Hang around long enough and the zeitgeist catches up with you.
That’s what’s happening with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
After two decades essentially in exile, Lewinsky is having a well-deserved #MeToo moment. In a Vanity Fair essay that’s getting attention, Lewinsky writes what happened between her and Clinton while he was president was not sexual assault but “a gross abuse of power.” As she explains, “Now, at 44, I’m beginning . . . to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern. . . . I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot . . .”
Thanks to #MeToo, that view is now an accepted part of our national conversation on sex, power, and consent. It was much different back in 1998, when even feminist icon Gloria Steinem rode to Clinton’s defense. As Steinem famously wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “Commentators might stop puzzling over the president’s favorable poll ratings, especially among women, if they understood the common-sense guideline to sexual behavior that came out of the women’s movement 30 years ago: no means no; yes means yes.” Steinem has since said she would address Clinton’s sexual misconduct differently today.
After #MeToo, the earth unquestionably moved. It’s still swallowing up powerful men, including Clinton. According to Politico, the former president is now considered too toxic to campaign for Democrats in the midterm elections. That’s quite the fall from political grace for the former president who famously explained Barack Obama to the American people better than Obama could do on his own. For his currently dipping poll numbers, Clinton can also thank Donald Trump. As a presidential candidate, Trump managed to demonize rival Hillary Clinton by dredging up her husband’s transgressions, while glossing over his own.
The #MeToo fallout is also forcing Trump to confront questions about a payment to a porn actress with whom he allegedly had an affair, along with other alleged infidelities and charges of sexual misconduct. But he’s still president, reveling in the glory that goes with his self-defined role as Commander in Tweet. Clinton, meanwhile, is on his own and, minus Hillary, paying final respects to Billy Graham, the evangelist who provided family counsel when his affair with Lewinsky exploded into public scandal.
With #MeToo, the hands on the levers of power — or at least on the keyboard — have switched enough to give Lewinsky a platform and path from notoriety to respect. And she’s making the most of it. Her Vanity Fair article begins with an anecdote that targets the other powerful man who turned her life “into a living hell”: Ken Starr, the special prosecutor whose relentless pursuit of Clinton led to Lewinsky’s outing. The two met for the first time during a chance encounter at a Manhattan restaurant this past Christmas Eve.
Starr had already experienced a crushing collision with history and irony. In 2016, he lost his job as head of Baylor University after allegations the university mishandled several cases in which football players were accused of assaulting women. In other words, the detective who sniffed out consensual sex between Clinton and Lewinsky was less than curious about allegations of campus sexual assault. Now he has Lewinsky describing him as “somewhere between avuncular and creepy” and recounting how Starr and his team “hounded and terrorized” her and her family because he “had decided that a frightened young woman could be useful in his larger case against the president of the United States.”
Lewinsky also writes about how lonely it was back when she was Starr’s quarry. It’s great that #MeToo gives her comfort and a virtual support system. But she should never forget: The same social media that gives love can also snatch it away. There was cruelty when she and Clinton were the sex scandal of the century and even more outlets for it today. That’s also part of the zeitgeist.