Twenty years ago, the Drudge Report was an odd, low-tech outpost on the World Wide Web that burst into the national consciousness with a salacious headline on January 17, 1998:
NEWSWEEK KILLS STORY ON WHITE HOUSE INTERN X X X X X BLOCKBUSTER REPORT: 23-YEAR OLD, FORMER WHITE HOUSE INTERN, SEX RELATIONSHIP WITH PRESIDENT
Ironically, Drudge hasn’t really changed much in twenty years, but the world around it has. Social Media has made heroes of women announcing #MeToo and villains of the men who prompted the hashtags. That was decidedly not the case in the Clinton era.
The massive Clinton smear campaign against his accusers
Prior to the breaking of the scandal, Clinton cronies had spent a great deal of time trashing the women who had come forward to make accusations against him. During the ’92 campaign, Gennifer Flowers was mocked for claiming she had had an affair with Bill Clinton despite the fact that she had audiotapes to back her up. Clinton denied the affair on “60 Minutes,” even though he was later forced to admit, under oath, that he had been lying. But at the time, Flowers was just another “bimbo eruption,” another target for the Clintons to destroy.
And who can forget the immortal words of James Carville in reference to Paula Jones? “If you drag a hundred dollar bill through a trailer park, you never know what you’ll find,” he quipped. Later, the president would settle Jones’s lawsuit for a whopping $850,000 and face disbarment for false statements in his deposition in the case.
As for Lewinsky, people forget that before the president finally admitted to a relationship that was “not appropriate,” he and his surrogates were characterizing her as a deranged stalker. Kathleen Willey, who insisted Clinton had groped her in the Oval Office, was just a fantasist. When Juanita Broaddrick’s troubling rape allegations against Clinton were made public, they barely caused a ripple in the national zeitgeist. People continued to believe the president, not the women coming forward, despite the massive mental gymnastics necessary to sustain faith in Clinton’s integrity.
In February of 1998, the late columnist Michael Kelly wrote a piece in the Washington Post that illustrated the folly of Clinton believers. Much of it is worth reviewing, 20 years on:
I believe the president. I have always believed him. I believed him when he said he had never been drafted in the Vietnam War and I believed him when he said he had forgotten to mention that he had been drafted in the Vietnam War. I believed him when he said he hadn’t had sex with Gennifer Flowers and I believe him now, when he reportedly says he did…
I believe Paula Jones is a cheap tramp who was asking for it. I believe Kathleen Willey is a cheap tramp who was asking for it. I believe Monica Lewinsky is a cheap tramp who was asking for it.
I believe Lewinsky was fantasizing in her 20 hours of taped conversation in which she reportedly detailed her sexual relationship with the president and begged Linda Tripp to join her in lying about the relationship. I believe that any gifts, correspondence, telephone calls and the 37 post-employment White House visits that may have passed between Lewinsky and the president are evidence only of a platonic relationship; such innocent intimate friendships are quite common between middle-aged married men and young single women, and also between presidents of the United States and White House interns.
I see nothing suspicious in the report that the president’s intimate, Vernon Jordan, arranged a $40,000-per-year job for Lewinsky shortly after she signed but before she filed an affidavit saying she had not had sex with the president. Nor do I read anything into the fact that the ambassador to the United Nations, Bill Richardson, visited Lewinsky at the Watergate to offer her a job. I believe the instructions Lewinsky gave Tripp informing her on how to properly perjure herself in the Willey matter simply wrote themselves.
Remember Linda Tripp? She was the whistleblower who blew the lid off of the whole scandal – the original #MeToo-er. Was she lionized for her bravery in exposing a predatory president? Hardly. There was no more despised woman in America than Linda Tripp. She was derided not only as disloyal and treacherous but also fat and ugly. John Goodman played her on “Saturday Night Live.” When Lewinsky was asked for her final words in her deposition, she concluded with “I hate Linda Tripp.”
Tripp responded by disappearing from view altogether, undergoing extensive plastic surgery, and opening a year-round Christmas store far away from the limelight. Even the #MeToo sympathizers have yet to recant any of the vitriol they dumped on her back in the day. People may be reevaluating Clinton, but Tripp’s reputation is likely to remain in the rubble.
Examining the Monica Lewinsky scandal with #MeToo glasses
So what 21st Century lessons can we learn from revisiting the Lewinsky mess?
Certainly there’s plenty of hypocrisy on both sides – too many leftists are willing to humiliate women who threaten men that they agree with, while too many Clinton haters are more than happy to overlook similar sins in Donald Trump. But perhaps those lessons are too easy, too obvious. Of course partisans are hypocrites. There’s much more here that needs a closer look.
One of the dangers of #MeToo is that the deluge of accusations makes it impossible to differentiate between minor and major offenses and assign a sense of proportion to any of them. Is it appropriate to equate rape with groping a woman’s behind at a state fair photo op? The Lewinsky scandal demonstrated that predators can benefit from blurring the lines.
Clinton defenders focused on the fact that Lewinsky was a consensual sex partner, ignoring the huge age and power differential between Clinton and his intern. They insisted that everyone lies about sex, and that Ken Starr was just a perverted old prude, and that the real crime was Linda Tripp’s invasion of her friend’s privacy rather than the criminal actions of a President of the United States. And in the process, the initial charge that Clinton had dropped his pants and propositioned a state employee were all but forgotten, and new charges that he had engaged in assault (Kathleen Willey) and rape (Juanita Broaddrick) were lost in the shuffle. By grinding away at the nation’s patience and shifting the focus away from the more heinous accusations, the Clintons were able to survive and even prosper.
We can’t make those same mistakes today. As #MeToo continues to expose the bad behavior of the rich and famous, we need to have due process and an appropriate evaluation of each claim on its merits. If we don’t, then we will have wasted the lessons that the Lewinsky mess should have taught us.
(Image of President Bill Clinton’s infamous press conference during which he said he “did not have sexual relations with that woman” via screenshot.)