October 18, 2021

“This is sexual harassment.” “No. It’s an affair.”

These lines are from Impeachment: American Crime Story, a 10-part dramatisation of the tragedy of Monica Lewinsky, which airs in the UK this week, because our appetite for gossip does not dim with the age of it. Lewinsky was 22 when she began her affair with Bill Clinton, who was 49.  When the affair was exposed, and he was impeached — then acquitted — his personal approval ratings rose, which should be insane, but isn’t. American voters like tales of sin and redemption if the protagonist is male.

Lewinsky, though, was ruined as Christine Keeler was ruined. The man survives; the woman does not. In Impeachment, when the FBI arrest her for perjury — for saying she did not have a relationship with Clinton — she says: “I will never have children. Because no one will marry me.”  It is an accurate prophecy so far.

Monica Lewinsky need not be shamed, but we should. I am the same age as her, and all I remember is the dirty dress and the oral sex and the cigar, none of which I wish to know about, or should know. A woman giving pleasure to a man she is infatuated with is not something that disgusts me, though we were asked to call it that: why?

Monica’s sufferings after her friend Linda Tripp, assuming the dimensions of a witch from a fairy tale, recorded their conversations and made them public, were without end. She was punished, as sexualised women are always punished; drabs are punished in other ways.  Lewinsky was reduced to a series of transient acts which we are supposed to believe define her. Like Christine Keeler, she became “a dirty joke”.

The #MeToo movement invites us to examine our misogyny towards Lewinsky. She has gained some autonomy at last. She co-produced the documentary 15 Minutes of Shame about the dehumanising intent of the internet, in which she points out that she was the first woman to be destroyed by it, though many others follow her.  (The affair was an early Matt Drudge scoop. Many people made money from her.) She is an executive producer of Impeachment, so it is her story, a one-sided collection of truths.

She was not sexually harassed by Bill Clinton, but she was manipulated. It was a consensual affair, and she has always said so, but she was peculiarly vulnerable, which is surely why he chose her. It was an affair she did not want to end; an affair that he ended, though he did not seem able to let her, entirely, go. They had a cruel and tender dance of novelty gifts and meetings and telephone calls. Clinton’s secretary, a decent women tasked with managing Lewinsky’s tears, had pity for them both. Clinton once chided Lewinsky, saying all he thought about, night and day, was her search for a job after she was exiled from the White House to the Pentagon but wanted to return. Folly is neither a crime, nor a story and Electra is both adult and child – who chooses to lie down? The affair brought her, by her own testimony, anguish and joy. She defended him for years but now she thinks he abused his position: that is, she wishes he had saved her from herself. He didn’t.

If Linda Tripp had not taped their conversations, Monica Lewinsky would have been allowed to become herself. Instead, as David Remnick wrote in The New Yorker, she became the Mona Lewinsky, whose eyes are not windows but mirrors. If you think Bill Clinton used her, look at the world. She was taken hostage to be an archetype because archetypes are obliging, particularly this one: the ruined innocent.

There are three villains in this story, beyond Tripp and Clinton, twin antagonists feasting on youth and folly. They are the media, the political class, and the public.

The media reporting was disgraceful, beyond the tabloids who bought stories from her lovers that told of sexual fetishes and stalking. (Lies, all.) One married lover said she had aborted his child. They met when he was her teacher, though that was not dwelt upon by the newspaper who bought his story. Liberal feminist broadsheet columnists called her stupid and mocked her appearance. One, seeing her in a restaurant, noted and published what she ate, seemingly ignorant of — or just morally oblivious to — Lewinsky’s obvious eating disorder. All this, the public ate themselves.

There was a genuine hater of women too, who gave the media everything:  Kenneth Starr. He was the lawyer who investigated Clinton after the Whitewater scandal, and when he could not adequately punish Clinton, he punished Lewinsky. Starr traduced, bullied and dehumanised her, eventually offering her immunity for her secrets, but I sense, in his dealings, both the self-hatred and the lust she incited in Clinton, and America more generally. Starr tricked her into perjuring herself. He threatened her family; he refused to let her friends defend her, which is why her memory is a cigar, a sexual act and a dirty dress. He is Judge Danforth in The Crucible though he does not know it. When I read that, in 2016, he resigned from the presidency of a university that failed to investigate sexual assaults against female students, it read like his final act of barbaric misogyny.

The misogyny has not waned; the reach of #MeToo, despite its noise, is small so far. Bill Clinton was not harmed by the affair, but his wife was and that is the epilogue to this tale. She had to answer for him when she ran for the presidency in 2016: was her husband’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky an abuse of power? She was, Hillary said, an adult, and it became part of the miasma of loathing that engulfed her. America, in the end, would rather have a pussy-grabber than a bad feminist whose husband exploited a young woman Hillary couldn’t bring herself, in this instance, to defend. Bill Clinton got away with it, and so Donald Trump, but Hillary didn’t. Twenty years on, and another woman lost.