. She was the butt of nearly every joke. Her sexual history was used to make wild claims that she sought an internship at the White House mostly with the goal of seducing Clinton. She was treated even worse than Paula Jones had been, but most of the same themes were present. This was a powerful example of what contemporary feminists would call "slut shaming." I think they had that term back then, but it was apparently okay when it was done to women who were perceived as threatening politicians they liked.

As for Lewinsky, I thought she came across fairly well in this series. And even if that wasn't the case, it would take quite a bit to convince me that she deserved everything that came her way back then. In the recent #MeToo movement, we have learned quite a bit about why many women who are subjected to sexual harassment, assault, or other forms of misconduct do not immediately report it. Revising the Clinton scandal made me wonder why we did not hear more about Lewinsky as an example of what can happen when a woman bravely comes forward to report this sort of thing.

I expect that it might not take as many years after the end of the Trump administration before we see a TV mini-series about it. We'll probably see one even if there is no real proof of a scandal along the lines of Nixon or Clinton. It would have high public interest and generate high ratings for whoever broadcast it. As for "we the people," I imagine we'll just continue to wonder how we keep ending up with people like this in office.