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Froma Harrop: Monica Lewinsky, grace in humiliation

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May 12, 2014

How refreshing to hear Monica Lewinsky recount the depth of her shame. When it was revealed in 1998 that she had provided then-President Clinton with oral sex, Lewinsky now writes in Vanity Fair, she “was arguably the most humiliated person in the world.”
How many ambitious women these days wouldn't take that lemon of embarrassment and turn it into the lemonade of sexy branding? Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian used (leaked) tapes of their sexual exploits as career boosters.
By contrast, Lewinsky went into mortified hiding—no sex videos, fortunately—after the story detonated 16 years ago. (There was a secretly taped conversation with a friend betraying her.) By the end of the year, she had no privacy left to protect, every last salacious detail having been rendered public by the 445-page report by independent counsel Kenneth Starr.
But rather than cash in on lucrative offers to exploit her notoriety, Lewinsky quietly pursued studies at the London School of Economics. And during Hillary Clinton's 2008 run for president, she lay low.
I don't agree with her take on all that transpired back then. When Lewinsky says she felt “sacrificed for political expediency” by the Clinton forces, she does miss the big picture.
After all, there was a country to run. Sensitivities toward an embarrassed woman took a back seat to the need to hold the presidency together. To the extent she was sacrificed, it was in the public interest.
Also, if Hillary Clinton unfairly called her a “narcissistic looney tune” in a memo, well, a wife cheated on in such a casually shocking way is entitled to lash out. Both are good women, and from a purely political standpoint, Hillary benefited from that trial by fire. Her approval rating soared as Americans turned on the Republicans' appalling inquisition against her still-popular husband.
To her great credit, Lewinsky firmly states that the affair was “a consensual relationship” between two adults. She thus swats away Rand Paul's recent comment that Clinton committed workplace “violence” against her.
Lewinsky's umbrage over the trashing she endured at the hands of professional feminists trying to help Clinton is warranted. Brought together at a fancy Manhattan restaurant to muse on the scandal, the “New York supergals” (as the New York Observer called them) flung mud pies of dull wit at the easy Monica target.
Erica Jong: “My dental hygienist pointed out that she had third-stage gum disease.”
It was on that level.
The “gals” freely bashed Lewinsky's looks. One noted that “if JFK has an affair with Marilyn Monroe, it's all in the realm of the demigods. … I mean, the thing I kept hearing over and over again was Monica Lewinsky's not that pretty.”
That Lewinsky had some unfashionable pounds on her only added a certain warmth to the relationship that would have been missing had she been a Hollywood star. Though Clinton's behavior was crude, he did connect with a real woman, not a celebrity notch on the belt to brag about.
Lewinsky offers important insight on the “culture of humiliation” of which she is a pioneer. There's no stopping the way cheap technology and viral social media can magnify and multiply embarrassing moments with indifference to fact, much less nuance.
We are reminded how, in the digital age, a youthful indiscretion can mar one for life. We who came of age before high schoolers had the means to post pictures of themselves drunk or half-dressed often sigh with relief. Almost every teen does stupid things.
One can't say to Lewinsky “this, too, will pass,” this being so spectacular, but perhaps it will fade a bit. We can say, Monica, you have since comported yourself with grace.

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com.



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