WASHINGTON — An essay in Vanity Fair last week taught us more about Monica Lewinsky than we had learned since Ken Starr wrote his sordid X-rated report in 1998.
She has gained some wisdom from her brush with infamy. Her ostensible reason for writing now is to help those who have also been publicly shamed. She is responding to what she sees as an effort by the likes of Sen. Rand Paul to drag her back into the political conversation by using her to strangle another Clinton presidency in its crib. Paul has called out the “predatory” Bill Clinton, who, presumably enabled by Hillary, “took advantage of a girl that was 20 years old and an intern in his office.”
Lewinsky also believes her story can help prevent tragedies such as the suicide of a Rutgers University student who was outed on the Internet. She, too, was near suicidal, afraid she was going to be “humiliated to death,” after she was outed by Linda Tripp. She’s lived to write about it.
As surprising and revealing as Lewinsky’s essay was, the bouncing ball of buzz moved almost instantly from what she had to say to the effect she would have on Hillary Clinton’s possible presidential run.
The answer is: almost none. Even in the short run, Hillary managed to change the subject to her own memoir, “Hard Choices,” which comes out June 10. An excerpt on Vogue’s website just happened to land on Mother’s Day. Hillary gushes about Chelsea’s wedding, the impending birth of her first grandchild, and how she rushed from her State Department jet to the bedside of her dying mother.
But this is as it has always been between Monica, the victim, and Hillary, the survivor. Since the day Monica entered her life, the trajectory of the former first lady’s life has been upward. As one commentator put it at the time of the scandal, no woman has ever gained more from sexual favors she didn’t dispense. Monica pushed aside the unpopular Hillary of the headbands, the White House travel office firings, and Hillarycare. Hillary adopted the posture of a wounded but steadfast spouse. If she could stand by her man, the country should, too.
Her poll numbers shot up. With that, she did what any betrayed wife would do: She shocked the political world by abdicating her White House role two years early to run for the Senate in a state she’d only visited as a tourist. She won easily.
From there it was on to a campaign for president she would have won had it not been for one-time tsunami named Barack Obama, who then gave her the premier spot in his administration. A stint as secretary of state while her husband was becoming one of the most admired people in the world strengthened the Clinton brand. The 2016 Democratic presidential nomination is hers to turn down.
Meanwhile, Monica is unemployed and, at 40, largely unemployable, except by those who would exploit her notoriety. Sadly for Republicans, she says the affair was consensual, but that won’t stop them from trying to make hay of it. Lynne Cheney suggested on Fox News that the Clintons themselves had some role in the Vanity Fair article, to “get that story out of the way.” Were Monica to drop this dime in Iowa in 2016, all bets would be off.
I still don’t think so. I don’t see Vice President Joe Biden or Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley emerging as favorites thanks to an essay in a glossy magazine. Democrats, long ago, decided that they needed to wage war on Monica, not on the Clintons. In the general election, however, Monica will be dredged up with glee. Paul just gave us a taste.
There is a possibility, however, that there could be a backlash, a surge of long-delayed remorse by women whom Hillary needs to become the first female president.
Monica wasn’t a proud moment for the sisterhood. The former intern wrote about how she needed”some good, old-fashioned, girl-on-girl support” but instead got “passed around like gender-politics cocktail food,” an analogy that suggests she may want to explore a career as a columnist.
She singled out a New York Observer story “New York Supergals Love That Naughty Prez,” which recounted a gathering of prominent female journalists who shared their feelings. Author Nancy Friday suggested that Lewinsky should “rent out her mouth.” Susan Faludi, the bestselling author of “Backlash,” said of Lewinsky, “It sounds like she put the moves on him.” And that’s just what can be printed.
Monica calls out Hillary for calling her a “narcissistic loony toon,” but she notes sympathetically that the first lady also accepted some blame for her husband’s straying, a persistent theme in the coverage at the time.
Sex gone awry almost always hurts women in a crypto-”Mad Men” way. Both were smeared: Monica as slutty, pudgy and not a bit smart, Hillary as a frigid, matronly careerist, too ambitious to tend to her man. You’d think Bill had played no part in his impeachment.
Almost 16 years later, I feel sorry for Monica, even if I don’t buy every word, and for Hillary, despite her smooth landing. What is it inside her that propels her to want to endure all this again? In the Vogue excerpt of “Hard Choices,” she quotes her philosophy of life as passed on to her by her mother: “I have loved and been loved; all the rest is background music.”
If she runs it is because strains of Hail to the Chief drown out every other sound.
Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.