Last Saturday, in spite of the freezing rain and accumulated ice, I was one of a thousand people who made it to the Eccles Center in Park City for a speech by Monica Lewinsky. It was a physically and politically slippery experience.
For those born within the last 20 years, Lewinsky gained notoriety in 1998 when it was divulged on the early internet that, as a 22-year-old White House intern, she and then-President Bill Clinton had a personal relationship acted out in the Oval Office in fairly graphic antics. Now I have to confess that, for the last 20 years, I have been a Lewinsky skeptic. But what I heard last Saturday changed my mind.
Lewinsky’s speech largely tracked the TED Talk she gave in 2015. That talk deftly melds the urgent current topic of cyberbullying with Lewinsky’s crushing experience as the involuntarily object of the first internet feeding frenzy. She calls herself “patient zero” for internet shaming. Frankly, in light of the magnitude and viciousness of what played out in the political and media arenas two decades ago, it’s a wonder Ms. Lewinsky is still alive. Among other points, Lewinsky revealed that she has never received an apology from any of the principal actors in the national melodrama. (Shame on at least the Clintons!)
It was good to get a three-dimensional sense of Lewinsky to replace the politically expedient, cartoon impression which I so readily accepted 20 years ago. Mea culpa! In person, Lewinsky is steady and articulate. Her message is important, imperative: America needs to civilize its internet culture in order to protect the young and vulnerable from being destroyed by the public shaming which drives so much online traffic and generates so much internet revenue.
The take home lesson is: Stop clicking on personally destructive and demeaning crap!
It helped my conversion immensely to have Lewinsky start by admitting she made a huge mistake by falling in love with her boss, the POTUS. She followed this emotional revelation by asking if anyone in the audience had ever made a serious personal mistake early in their adult life. A forest of hands raised in unison response.
In addition to the instant empathy this generated, Lewinsky’s emotional revelation undermined the Republicans’ ploy back in 1998/99: to couch Lewinsky as an innocent victim of a wanton sexual predator, although obviously her age at the time, and her only nascent judgment, were no match for an opportunistic W.J. Clinton.
But ironically, at least for me, Lewinsky’s admission also undermined the Democrats’ counter notion in 1998/99: that Lewinsky was an eager trophy hunter on a summer frolic in target rich Washington, D.C.
In hindsight, and while there were certainly other options, it is somewhat understandable that, when cornered by powerful forces set on destruction, the Clinton team struck back by painting Lewinsky as a devious ingenue. That wasn’t fair to Lewinsky, but the strategy held the line of defense just long enough to avoid collapse of the whole Clinton presidency.
History would have been much different if Clinton had just tapped into his southern gentility and responded in his deposition that whether he and Lewinsky did or didn’t have an affair was nobody’s business and, anyway, a gentlemen never tells. That would not have salved Lewinsky’s private injury, but it might have kept her from becoming a pawn in a very high stakes political war.
It certainly would have kept Clinton from committing perjury – the crux of his impeachment. Ah, if only ...
Russell Fericks is an attorney at the law firm of Richards Brandt Miller Nelson in Salt Lake City.