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.

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.

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