Eight years ago, while traveling through a small town in a developing Middle East country, I found myself in conversation with a stranger about our cultures’ differing views on sex. After a few minutes, he came to a word he couldn’t quite remember in English. “It’s like ... um ... you know.” Then he gave up and just said, “Lewinsky.” I knew what he was talking about, but I cringed: Even all the way out in the middle of the desert, this woman’s name had been made synonymous with a sex act.
Of all the people involved in that late-’90s Clinton scandal, Monica Lewinsky clearly got the rawest deal. Despite his pervy and over-detailed report, Ken Starr now gets to be the head of a university. Bill Clinton’s public profile is fully rehabilitated. Hillary Rodham Clinton may very well be the next president of the United States. Even Chelsea, who truly was an innocent bystander in all this, has subsequently been able to ride her smarts, charisma and family name to a successful media career. Only Lewinksy gets her name turned into an R-rated verb, and you don’t have to approve of what she did when she was barely old enough to drink to concede that she doesn’t deserve a life sentence for it.
Even so, some may say Lewinsky had her ignominy coming; she did, after all, have an affair with a married man, which is absolutely, unequivocally not a good thing to do. Their post-scandal careers aside, isn’t it getting things backward to say that Monica Lewinsky is more of a victim than Hillary Clinton, the mistress more wronged than the wife?
In a word: no. Because let’s not kid ourselves: Hillary Clinton was aware of her husband’s dalliances and made a clear-eyed decision to stick around long before Lewinsky entered the picture. That doesn’t mean Hillary Clinton is “craven” or “ruthless in the pursuit of power” or even that the Clintons don’t love each other. It just means that these two adults apparently have a relationship that means more to both of them than sexual fidelity.
Which is totally fine!
But it’s a hard idea to sell, so instead, the Clintons and many other progressives deliberately attacked the women with whom Bill Clinton had affairs, including but not limited to Lewinsky. Hillary Clinton knew, for example, that her husband allegedly had had an affair with Gennifer Flowers, yet still encouraged the Clinton campaign team to depict Flowers as a “fraud, liar and possible criminal to stop this story and related stories.”
It is therefore not at all surprising that today, many of my fellow progressives are responding to Lewinsky’s reemergence by trying to discredit her, fearing that her coming back on the scene is a gift to Republicans. They dismiss Lewinsky’s tell-all as a publicity grab and insist that she should move on -- never mind the myriad ways in which she has been disallowed from doing so.
I don’t blame the Clintons or other progressives for playing hardball with Flowers, Lewinsky and others when the fate of the country was on the line. Hillary Clinton has done enough for women’s rights around the world that I can live with her and her husband sullying the names of a few women who threatened to derail them. In politics, that’s just how it is.
But let’s also be honest: We all know people -- men and women alike -- who have hooked up with people they shouldn’t for much dumber reasons than that the other party happened to be president of the United States. In addition to politicians and interns, people who make bad decisions about sex include doctors, lawyers, cops, clergy, construction workers, retail salespeople and just about every other category of human being in the whole world, ever.
It is not condoning extramarital affairs to say that Lewinsky’s decade and a half of punishment has been disproportionate to her wrongdoing. Given how excessively she was shamed for doing something that is as common as it is wrong, Lewinsky really could become a wonderful advocate on issues like bullying. In so doing, she may also be able to gradually change her last name to stand for something more than sex.
Ironically, the person who has the most to gain from helping Lewinsky become such an advocate may in fact be Hillary Clinton. The likely contender for president could retire this issue once and for all by publicly forgiving Lewinsky, meeting with her and declaring that they’ve both put the past behind them and are ready to move on to a better future. That would make Clinton look like the greater woman (and in some ways allow her to actually be the greater woman), while also destroying the GOP’s ability to use it as a talking point. After all, if the wife is over it, why aren’t Republicans?
Publicly forgiving and moving on from Lewinsky also clears the way for Hillary to make the most obvious argument for a second Clinton presidency: “Remember that time when unemployment was 4% to 4.5% and we weren’t at war with anyone and the biggest thing America had to worry about was my marriage? Let’s get back to that.”
So what do you say, Hillary? I realize a public rapprochement with Lewinsky may sound far-fetched at first blush, but if you give it some thought, you may find that the idea is, well, unimpeachable.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times