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Monica Lewinsky, Maureen Dowd, and 'the concept of a private life'

For the past week or so, I've spent a surprising amount of time thinking about Monica Lewinsky. What's more surprising is that I think it has been time well spent.

I should start by saying that I was in high school, and not much interested in politics, when Bill Clinton was impeached. What I knew about the scandal came mostly in the form of jokes and sketches on Saturday Night Live. (I remember watching John Goodman as Linda Tripp, and I remember not being sure who Linda Tripp was.) So it has always been background for me. I'm a little too old to be a "millennial," but I can affirm that what Jeremy Stahl says at Slate is true: "There will be an entire voting bloc in 2016 with limited memory [of] or interest in Lewinskygate." His unnamed colleague speaks for me when she says, "The whole scandal remains opaque to me to this day....  I guess I should read up on it and inform myself, but it just seems so silly in hindsight that I wouldn’t waste my time.”

Still, now that Lewinsky has resurfaced with an article in Vanity Fair, I have found myself reading a number of think-pieces about her legacy, mostly by people in my general age cohort (people whose adult lives and careers came after the impeachment mess had ended). And it turns out most of us, if we think about it at all, feel pretty sorry for Ms. Lewinsky. After all, Bill Clinton came through that mess all right, and stands tall today as an elder statesman and personification of successful Democratic government -- which is why what was, at the time, a major upheaval can look, in retrospect, like a "silly" distraction from the big events of recent U.S. history.

I don't subscribe to Vanity Fair and so have not read Lewinsky's essay. I did, however, admire the analysis of Rebecca Traister, a senior editor at the New Republic. She is perceptive about Lewinsky's shortcomings as a commentator -- "there are certainly inconsistencies in her argument about her attempts to escape notoriety" -- as well as convincing in her argument that, as the title has it, "Monica Lewinsky Is the Perfect Person to Kick Off the Conversation about Hillary Clinton's Presidency."

The facts of Clinton’s liaison with Lewinsky remain; it was complicated, ugly. And if his wife runs for president, the right is going to make hay of her husband’s fraught legacy of alleged sexual impropriety and harassment.

It’s vastly preferable to have this conversation kicked off in earnest by Lewinsky, a person who has more right than anyone—and certainly more right than any of the Republicans who once wielded her as a weapon and now shake their curly heads sorrowfully over the sexual predation she suffered—to offer her take on the events of two decades ago.

Not only, I would add, does Lewinsky have the right to offer her take; she has very little choice in the matter. What can she do but go on being Monica Lewinsky? What graceful exit from infamy did she have access to? Yes, she was the author of her own downfall. But it's hard to get excited about throwing stones at her if you are conscious of having made your own much-lower-profile stupid mistakes in your early twenties. Most of us manage to move on from early screwups and build secure adult lives. Thanks to the public airing of her assignations with Clinton, Lewinsky didn't have that option.

The whole thing has always been a tough case for feminists -- was Hillary a hero for surviving, or a sellout for standing by her man? Or maybe the perceived need to take a side is a symptom of the problem that feminism should be trying to overcome? Looking back, Traister is clear-eyed about what Hillary and Monica had in common:

In the fervid investigation and coverage of it, both women got hammered—as slutty and frigid, overweight and ugly, dumb and monstrous. They each became cartoons of dismissible femininity—the sexually defined naïf and the calculating, sexless aggressor, characters who illustrated the ways that sex—sex that’s had by men as well—always redounds negatively on women. These two women weren’t at odds; they were in it together.

It's hard to talk about contemporary coverage of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair and not talk about my favorite columnist, the New York Times's Maureen Dowd, who, in 1999, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary "for her fresh and insightful columns on the impact of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky." The columns she won that prize for are available online to this day, and it turns out they read more or less exactly like you think they would. In particular, her reliance on stale gender roles and sexist assumptions was as prominent and conflicted and sour then as it is now.

On that subject, Slate's Amanda Hess has a comprehensive roundup of "how Maureen Dowd painted Monica Lewinsky as a crazy bimbo—and won a Pulitzer for it." She quotes a stream of Dowdian mean-girl insults masquerading as serious political commentary, but what's most galling is the way Dowd started out objecting to just that mode of analysis. "It is probably just a matter of moments before we hear that Ms. Lewinsky is a little nutty and a little slutty," she predicted, before deciding that the easiest course for a columnist like her would be to lead the jeering and snickering. And now that Lewinsky is back in the news, Dowd -- who really never stopped revisiting her own career highlights in the form of references to That Woman -- is striking an innocent pose. She wrote last week, "There’s something poignant about a 40-year-old frozen like a fly in amber for something reckless she did in her 20s, while the unbreakable Clintons bulldoze ahead." Lewinsky once objected, in person, to Dowd's "scathing" depiction of her in her columns, but the way Dowd remembers it, "I felt sorry for her."

She had a funny way of showing it. Let the record show that Dowd couldn't stop holding Monica Lewinsky up for ridicule, even when Lewinsky had not obliged her by doing anything ridiculous in public. She imagined Lewinsky mooning over Clinton, raging like a sexpot scorned, and -- of course -- being fat, and then she blamed Lewinsky for being such a ripe target (i.e., "Why are you hitting yourself?"). In a column headlined "Monica Gets Her Man," Dowd sneered, "The 25-year-old says she is eager to get on with her life. But does she still dream that her life will include an ex-President named Bill?" For some reason, it was very important to Dowd to assume that the answer was yes. And now, as Hess says, Dowd "appears unaware that it’s the caricature she helped to build that’s still haunting Lewinsky after all these years."

If the Lewinsky scandal were unfolding now, I might not be able to muster much compassion for the woman at the center of the circus. I can understand why it was difficult to step back from the Starr Report and the inanities in the Tripp transcripts and see the real, mortified human being behind the blue dress and beret -- to see her as someone's daughter, or even as someone like yourself, caught by a toxic confluence of youthful stupidity and political machinations. The circumstances of Lewinsky's particular foolishness were so peculiar and so hard to fathom for most civilians, and the melodrama that grew up around her was so ridiculously out of proportion, and the political stakes were high enough to obscure the human ones. I know it's easier from this distance to regret how it all played out. But even when the frenzy was in full swing, I can't believe that bringing Lewinsky up week after week just to revel in tearing her back down, junior-high style, was ever the most "fresh and insightful" way to cover the scandal. And was it really so hard, even then, to imagine that, having endured unimaginable humiliation and having seen her own name become a punchline to a dirty joke, Lewinsky might honestly have wanted to just "get on with her life"? It's as though Dowd was so convinced by the cartoon she'd drawn that she found Lewinsky's claim to three-dimensional personhood proof of how very cartoonish she was.

After Hess's piece went up, blogger Dennis Earl pulled a few more examples of "slut-shaming" from Dowd's archives, including her complaint that "Monica still doesn’t seem to appreciate the concept of a private life." Imagine! And via Earl, I discovered this long, very thoughtful essay by D.C. journalist Jake Tapper, which is a rare example of someone showing compassion for Monica Lewinsky at the time of her humiliation, instead of fifteen-plus years later. He wrote it in 1998, at the height of the frenzy, and the title "I Dated Monica Lewinsky" suggests that he's joining the pile-on. But in fact, having known her socially, as a peer, makes it possible for him to see her as a person, "a girl I'd gone out on a date with a few weeks before" who was caught up in something awful, rather than as -- how did Dowd put it? --  "the Gen-X Leech Woman, the indefatigably exhibitionistic Monica Lewinsky, who insists, all her alleged humiliation notwithstanding, on not going away."

Maureen Dowd may have started out objecting to "the slander strategy." But within the year she had convinced herself Lewinsky only got what she deserved.

It may be de trop to punish this President with impeachment or resignation. In his case, the punishment is the crime. Monica will never let him go....

It will not be in the way she envisioned, but she will get to ride off into the sunset with her man after all. Monica Lewinsky is Bill Clinton's legacy. They are linked together forever and ever.

In its own way, it's a perfect ending.

Looking at how the respective parties have fared in the scandal's long wake, it's hard for me to see that as a fresh and insightful take. But I suppose it depends on how consistent you like your feminism and how complex you like your columnists. I'm much more impressed with Tapper's reflection: "She may be guilty of poor judgment, but she never asked for this." Meanwhile, Dowd is back to shaking her finger at the silly younger woman she feels sorry for: "Monica," she warns, "is in danger of exploiting her own exploitation." Yes, and good luck to her. People like Dowd worked hard to make sure that was the only choice she'd ever have.


Commenting Guidelines

Again....we forget the core issue; namely Paula Jones' right to an open an  honest presentation of the evidence to support her claim that because she refused then Gov. Clinton's sexual advancements, she suffered in her career advancement.

Alan Dershowitz argued that Clinton's lawyer was grossly negligent and that he should hav never put him on the stand to be deposed. Better to default on the case. And alanDershowitz actually agreed with Ken Starr.

This is not about private affairs as damaging as those are in real life. I don't think Jim J has any real life experience or he would not so breezily dismiss this as sinners having much more fun.

i just cringe when I hear Monica but if she wants to make this a consensual affair so be it. Saving face and all that.

As for W and the Iraq war. Both the senate and house voted to authorize militar action if necessary. It's called check and balances for a reason. 

The president is not an emperor - that is the genius of the American system. Speaking of which, why has there been no action on curtailing executive authority to wage war. Obama's appeal to congress wrt Syria was indeed visionary and a very good lasting legacy - like Benedict resigning, he voluntary scaled back executive authority.

Finally, the last thing the world needs is more US bullying so please pass a resolution that the only controlling authority for international military action is the United Nations.



@  Helen:  I believe that is a what they call in the business:  "a set-up."  Excuse me if I don't take the bait.

Something tells me Helen that you very well understand the English language as your mother taught it to you.  If not, consult your dictionary.

I wrote what I wrote.  I meant what I said.

"As for W and the Iraq war. Both the senate and house voted to authorize militar action if necessary. It's called check and balances for a reason. "

!. Rumsfeld said the reason for the war was 9/11. W did not disagree

2. This was a preemptive war. Virtually unheard of in American history.

3. No major allies were on board.

4. Congress votes on poles. Not conscience. Fault Hilary here also.

5.Many liberals backed this war. It was unbelievableolic 

6. The Catholic neocons marched to Rome hoping to persuade JPII. To his credit he denied Neuhaus, Weigel, Novac and Co.

7. The Iraq war was a total shame and failure. Led by "mission accomlished" the worst president in American history.

"Finally, the last thing the world needs is more US bullying so please pass a resolution that the only controlling authority for international military action is the United Nations.

Now you're talking. As if the neocons would listen.

I'd like to know why Alan Dershowitz thinks Clinton's lawyer shouldn't have let him testify.  Clinton's lawyers argued before the Supreme Court that Paula Jones' sexual-harassment suit should be suspended until Clinton left office--and the Supremes denied that request.  

So Clinton really didn't have a choice of whether or not to testify; he was ordered to by the highest court in the land.  Since Dershowitz's law practice is mostly appellate cases, he of all lawyers should know that.

Thanks to Jim Jenkins for his translation of "La traviata" -- the first opera I got to know, without ever finding a good translation of its title. What a difference it would have made if this piece had pursued its glorious career under the telling title of "The Fallen Woman"!

Irritated by the buckets of tears shed by sentimentalists over his opera, Verdi remarked, "After all, she's only a prostitute!"

Recycling the Monica story may paradoxically shore up Hillary's chances in 2016, reminding Americans of the great aspects of the Clinton presidency and also of how well Hillary handled the domestic scandal. 

As to Clinton being a sexual opportunist, I recall him confessing this publicly at a prayer breakfast, in rather edifying tones, like King David (the cynic in me murmuring, "If you can fake that....")

Jim J. --

You're really hard up for a defense when you have to advise me to go out and sin so Jesus will love me.  

Jean --

To young people history is news.

Dershowitz said that Bennet should have been sued for malpractice. There was simply no way that Bill Clinton could walk in to that deposition and testify truthfully. They were provided with the list of witnesses who they were going to ask about. Monica Lewinsky was on that list. It would take five minutes to figure out she was an intern at the Whitehouse and another five minutes to figure out that the defence had something on them. Bennet knew his history; everyone knew his history. In fact, this is precisely why Clinton referred Monica to a lawyer to write out a false affadavit. He figured that he covered all the bases and the tracks were clean.

Of course, Bennet later wrote to the judge saying he had no knowledge that Clinton was going to lie under oath and had no pre-knowledge of the sexual relationship. Legally, he has to do that as it is, apparently, illegal for a lawyer to knowingly support a client in perjuring themselves.

Dershowitz's point was that a lawyer must protect his client and is also an officer of the court. So there is a dual obligation and an ethical obligation (don't laugh).

Dershowitz, when asked what he would have done, said default on the case, settle but under absolutely no circumstances would he ever permit him to testify because there is simply no way he can do so truthfully. And he didn't.

I was involved in an ethics class at the time, and as Ann mentioned, this was a very useful case study to discuss various ethical issues in real time (at the time).


Ah Abe, you clearly have failed to grasp the gravitas of the topic under discussion....wait....perhaps I should have said gravity....they're so similar.

Goodness, if it had not been Clinton it would have been someone else in power taking the opportunity to exercise extremely bad judgement.  If it has not been Lewinsky it would have been someone else looking to move up the food chain.  Why this topic deserves anything like serious consideration is beyond understanding.  Have all you mature, experienced, highly educated, eloquent folks completely forgotten just how spellbinding sex was in your youth?

My only real,defensible complaint is my anger at the two for showing such disrespect for our home, the White House.

Might Be:

You are aware that sexual harrasment and misconduct (and that is defined as an executive having sex with a subordinate) has lost people their jobs. There are examples that I am aware of just in my small hamlet. I know there have been others. I also know that in many instances there is no action taken.

At issue is fairness, evaluation, and how we assess these kinds of issues. What are ethical standards of conduct? How are they enforced? Who decides? What constitutes professional misconduct meriting dismissal.

This situation is a case study in that very issue.

If you want to dismiss this as so much triviality, then we might as well dismiss the entire tradition of employees signing codes of conduct, of ethical review panels for professional associations, and any and all sexual harrasment legislation.

By all accounts Dominique Strauss-Kahn was a competent executive at the IMF. What forced him to lose his job was private sexual misconduct that became public. Was that also prudish?





Have all you mature, experienced, highly educated, eloquent folks completely forgotten just how spellbinding sex was in your youth?

Not me. But then, I am neither mature nor experienced nor highly educated nor eloquent, so maybe that's how. 


As to the OP, my views on the two key figures, plus one issue referenced in its title:

1. Monica Lewinsky: I don't have anything to say, good, bad or otherwise, except that I pity her.

2. Mauren Dowd: her writing style reminds of Gossip Girl.

3. the concept of a private life: the thing about private life is that presumably, nobodywants their privacy invaded, except when said invasion entails positive news stories about yourself. Then, hardly anybody complains. Such strange creatures, humans are.





I had missed that Jim Jenkins wrote that "It's hard to miss the nascent envy underneath the thin veneer of rectitude on display here."

Once upon a time, way, way back before anybody remembers anything, in the early 1980s, a summer law clerk complained to her supervisor at a toney law firm about a summer event in which all the female law students were asked to participate in a wet t-shirt contest.  Supervisor smirked and said that she was complaining only because whe was envious of the other contestants and knew she couldn't win. 

You mean that kind of envy?

@ Barbara:  I think "You mean that kind of envy."

Sure Jim, I get it, you think you are the voice of reason, and taking the high road, when, so far as I can see, you wrote something ill-considered and don't want to clarify.  Whatever.

First of all, I'm not joking: the Billy Joel stuff makes me want to puke death.

Second, I once spent a weekend at a cabin with Monica Lewisnky (um, other people were there, too). This was only a year or so after the Starr stuff. Actually, what I normally first tell people about concerning that vacation is that I saw a wolf eat a deer. That was a lot more interesting than Monica.

Abe- you can't throw out there that you vacationed with Monica Lewinsky and just leave us hanging.


We don't have a policy against quoting Billy Joel lyrics (something we should perhaps revisit). Nor do we have a policy against missing the point, or praising Maureen Dowd, or posturing as a feminist and then saying obviously sexist things (in part because that's hard to distinguish from "praising Maureen Dowd"). But we do have a general policy against being egregiously snotty and/or insulting. I probably shouldn't have allowed Jim Jenkins's first comment on this thread. Mea culpa. I won't be allowing any more.

Abe total thread drift but my quasi ADD can't help it. Once ice fishing, I had seen a deer on the ice and wolves running away as they had heard us coming. Apparently, wolves chase deer on ice where they have a hard time moving. Also. wolves luring dogs occurred when I lived in the country and was a problem.

They are truly fascinating animals; understandably an object of primal fear as they are just so cunning and run in packs but also very interesting in terms of dynamics of team work. The role of the alpha male and female, how packs break-up, the rare lone wolf.

Oh, and to bring it back the the subject at hand, in the main, they are actually monogamous!

P.S. Abe: I heard the deer was asking for it.

Oh, deer me! Wolf eats deer. Dog bites man. Bear behaves unspeakably in the woods. Man and woman do stuff together. What a world! Where are my smelling salts? I think I need to lie down.

You heterosexuals have ALL the fun!

I think that she was not aware of the consequences ;that she would deeply injure Bill,his wife and herself.I also don't think that she did it for ambition but for the romatic/lustful thrill of it.Is adultery wrong?Well of course;it violates the commandant because  it harms people.For that she sinned;objectively.She does not justify it now,but regrets it. I admire her for not blaming him when she could have gotten alot of sympathy had she done that. Was it wrong for her to pursue him since he 's married? yes of course. However it is forgiveable and considering her youth and position vis a vis him,understandable that she would risk so  much for the perceived satisfaction of having an affair with him.For her partuicular situation at that time-I don't see it as a grave matter subjectively,in her case. I do admire her for taking a risk regarding something she freally wanted-since it was mutual.But yes it was wrong ethically .

Yes,Ann; adultery counts as very serious in my book.But when you're 20 and an intern at the white house and the president is attractive and flirts.In that case-it's still wrong-but not THAT wrong, to paraphrase Augustine.

John Prior's last was the best thing on here.

But I like Abe's party crashing, with or without expletives, his threats to puke on something, and his general lack of decorum. But, then, I miss my dear departed Uncle Dick who used to show up late and half-drunk on Christmas Eve with the announcement: "Here I am! Let's get this f***er started!" Everyone instantly felt better, if only because he made the rest of us look good and gave my grandmother something to deplore, which was one of her favorite pasttimes.


I too would enjoy Christmas Eve with Jean Hughes Raber.  Sounds like my family.