The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

Apologize to Monica Lewinsky? Would it matter?

Speculation arises from time to time about whether former President Bill Clinton should apologize to Monica Lewinsky for their affair at the White House that began during the government shutdown of November 1995 and continued intermittently until March 1997.

A Washington Post columnist, Richard Cohen, wrote a few years ago that Clinton at least should “reach out to Lewinsky, not so much to apologize as to acknowledge that life has been golden for him, much less so for her.”

Lewinsky has, Cohen noted, “has never quite recovered from the scandal that almost ended the Clinton presidency.”

Clinton was impeached in December 1998 for perjury and obstruction of justice, charges that stemmed from lying under oath about his dalliance with Lewinsky, who is 27 years his junior. Clinton was acquitted in February 1999 at trial before the U.S. Senate.

More recently, and more vigorously, CNN’s Jake Tapper and NBC’s Chuck Todd took up the Clinton-should-apologize theme on Todd’s “1947: Meet the Press” podcast.

Todd was interviewing Tapper about his recently published first novel, The Hellfire Club, and at length the conversation turned to the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.

“It galls me,” Todd said, “that the former president hasn’t even simply apologized to her.”

“It’s crazy,” Tapper replied in agreement.

“For ruining her life.”

“It’s crazy.”

“Her life is never the same,” Todd added. “He ruined it. He got to move on.”

“Oh, yeah,” Tapper said. “He’s a multimillionaire.”

“I’ve never understood why he couldn’t simply apologize to her. …”

“He owes her the apology. Yeah,” Tapper said. “‘I took advantage of you when you were a child.’ Essentially.”

“She cannot live a normal life because of his — whatever you want to call it.” Todd said.

“His crude needs,” Tapper interjected, his voice rising.

“Whatever it is. Yeah. His carnal needs. And he ruined a woman’s life,” Todd said.

Tapper and Todd are right: Lewinsky has never recovered from the shattering fallout of an affair in which the age and power differentials were lopsided in Clinton’s favor.

Clinton has much to apologize for; an apt starting point would be the arrogant explanation he gave for entering the affair in 1995, when she was 22-years-old. He did so, he said in promoting his memoir in 2004, “for the worst possible reason, just because I could.”

Lewinsky at the time was an unpaid White House intern, temporarily assigned to answering phones at the chief of staff’s office, down the corridor from the Oval Office.

She has long insisted the dalliance with Clinton was consensual. But her former close friend, Linda Tripp, has noted that Lewinsky then “may have been 22 and had a voluptuous body and was misguided in her choices, but emotionally, she was 15 — a groupie.”

Clinton also could apologize for falsehoods he spread about Lewinsky, while trying to discredit her after news of the scandal broke in early 1998.

According to the independent prosecutor’s report to Congress that presented grounds for impeaching Clinton, the president had told White House aide Sidney Blumenthal that “Monica Lewinsky came at me and made a sexual demand on me.” According to Blumenthal’s grand jury testimony, Clinton said he “rebuffed her” but that Lewinsky “threatened him.”

Blumenthal dutifully spread the smears to others.

Hillary Clinton could join an apology, too. After all, she once referred to Lewinsky as a narcissistic loony toon.”

But would apologies from the Clintons much matter nowadays?

Perhaps not.

Twenty years have passed since the scandal erupted, and long-after-the-fact apologies often seem hollow, meaningless, and insincere. In such circumstances, the recipients may be perplexed, as if unsure how to react or respond to the delayed apology. The damage, after all, was done long before.

The moment Bill Clinton could have offered a sincere, meaningful apology is long passed. That moment could have been in January 1998, after the affair burst into popular consciousness. Instead of making clean breast, Clinton denied an intimate relationship with Lewinsky, telling the country, with his wife present, with his eyes narrowed, and with his index finger wagging in contrived emphasis:

“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss. Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time. Never. These allegations are false.”

Another moment for apology was in August 1998, when Clinton ended months of dissembling to acknowledge in a brief, nationwide speech that he had had “a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate.” His concession was prompted by forensic DNA testing on a blue dress Lewinsky owned, testing that confirmed he had had a sexual encounter with her.

“I misled people, including even my wife,” Clinton said in the speech. “I deeply regret that.”

He directed no remarks, no apologies, to Lewinsky.

The brief speech was angry, hardly apologetic. It has been described by the Atlantic as “a four-minute primer on how not to apologize for something.”

Even if the Clintons are unlikely ever to apologize to her, it is intriguing to consider how Lewinsky might respond if they did.

She has never openly sought an apology from them, although she has made it clear she rather expected one from Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor who investigated the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. In Vanity Fair a couple of month ago, Lewinsky described a chance encounter with Starr at Christmastime in New York City, writing:

“[H]e stepped toward me with a warm, incongruous smile and said, ‘Let me introduce myself. I’m Ken Starr.’

“An introduction was indeed necessary. This was, in fact, the first time I had met him.

“I found myself shaking his hand even as I struggled to decipher the warmth he evinced. After all, in 1998, this was the independent prosecutor who had investigated me, a former White House intern ….

“Understandably, I was a bit thrown. (It was also confusing for me to see ‘Ken Starr’ as a human being. He was there, after all, with what appeared to be his family.) I finally gathered my wits about me — after an internal command of Get it together. ‘Though I wish I had made different choices back then,’ I stammered, ‘I wish that you and your office had made different choices, too.’ In hindsight, I later realized, I was paving the way for him to apologize. But he didn’t. He merely said, with the same inscrutable smile, ‘I know. It was unfortunate.'”

Lewinsky seems to have had something of a blind spot about Bill Clinton.

She has likened herself to a patient zero, as the first person bullied on the Internet. She has railed about how vigorously Fox News covered the sex-and-lies scandal. She called out Town & Country magazine for withdrawing an invitation to a philanthropic event after Clinton had agreed to attend. She complained that HLN, in preparing a documentary-like treatment late last year, said it would call the affair “the Lewinsky scandal.”

But she rarely has criticized Clinton and his minions who tried to sully her reputation early in her adulthood, to characterize her as an unstable stalker. It’s been a bit of a mystery why she has demurred.

In the issue of Vanity Fair in which she suggested Starr might have apologized, Lewinsky wrote that only now is she “beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern” back when her affair began in 1995.

“I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot,” she wrote, adding:

“He was the most powerful man on the planet. He was 27 years my senior, with enough life experience to know better. He was, at the time, at the pinnacle of his career, while I was in my first job out of college.”

Sure seems like the grounds for expecting an apology.


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