They called it “the Lewinsky scandal.”
Bill Clinton was the one who abused his power, entering into a relationship with a White House intern when he was the president of the United States. Yet pundits and ordinary Americans alike typically referred to the episode by Monica Lewinsky’s name.
That’s just one of the things Lewinsky hopes will change now, two decades after Clinton’s impeachment. She’s appearing in a docuseries about the scandal, premiering on Sunday at 9 pm Eastern on A&E, and, she writes in Vanity Fair, “It’s titled The Clinton Affair. Bye-bye, Lewinsky scandal. ... I think 20 years is enough time to carry that mantle.”
The series comes as Lewinsky, after an adulthood defined, against her will, by her relationship with Clinton, is having a public second act as a prominent voice in the #MeToo era. In a series of essays at Vanity Fair, where she is a contributing editor, Lewinsky has been writing her own history of the “Clinton affair,” and making the argument that in cases like hers, women’s voices need to be heard.
After years of being forced into the roles of punchline, temptress, or troublemaker, she’s stepping into the role of spokesperson — and it fits her strikingly well.
Monica Lewinsky tried to retreat from the public eye. Now she’s back.
In 1995, Clinton began a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, then a 22-year-old intern in the White House. In 1998, he denied the relationship during a deposition in Paula Jones’s sexual harassment lawsuit against him. But later that year, he admitted that he had lied, and he was impeached on the grounds of perjury and obstruction of justice. After a trial in the Senate, he was acquitted, and went on to serve out the remainder of his second term as president.
Though he stayed on the sidelines during former Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was soon back in the spotlight, representing the high-profile Clinton Foundation and campaigning for Democrats, most notably his wife. While Donald Trump made Bill Clinton’s past an issue in the 2016 election, many Democrats seemed content to pretend his relationship with Lewinsky never happened.
Lewinsky, meanwhile, struggled. Before and during Clinton’s impeachment trial, the American public had learned intimate details about her sex life, including the fact that Clinton had once gotten semen on her blue Gap dress. She’d also been mocked and vilified in the press, with one Fox News poll asking if she was an “average girl” or a “young tramp looking for thrills” (“young tramp” won).
Lewinsky made some public appearances in the wake of Clinton’s impeachment, appearing on Saturday Night Live in 1999 and briefly hosting a dating show in 2003. But in 2005, she retreated from public life, moving to England and enrolling at the London School of Economics. After graduating with a master’s degree, she tried to find jobs in communications and branding, but employers were wary of hiring her because of her history.
Then, in 2014, she went public again, with an essay in Vanity Fair on public humiliation. “When news of my affair with Bill Clinton broke,” she wrote, “I was arguably the most humiliated person in the world. Thanks to the Drudge Report, I was also possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet.”
She became an anti-bullying advocate after the suicide in 2010 of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student who took his own life after his roommate secretly streamed footage of him kissing another man. She later advised the group Bystander Revolution. And earlier this year, she began writing about #MeToo.
In 2014, Lewinsky had written that her relationship with Clinton had been consensual, and that “any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.” But by February 2018, in light of the #MeToo movement, she had begun to reconsider.
The movement has drawn attention to the power imbalances between bosses and their subordinates, and raised the question of whether sexual relationships between the two can ever be completely consensual. Clinton, as president, was perhaps the most powerful boss in the country — and today, Lewinsky believes that the power dynamics between the two made the issue of consent “very, very complicated.”
“I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent,” she wrote. “Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege.”
And, she added, “I—we—owe a huge debt of gratitude to the #MeToo and Time’s Up heroines. They are speaking volumes against the pernicious conspiracies of silence that have long protected powerful men when it comes to sexual assault, sexual harassment, and abuse of power.”
But even as she was thanking the women who helped define the current era of #MeToo, she was becoming one of them.
After decades of searching for a new place in history, Lewinsky has finally found one
In 2017 and 2018, the Clinton impeachment and everything that led up to it have returned to the forefront of public consciousness. The #MeToo movement — and, in particular, sexual misconduct allegations last year against Senate candidate Roy Moore and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) — led to a reexamination of Clinton’s behavior with Lewinsky (as well as allegations against him by other women).
Bill and Hillary Clinton began to be asked about Lewinsky in interviews — and their answers left a lot to be desired. When asked earlier this year if he owed Lewinsky an apology, former President Clinton insisted he did not. And last month, Hillary Clinton said her husband had not abused his power by having a relationship with Lewinsky.
But in her work at Vanity Fair this year, Lewinsky has consistently offered the nuanced analysis of her relationship with Clinton that this historical moment demands.
“The dictionary definition of ‘consent’?” she wrote in February. “‘To give permission for something to happen.’ And yet what did the ‘something’ mean in this instance, given the power dynamics, his position, and my age? Was the ‘something’ just about crossing a line of sexual (and later emotional) intimacy?”
And on Tuesday, she wrote about what she’d like to see from former President Clinton now. “What feels more important to me than whether I am owed or deserving of a personal apology is my belief that Bill Clinton should want to apologize,” she said. “I’m less disappointed by him, and more disappointed for him. He would be a better man for it . . . and we, in turn, a better society.”
It’s a level of compassion and complexity that’s been absent from the Clintons’ responses, and from so many statements by people in power about sexual misconduct in the #MeToo era.
In her writing since 2014, Lewinsky has honed a particular style that’s all her own. She’s erudite and allusive. Considering a Clinton-era Los Angeles Times headline that read, “The Full Monica: Victim or Vixen?”, she writes:
Victim or Vixen? That’s a question as old as time immemorial: Madonna or Whore? Predator or Prey? Dressed scantily or appropriately? Is she telling the truth or lying? (Who will believe thee, Isabel?)
Shakespeare references aside, she doesn’t take herself too seriously. “Do I wish I could erase my years in D.C. from memory, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind–style?” she asks herself at one point. “Well, is the sky blue?”
Her writing is chatty, relatable, like a conversation with a friend who’s smart but has a somewhat corny sense of humor, not someone at the center of one of the biggest American political scandals of the 20th century. At the same time, what she’s been through has given her a clearer eye than many when it comes to the aftermath of trauma.
“The process of this docuseries led me to new rooms of shame that I still needed to explore, and delivered me to Grief’s doorstep,” she writes. “Grief for the years and years lost, being seen only as ‘That Woman’—saddled, as a young woman, with the false narrative that my mouth was merely a receptacle for a powerful man’s desire.”
Her experiences have taught her that she, and other women like her (though, of course, there are no women exactly like her) deserve to be heard.
“Throughout history, women have been traduced and silenced,” she writes. “Now, it’s our time to tell our own stories in our own words.”
For decades, America didn’t know what to do with Monica Lewinsky. Was she a celebrity? Her dating show was swiftly canceled. Was she a regular person? Not when she couldn’t get a job. After what she’d been a part of, no path seemed fully open to her.
Finally, in this time of reckoning around sex, gender, and abuse of power, the country is ready to hear from Lewinsky. And she is more than ready to speak.