Dani Garavelli: Monica Lewinsky can’t bury past

Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton embrace at a Democratic fundraiser. Picture: Dirck Halstead/Hulton Archive
Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton embrace at a Democratic fundraiser. Picture: Dirck Halstead/Hulton Archive
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DANI Garavelli explains why they won’t let Monica bury the blue dress

Think of the worst mistake you ever made; perhaps it was a flirtation with your married boss, a drunken one-night stand or a sexually explicit text that was forwarded to your friends. Now imagine that, instead of this mistake being locked away in a box labelled “the past ,” it had come to define you. That wherever you went or whatever you did, it was all you would ever amount to. That your very name would become a byword for a single act of stupidity. That is what life has been like for Monica Lewinsky.

From the day she told her co-worker Linda Tripp about her affair with Bill Clinton, her future was determined. Betrayed by Tripp, dismissed by her lover, used as a pawn by politicians, she had to endure lurid detail of their sexual encounters being paraded not only in the newspapers, but on the newly invented world wide web (the scandal was broken by the Drudge Report). Fifteen or so years on, the political potency of the story may have diminished (a recent survey suggests millennials don’t know much about the impeachment hearings) but she remains a cultural standing joke. While, for all his prevarication, Clinton has retained his global status, she has been reduced to the punchline of a joke involving semen-stained dresses and cigars. With her name now used as a euphemism for oral sex – as in “she gave him the full Lewinsky” – her life has been freeze-framed at that moment in the Oval Office, while everyone else’s has been allowed to move on.

That Lewinsky would want to reinforce this phenomenon by revisiting her humiliation in a lengthy interview in Vanity Fair last week seemed odd to me at first. Her claim that she was inspired by empathy with other victims of online abuse was unconvincing. And she was always going to lay herself open to allegations that by bringing the whole thing up again she was trading on her notoriety, not laying it to rest. But looking back on the way her reputation was systematically shredded – by the newspapers, by the Clintons, even by so-called feminists – is illuminating, particularly in the wake of campaigns on slut-shaming and Kirsty Wark’s documentary Blurred Lines on real life and virtual misogyny. Viewed through the lens of the prevailing feminist discourse, the injustice she suffered comes sharply into focus.

To her credit, Lewinsky has never tried to shrug off her share of the responsibility for the affair, which she describes as “consensual”, but the power gap between a 22-year-old intern and the leader of the free world means the president ought to have shouldered most of the blame. Yet back in the day, very few people fought Lewinsky’s corner. Not Clinton himself who jabbed his finger aggressively as he declared “I did not have sex with that woman,” nor his wife, who was happy to see her passed off as a “narcissistic loony tunes”. Female commentators were equally unkind, calling her “a ditzy, predatory intern” and “a dessert cart”. Only Barbara Ehrenreich seemed willing to challenge the orthodoxy. In a column headlined, “The day feminists got laryngitis”, she called out Hillary for coming over all Tammy Wynette, but even she seemed to think the biggest problem with White House gender dynamics was that “any woman with a sufficiently tart-like demeanour” could enjoy the President’s attentions, where plainer, more productive ones might be overlooked.

These days Lewinksy is insightful about the way her personality was distorted to suit other people’s agendas. At a time before she knew who she was, she says, an identity was imposed upon her – and everything she has tried to do since has been affected by the way other people perceive her. Either her past has rendered her unemployable or it has been the reason she has been employed.

If the Lewinsky affair happened today, I doubt she’d be treated differently. In the wake of the Vanity Fair article, columnist Maureen Dowd – she of the “ditzy predator” comment – has already accused her of having a “come-hither look”. Her humiliation would doubtless be heightened by internet trolls, although the abundance of feminist websites and awareness-raising campaigns means more voices would also be raised in her defence.

At the same time, Lewinksy’s belief that this interview will allow her, finally, to take control is a delusion. She says she spoke out because she was fed up of putting her life on hold, but already her motives are being questioned. Did she drop this bombshell to undermine Hillary’s predicted 2016 presidential campaign or to rob the Republican Party of the chance of bringing it up closer to the election? The Right are using the interview to focus on Clinton’s hypocrisy: here was a president who claimed to stand up for women’s rights, but was prepared to crush Lewinsky to protect himself. The Left, according to Rush Limbaugh, are trying to rewrite the scandal to make it “cute”. “They want to make it sound like it was harmless little incidental momentary sex here and there,” he says.

Fifteen years on, Lewinsky is still a pawn and the Vanity Fair article has only amplified her problems. But then it doesn’t matter whether she hides herself away like Christine Keeler or steps into the limelight, it is impossible for her to burn the beret or bury the blue dress. While the Clintons are free to plan their latest White House bid, Lewinksy will always be the slightly tubby intern who gave the president a blow-job. That’s just the way it is. «

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1