For Monica Lewinsky, it’s payback time
A new American Crime Story project will see overdue redemption for Monica Lewinsky
A photograph showing former White House intern Monica Lewinsky meeting president Bill Clinton at a White House function submitted as evidence in documents by the Starr investigation and released by the House Judicary committee September 21st, 1998.
Only a few years ago, the news that Hollywood liberals were making a series about the Bill Clinton impeachment would fill the former president’s supporters with qualified optimism. The filmmakers would surely stress how the Republican establishment rounded on the first baby-boomer in the White House. This will be good for Bill. This will be bad for antagonists such as Linda Tripp, Kenneth Starr and Newt Gingrich. And Monica Lewinsky? Well, who cares about her?
Let’s just see. Shall we?
Impeachment: American Crime Story, created by the indefatigable Ryan Murphy, follows in the lively footsteps of the same show-runner’s The People v O J Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Beanie Feldstein, so good as Saoirse Ronan’s pal in Lady Bird, takes on the role of Monica Lewinsky. Ryan regular Sarah Paulson will play the Clintonophobic Linda Tripp. Lewinsky is among the producers. There is already a whiff of payback about this project.
Even if the former White House intern’s name were not among the credits, we might reasonably assume the series would treat her more kindly than contemporaneous commentators. It goes without saying that right-wing prudes viewed her with contempt.
They were happy that the affair with Clinton brought embarrassment, but gratitude did not extend to excusing licentiousness in the imperial broom cupboard. Obviously, the late-night talk-show hosts had misogynistic larks. What really shocks now, however, is the lack of support – sometimes bleeding into outright hostility -- from so many prominent feminists. Clinton was their guy. This wee girl was not going to threaten the supposed sexual freedoms won in the 1960s and 1970s.
Viewed from the wreckage of Hurricane Weinstein, the response now seems incomprehensible. The power imbalance between Clinton and Lewinsky was so enormous that her consent offered only marginal justification for the President’s actions. Let’s not start on the even more serious accusations from the likes of Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick. How did Monica become the baddie?
Season two of Leon Neyfakh’s excellent podcast Slow Burn tells the normal person all he or she needs to know about the scandal. Neyfakh is keen not to oversell the notion of a feminist consensus against Lewinsky. “Today it’s conventional wisdom that all feminists hypocritically turned their backs on Monica Lewinsky,” he says in episode seven. “In fact, the scandal provoked an intense debate within the feminist movement about sex, power, and consent.”
To illustrate his point, Neyfakh points towards a searing 1998 article by Marjorie Williams for Vanity Fair that details the indignities visited on Ms Lewinsky. But that very piece reminds us how many high-profile female commentators took against Monica.
Gloria Steinem wrote of the accusations that he had exposed himself to Paula Jones. “She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.”
Williams points towards a “galactically strange” piece for the New York Observer that gathered together 10 Manhattan nabobs – including Erica Jong, Nancy Friday and Katie Roiphe – to slaver over the affair in a top restaurant. “Imagine swallowing the Presidential come [sic]” Jong says. “I think [Hillary] would actually be more effective if she showed a little weakness,” Roiphe says. The article sludged out under the title: “New York Supergals Love That Naughty Prez”.
“Even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment,” Gloria Steinem wrote elsewhere of the accusations that he had exposed himself to Paula Jones. “She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.” Betty Friedan suggested Clinton’s “enemies are attempting to bring him down through allegations about some dalliance with an intern…. Whether it’s a fantasy, a set-up or true, I simply don’t care.”
Following Lewinsky’s relatively restrained photo shoot in Vanity Fair, Maureen Dowd had a crack. “It appears that there’s one thing Monica has immunity from: brains,” the New York Times columnist wrote. Nice sisterhood, Mo.
Of course, worse was said elsewhere. But the cyclones of disdain from sources we would now expect to be supportive help clarify how isolated Lewinsky became. She was just 22 when the liaison began.
Some Democrats have suggested it could damage the party’s chances against Mr Trump
Neyfakh’s podcast is just one of several recent efforts to reclaim ground for a much misused woman. Lewinsky herself wrote a piece for Vanity Fair describing how #MeToo had given her hope for the future. Unless Murphy swerves in unexpected directions, Impeachment: American Crime Story will weave delicious melodrama in with the overdue redemption.
Murphy will have mixed feelings about one controversy already gathering around the series. Impeachment is due to screen in the six weeks before the 2020 Presidential election and some Democrats have suggested it could damage the party’s chances against Trump. That depends upon who the candidate is. The series might do little to help the habitually handsy Joe Biden, but Kamala Harris or Elizabeth Warren would surely have little to fear. The Access Hollywood tape is right there, folks.