P / P Journalism: Monica Lewinsky Sheds the Shackles of Shame

Written By: Mark Fritz

Editor’s Note: Mark Fritz is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, awarded for his coverage of the Rwandan genocide. He has contributed this op-ed piece to Publik / Private and examines the story of a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, who became famous for her affair with former president, Bill Clinton. Fritz references himself as he was a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times, and covered the story when it broke in 1998. Now, he takes a look at the scandal over a 6 year span of time.  


May 6, 2014

Remember when you were in your late teens or early twenties, full of ambition and invincibility? Sex was one of the spices in the hot stew of a future furiously unfolding. You could strive for your goals, work 12-hour days, and skip sleep while still reveling in the pure physical pleasures that seemed part of the wild ride to some distant destination of self-satisfied stability. It was a place you were in no particular rush to reach, because the route there was filled with endless, exquisite levels of sublime experiences.

Now, consider encountering a fellow traveler on this road. In this case, a woman remembered now as forever young: a princess of a rich and well-connected family. A lusty young woman who became a White House intern in 1995. A woman who entered into a mutually consensual relationship with a philandering older man of great power. A young woman who, as a result, was shamed, humiliated, exploited and tattooed with a Beltway-brand tramp stamp because she spent a tiny part of what should have been a rich life sucking off the President of the United States.

Monica Lewinsky, a pawn in a rightist coup that began in 1993 and continues today, is back in the news. That brink-of-extinction sea lamprey of celebrity, Vanity Fair, has published an essay by Lewinsky after a decade of silence. In a calculated bit of cock-tease marketing, the magazine has released excerpts of the essay that offer more insight than probably intended. And a single, stunning photograph of a woman now aged forty, seemingly at peace with herself. No deft photographer or state-of-the-art Photoshop flatterer could fake the utter look of a woman who realizes that shame, humiliation, and critical damnation can no longer exist if you no longer give a shit.

From the VF article, consider these comments: “The Clinton administration, the special prosecutor’s minions, the political operatives on both sides of the aisle, and the media were able to brand me. And that brand stuck, in part because it was imbued with power.”

So much power that the Los Angeles Times sent me to the Connecticut district of a U.S. congressman who held a hilarious town meeting for his constituents. My counterparts at the Washington Post and New York Times sweated this out as if it carried any more weight than a carnival come to town.

Rep. Shays Uses Forum to Gauge Public on Vote
December 16, 1998


NORWALK, Conn. — A congressman on the fence took his uncertainty to his constituents Tuesday night in a district as diverse and as divided as the rest of America. The town hall setting was truly in a town hall, the sort of touch-the-people venue that President Clinton himself might have relished, had the topic not been his own punishment.

Rep. Christopher Shays, a moderate Republican from Connecticut, had what amounted to an extended conversation with an overflow crowd of more than 2,000 that included his friends, neighbors, tennis partner, elderly mother and constituent Paul Newman about whether he should vote for or against impeachment. Shays has an appointment to talk with the president today.

“I will be the last one to leave this hall,” Shays said as he stood on the stage of a hall in this Atlantic coastal city, a place where the sprawl of New York City begins swallowing the lower reaches of New England. “I am determined that you will have your say.” Then, it was their turn. Shays, who recently was against impeachment but now is wavering, had people take the microphones by alternating opinions–one person for impeachment followed by one person against it–reflecting his own split opinion on the subject. Like much of democracy, though, it was messy, with the almost evenly split crowd testing the limits of town hall decorum with boos, catcalls, snickers, chants and open-mike references to Paula Corbin Jones’ nose, greedy HMOs, Monica S. Lewinsky’s thong and the sexual shenanigans of other famous people.

Many of those who spoke found that once they had a microphone in their hand, they could not let go and found themselves spouting, as one speaker said, “all those sound bites we’ve heard on television.”

“I see people I know and respect, and I see them acting in a way they wouldn’t want their kids to act,” Shays said at one point during the forum that ran more than four hours.

“Let me finish–then you can shout me down!” a St. John’s University professor said to another speaker.


Amid the unruly, Oprah-like aspects of open-mike night, however, were opinions that reflected the paradoxes and mixed feelings of a bizarre moment in the country’s history: a popular president at war with an opposition party over a series of illicit sexual encounters and the degrees to which he lied about it. Televised nationally on cable TV, the forum provided a rare moment of public passion at the grass-roots over an issue that many Americans have tuned out.

Michael Doyle of the struggling city of Bridgeport–“and damn proud of it”–pointed out that the founding fathers limited impeachment to high crimes and misdemeanors “because they did not want to have an opposition Congress do a lynching of a sitting president. Thank God for Monica Lewinsky because if there wasn’t a Monica Lewinsky we would have been at [independent counsel] Ken Starr’s door demanding that $50 million that could have gone to Bridgeport!”

Charles Merrick of Fairfield apologized to Shays for calling the congressman last week and threatening not to vote for him for wavering on impeachment. “If we do not remove the president, then we leave the citizens with the impression that power and corruption go hand and hand,” he said.

Shays at times sounded like an auctioneer as he tried to equitably balance the fitful flow of public opinion. “Do we have a no? Do we have a no against impeachment? Do we have a no?” he shouted after one man gave a ponderous harangue against a president whom he said “has stained his good name.”

One man asked whether Shays had ever invited a young impressionable intern into his office for sexual pleasure, then lied about it to everybody. He was making a rhetorical yet overlong point to persuade Shays to vote for impeachment. But people were stunned anyway. “I need to ask you to stop,” Shays said as the man continued on in the same vein. Shays Explains His Evolution to Indecision.

Shays, a member of Congress since 1987, gave the crowd a somewhat tortured analysis of the evolution of his own transition to indecision.
“I was hoping in the course of the evening that in this process would be the wisdom of Solomon,” Shays said. “And I hear glimpses of this.”
One person actually had a question rather than a remark: What will he tell Clinton? Shays said he would tell him, among other things, “that the president’s word is not good in Washington.”

“Whatever the president says to me will have no impact on how I vote,” Shays added. Norwalk is part of a district that includes the eye-popping wealth of Greenwich and the decaying neighborhoods of Bridgeport. The crowd reflected all of those areas, though it skewed more heavily to the upscale. Newman strolled through the overflow crowd in the hallway unbothered by anybody but reporters.

“I didn’t give up my citizenship because I became an actor,” Newman said. Of the forces now arrayed against the president, he said: “I don’t think this is what the framers of the Constitution had in mind.” Sitting alone in the audience was author David Nevin, whose latest historical novel is “1812: A Novel.” “I think it’s a . . . outrage that they’re talking about impeachment, to put it directly,” he said. Justin Miller, a 12th-grader from Darien, is for impeachment and, as somebody who wants to be a lawyer when he grows up, enjoys following the unfolding scandal, what he described as “a long government class. “I love this,” said Miller.

One person with a strong opinion was Peggy Shays, the congressman’s mother, who said she wants Clinton impeached but won’t hold it against her son if he votes against it. “I know my son,” she said. “He votes his conscience.” The big hall, which doubles both as City Hall and a concert hall, filled up early, and the first to arrive were Seth Weinstein and his partner of 20 years, Catherine Haala. Admitted Clinton-crisis junkies, only in the last week have they found themselves agreeing that Clinton should be impeached.

Weinstein, a Democrat who said he has taken half a dozen days off from his real estate business to watch televised hearings on the matter, only came to his conclusion the last week after the president, he said, failed once again to admit that he perjured himself.
Weinstein now sees the president as a character in a Greek tragedy.

“Here’s someone who came up through tremendous adversity to become president, and managed through his own flaws to destroy himself,” he said.


Video excerpts from Rep. Shays’ town meeting on impeachment are available on The Times’ Web site: http://www.latimes.com/scandal
Monica Lewinsky was doomed to be tagged with a scarlet letter in 1993, when a renegade rightist named Newt Gingrich introduced (and I bet he regrets it) a Republican platform written by the religious right and aimed at shaping a non-secular nation beholden to the rich and supported by the ignorant. The hunt for scandals in the presidency of Bill Clinton struck a vein of gold in 1998, when it was revealed that the Commander-in-Chief had nine sexual encounters with the young Lewinsky. For all the crimes against humanity committed by George W. Bush—who managed to kill more Americans than Osama bin Laden with even less of an (albeit idiotic) ideological mission—Clinton was impeached merely for a series of blow jobs by a younger, less-married and happily consenting partner.

She sought to use her infamy to sell handbags and books, but finally vanished into the paradoxical anonymity of Greenwich Village at the turn of the century, where nobody cared who you were and what you did. I was in a relationship with a remarkable woman who was among Ms. Lewinsky’s friends at the time, and she asked me if I wanted to have dinner with the two of them. I was working at The Associated Press at 50 Rockefeller Plaza, and invited a colleague who also had served a DC internship and was roughly Monica’s age. We all met in some hipster joint in, IIRC, Gramercy, and my friend, Tony, was the last to show up. Two of the four walls were lined with booths that met at a half-moon seat for six with the largest table in the corner. I had to elbow my friend from sliding next to me, and sit on Monica’s side. She seemed gracious and somewhat content to be with her friend, her friend’s boyfriend, and a non-threatening guy who shared similar experiences (excluding the oral sex with the president).

But Monica was haunted, withdrawn, and she used her menu as a fortress wall to deflect the glances of people who would have seemed to have taken pride in not being awed by a celebrity. She slumped in her seat as the glances became more obvious and intrusive. The waiter approached us every few minutes, bending his knees in tiny increments as he approached our table, winding up ready for orders as a perfectly timed floating head. He whispered sweet offerings of anything we wanted. And then, after dinner, Monica decided it was time to retreat. Her only smile came when I bolted out the door and—right out of the movies, kids—hollered to a passing taxi that skidded to a halt right at our feet. I flipped him more than he needed and told him to take the lady home.

Shame and embarrassment and humiliation exist only if you succumb to its corrosive effects. Men in general (and Maureen Dowd in particular) treated Monica Lewinsky with the brutality of people who were themselves starved for attention. From the Vanity Fair excerpts: Her current goal, she says, “is to get involved with efforts on behalf of victims of online humiliation and harassment and to start speaking on this topic in public forums.”

I’ve got a better idea, Monica. Just laugh in the faces of the fools who judged you and became clowns in the process. Embrace your place in the pantheon of people who easily broke off the shackles of what lesser people consider shame.

Mark Fritz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent and author of LOST ON EARTH: Nomads of the New World, winner of the Salon non-fiction book award. He recently published PERMANENT DEADLINE, a fictional, alternative history of the post-Cold War period.


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