It's been twenty-five chock-full years for women and our issues since the Bill Clinton Scandal (I refuse to refer to it as the Monica Lewinsky Scandal) took center stage in our national conversation.
On September 20th, 1998, The New Yorker put forth an article about the exploitation of Monica Lewinsky, with a focus on Ken Starr's outrageous assault on more than Monica's character. Rebecca Mead, the author of this extraordinary piece, likened Starr's attack to a sexual assault—which (let's face it), in 1998, was not the way others were perceiving it. For that, let's give a shoutout to Rebecca Mead; she was ahead of her time.
Some quotes from her piece for you to ponder, all these years later.
"...the report does, nonetheless, reveal in vivid detail the relentless sexual exploitation of a young woman who has been cornered by an older, vastly more powerful man. The man in question is Kenneth Starr, and his report isn’t an account of sexual abuse; it is sexual abuse. It’s a metaphorical mugging of Lewinsky."
"Substitute sexual intercourse for the verbal intercourse in which Starr forced Lewinsky to participate, and the whole investigation looks very much like an assault. First, Starr drives Lewinsky to bare herself to him, pressuring her with months of intimidatory leaks, threats, and proxy roughings up (as in the subpoenaing of Lewinsky’s mother, Marcia Lewis, who, with her expensively youthful appearance, made a fine stand-in for her daughter). He ransacks her computer not just for her correspondence but for evidence of her private thoughts, rooting out drafts of letters she apparently had no intention of sending. He rifles through her closet, trophy-hunting. And he compels her, in her grand-jury testimony, to speak with a specificity somewhere between the pornographic and the gynecological. The report doesn’t tell us precisely what Starr’s people asked her; he used the trick, cravenly familiar to all journalists, of omitting those tawdry questions which prompted the revelations."
Then take a moment to remember that Monica was held for hours without counsel or the use of her phone while being hammered, hammered I tell you, by Starr's squad as they sought to get her to cave. She didn't. When I think back on those hours now, I realize what a strong person she was—an image that stands in contrast to the broken adolescent we all heard in the secret recordings made by her friend-turned-enemy. But let's leave her name out of it for now.
Monica went on to rebuild her life. She designed handbags. She is a thoughtful commentator about online bullying, with a strong point of view that often uncovers subtle insights that others would miss. She is a valued member of Twitter, commenting with strength and dignity on her life's error, which began before her teens had ended, and which played out in front of a nation that vilified her long before she was convicted. Oh, wait—she was never convicted, because she committed no crime. Yet the press refused to publish anything other than that which would make us see her as the villain rather than the victim.
Was she a bit of both? Maybe… But does that matter?
Twenty-five years ago, Monica was all but damned in the eyes of the public; today, she has reclaimed a position of credibility and is a valued, respected voice in public commentary. How did she do it?
Here is what Monica did right.
Monica took responsibility for her actions, never once adding the dreaded 'but,' which only diminishes one’s apologies and acknowledgments of one’s mistakes. She never once blamed anyone other than herself—although now, in hindsight and with our increased awareness of the dynamics between power and pawns, she sees that he was using his power to get what he wanted from her. But in spite of this, she drew a line in the sand about what she would and wouldn’t say, and she has never crossed it. This has been no small feat. Trust me, I would have caved the moment I heard, “Hello, this is the Justice Department and you are in hot water big time.”
She communicated well. She did. You think it was easy to sit on that stand and answer sexual questions that should never have been asked? She was calm, chose her words carefully, and exhibited an incredible amount of poise for someone her age—never mind the fact that this drama was unfolding on a global stage, which she had zero preparation or desire to stand on.
Courage? Seriously? Let me say it again, I would have been in a fetal position on the floor of my parent's home and they would have had to drag me to court with a crane. Yes, she was courageous.
For his part, Starr’s line of inquiry was nowhere near righteous, or even just. Up to his old bullying tricks and 'facts' that belong in the 'fiction' category instead. And Clinton? He has done great things in his life, but his latest statement on the Lewinsky affair still comes up short of acknowledging his role in it all.
Over the last quarter decade, Monica has acted in a manner consistent with how she would want to be remembered. Bill Clinton still can't get it right. Glamour did a piece that sizes this up better than I could.
Clinton, however, is still making it about him.
"One of the things that this Me Too era has done is that it's forced a lot of women to speak out. One of those women is Monica Lewinsky," interviewer Craig Melvin says. "She wrote in an op-ed that the Me Too movement changed her view of sexual harassment….Looking back on what happened and through the lens of Me Too now, do you think differently or feel more responsibility?"
"I felt terrible then. And I came to grips with it," Clinton said. When asked if he's ever apologized, Clinton said that he hasn't talked to Lewinsky personally, but has apologized "to everyone in the world."
“Nobody believes that I got out of that for free. I left the White House $16 million in debt," he says. "But you typically have ignored gaping facts in describing this. And I bet you don't even know that. This was litigated 20 years ago, and two thirds of the American people sided with me.”
Seriously? All about him. Not once a note of apology to Monica, who, but for the dress, would have been dead and buried forever—just another ‘crazy girl.’
When I look now at the young woman we all debased all those years ago, I say we should all join hands and appreciate her entry into the circle of sisterhood. I would take a moment to thank her for not crawling into a hole of obscurity—which no one would have blamed her for doing. Instead, she made amends for her part in it all, and in doing so rose above the others, who we can safely say are still in the mud.
Thanks, Monica. I salute you.
Daily To Do
Send Monica a message if you are on Twitter, telling her how wrong the nation got it all those years ago, and thanking her for standing tall, proud, and calm.
Mention her to someone with the new perspective we now have on how this whole debacle rolled out.
Watch her interview around her new bullying/self-bullying campaign and forward to someone who might find it interesting.
Watch her Ted Talk around shame. It will shame you for how you judged her those years ago.
Follow Rebecca Mead and forward her articles. She is a good human and sheds light on issues, not darkness.
Let’s look to her for how to behave when you worst moment is hanging on the line for the world to magnify.
Our founder, Christine Merser, is also the writer of Democracy Daily, a daily column giving insight and a to-do list to make sure each of us participates in democracy in a positive way. Click here to subscribe.