Bill Clinton questioned on Lewinsky fallout

Former President Bill Clinton defended himself from recent criticism on his affair with Monica Lewinsky, telling NBC's "Today" he never reached out to the former White House intern following the scandal.

Posted: Jun 4, 2018 8:05 PM
Updated: Jun 4, 2018 8:05 PM

I was disappointed to see that former President Bill Clinton admitted on "Today" that he has never personally apologized to Monica Lewinsky. His former intern and lover deserves better.

First let me be clear that I don't think their consensual affair was morally wrong or a "sin," in Clinton's parlance. That's not for me to say. While Clinton abused the power of his office, he did not, by any of Lewinsky's accounts, coerce her into sexual activity. I'll also start with an apology of my own: I apologize if my first published erotica story, the one that launched my erotic writing career, "Monica and Me," a fictional account of a woman named Rachel and the titular Ms. Lewinsky, contributed to a culture of objectification. That was never my intention, but rather to explore my fascination with Lewinsky's then-image as a fun-loving woman about town, one who'd been wronged on a mass scale.

Where Bill Clinton failed Monica Lewinsky was in later stating on national television, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."

I heard Lewinsky speak at a charity lunch at a Boca Raton JCC last year. While her specific remarks were confidential, and largely echoed her TED Talk, "The Price of Shame," what I clearly recall is that even almost 20 years later, she still felt anguish over the way she and her family were treated by Ken Starr. That pain could have been avoided had Clinton been more honest and honorable.

His statement to "Today" touts his accomplishments as a politician, including the number of women in his Cabinet, and that two-thirds of the American public sided with him. He also said that he apologized "to everyone in the world." But these attempts to justify himself show he doesn't understand the very real, long-lasting harm he did to a young woman who had the power of the government pressuring her so intensely that her mother made her shower with the door open out of concern for her safety.

Somehow, Clinton seems even decades later to have a persecution complex around his own mistakes (as does our current president). Yes, his legacy was tarnished. Yes, he left the White House in debt, as he mentioned on "Today." Yes, he helped ruin his wife's chances of becoming president herself. He was punished, but Lewinsky was punished far more harshly -- because she's a woman whose sex life was made public.

In her debut 2014 Vanity Fair essay, Lewinsky recounted the trouble she's had finding employment since the scandal, her famous name a hindrance no matter what industry she attempted to join.

Neither Clinton nor Lewinsky can change history, though I imagine both would go back and do things much differently. Nobody is asking for Clinton to spend the rest of his life offering an exaggerated mea culpa. But for an apology to be truly effective, it needs to be made to the right person, likely in private to truly clear the air.

Sadly, Clinton's dismissive attitude is one that's echoed by the larger culture. In that same interview, Clinton's co-author, James Patterson, said, "Let's talk about JFK, let's talk about LBJ. Stop already" in the middle of discussing Lewinsky. What do dead presidents' affairs have to do with this specific case?

It was just a few weeks ago that Town & Country magazine disinvited Lewinsky from a social change summit because Clinton had just RSVPed to present an award to Parkland school shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez. While the magazine later issued an apology, the damage had been done.

Lewinsky deserves to live an adult life that isn't completely subsumed by her past. We all collectively need to move on from jokes about the beret or blue dress. I admire the fact that she's used her notoriety for good as an anti-bullying ambassador.

Our culture has made great strides since 1998 around women's sexual autonomy. The #MeToo movement has flourished under a president who has bragged about grabbing women by our genitals. But we've been less clear about what to do with cases like Lewinsky, where she, by her own account, fell in love with her boss.

Some believe Clinton wronged the American people. I don't agree. But I think it's undeniable that he wronged Lewinsky by lying and obfuscating about minutiae regarding the definition of the word "is." By doing so, he allowed our culture to run wild with an image of Lewinsky as a slutty temptress, rather than a young, passionate woman who made a mistake that she will pay for for the rest of her life.

It doesn't matter that Clinton had two female chiefs of staff as governor, as he took pains to point out in the "Today" interview, if he fails to take full responsibility for how his mistreatment of Lewinsky left her open to what was essentially government-sanctioned bullying by Ken Starr and slut-shaming by the entire world.

Lewinsky deserves an apology for being framed as if Clinton was somehow an innocent bystander to activities involving his own penis. This is not about politics, or public image, or even sex. It's about telling the truth, even when it's inconvenient or paints the truth teller in a bad light.

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