1995: The year the future began
It was no small surprise that Monica Lewinsky today was named a finalist for a National Magazine Award, for her lengthy Vanity Fair essay lamenting the lasting notoriety of her dalliance with President Bill Clinton.
Their clandestine sexual affair began in mid-November 1995, during a partial shutdown of the federal government, and continued intermittently until March 1997. When the affair began, Lewinsky was 22-years-old and nominally a White House intern. Clinton was 27 years her senior.
Her first-person essay in Vanity Fair’s June 2014 issue signaled an end to Lewinsky’s extended, self-imposed seclusion. The essay was solidly written and revealing in places about the agony of unsought celebrity.
But award-winning? Good enough to be the winner of the American Society of Magazine Editors’ award for “essays and criticism”?
Probably not: It wasn’t that good. It probably was too self-pitying, too often whiny, to be a winner. (Update: And Lewinsky’s essay did not win the award. The winning entry in “essays and criticism” was Roger Angell’s “This Old Man,” which appeared in the New Yorker.)
Lewinsky wrote despairingly of a “culture of humiliation” driven, she said, by the Internet and social media. At one point in the essay she noted:
“Every day I am recognized. Every day. Sometimes a person will walk past me again and again, as if I wouldn’t notice. … Every day someone mentions me in a tweet or a blog post, and not altogether kindly. Every day, it seems, my name shows up in an op-ed column or a press clip or two — mentioned in passing in articles on subjects as disparate as millennials, [the television series] Scandal, and French president Francois Hollande’s love life.”
The essay and, now, its award-nomination underscore anew the odd and even scandalous pull that Lewinsky still exerts on the American consciousness. David Remnick, writing years ago in the New Yorker, observed that “Monica is the woman of secrets who no longer has any. Her eyes are not windows but mirrors, and what we see in them is awful. Yet we go on staring.”
We still find ourselves staring. As I point out in my new book, 1995: The Year the Future Began:
“That such fascination endures is [also] testimony to a deep and lingering suspicion that there remains more to know about why Bill Clinton took the risks he did, trysting with” Lewinsky.
Lewinsky’s essay ran to 4,000 words and in it, she said she “deeply regret[s] what happened between me and President Clinton. . . . At the time — at least from my point of view — it was an authentic connection, with emotional intimacy, frequent visits, plans made, phone calls and gifts exchanged. In my early 20s, I was too young to understand the real-life consequences, and too young to see that I would be sacrificed for political expediency. . . . I would give anything to rewind the tape.”
She was treated shabbily by Clinton, who lied for months about the affair after it was revealed in January 1998. He memorably delivered a finger-wagging denial, insisting before the television cameras that he never had sexual relations “with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” And he told aides, falsely, that Lewinsky was a stalker who had made sexual demands of him.
“Sure, my boss took advantage of me,” she wrote of Clinton, “but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.”
But an edge of whininess seems never distant in the essay, the title of which is “Shame and Survival.” Read again, months after the essay’s publication, the essay is awkwardly punctuated with Lewinsky’s self-pity. For example, she wrote that “when news of my affair with Bill Clinton broke, I was arguably the most humiliated person in the world.”
Perhaps the essay’s most striking passage was Lewinsky’s recounting the scant support she received from feminists as the scandal broke and deepened. She was dismissed as so much a bimbo — a “narcissistic looney tune,” as Hillary Clinton privately called her in the late 1990s.
“So where … were the feminists back then? It’s a question that troubles me to this day,” Lewinsky wrote.
“I sorely wished for some sign of understanding from the feminist camp. Some good, old-fashioned, girl-on-girl support was much in need. None came. Given the issues at play — gender politics, sex in the workplace — you’d think they would have spoken up. They didn’t. I understood their dilemma: Bill Clinton had been a president ‘friendly’ to women’s causes.”
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