“Did you know there’s not one kid who has died in Iraq who wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for Monica Lewinsky?” legendary 60 Minutes chief Don Hewitt told journalist Carol Felsenthal in 2006. “I think Monica did more to change the world than Cleopatra.” It was just 20 years ago this January that the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and forced traditional print and broadcast news media, for the first time, to compete and deal with the rising phenomenon of Internet journalism, as reflected in the emergence of Matt Drudge. As we look back from today’s media circus of sexual assault and gender politics, from the shocking revelations about Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby, Roy Moore, and even Donald Trump, we can see that Don Hewitt wasn’t kidding.
Feminist journalist Amanda Hess, writing in Slate, was correct in suggesting that Lewinski forced America to “bumble through an unprecedented national conversation” about sex and power—a conversation that continues today. No doubt many articles, listicles, and trivia traps will explore what happened back then. But I’m more interested in what happened because of Lewinski since then.
The biggest political Super Password for the past year or two has been the subject of normalizing aberrant, decorum-defying behavior. In this way, the Lewinsky scandal was like Donald Trump on steroids. Once the mainstream media “normalized” into acceptable political dialogue such things as stained Gap dresses and underwear, or exotic uses for the once-innocent cigar, then it’s a short distance to having a presidential candidate bragging on tape about grabbing the genitals of women he hardly knew. The 1991 Anita Hill hearings may have set the stage, but Monicagate massacred the last of the JFK/Don Draper “old boys club” journalistic norms that governed what was appropriate in discussing male politicians’ private sex lives.
Maureen Dowd acknowledged in a 2011 retrospective that Ann Coulter was right when she said that feminists “rewrote their own rules” on sexual harassment to accommodate 50-year-old Bill Clinton and his just-out-of-college, subordinate intern. Camille Paglia asked her fellow post-feminists, “Since when did the president use the interns as a dessert cart? ‘Mmmmm, she looks good!’” The late columnist Marjorie Williams sadly agreed in her brilliantly sarcastic 1998 Vanity Fair article that feminists have “muffled, disguised, excused, and denied the worst aspects of this president’s behavior with women.”
Many women were, in fact, disgusted with what Monicagate had revealed. And of course, if Juanita Broaddrick and Paula Jones were to be believed, there were far worse things to worry about. Yet as Dowd and Coulter noted, by the time he actually faced trial for removal from office in early 1999, most feminist and left-wing women had lined up to support Bill. Williams added that it was “plain enough why feminists want to keep Clinton in office.” He had supported feminist initiatives, empowered unprecedented numbers of female Cabinet members and federal court judges (including Madeleine Albright and Ruth Bader Ginsburg), and had been more pro-choice and pro-gay than any president up to that point.
More to the point, 1994’s “Republican Revolution” had also given unprecedented visibility and clout to the Religious Right. Journalist Nina Burleigh famously said that she would have given Bill Clinton oral sex to show her gratitude for “keeping the theocracy off our backs.” Feminists may have been disappointed or mad at Clinton, but their blood boiled as they watched hardcore social conservatives such as Rick Santorum and Jesse Helms gleefully “appropriating” the language of the Anita Hill hearings for their fundamentalist agenda. Burleigh spoke for them when she said that impeachment was just an “insidious use of sexual harassment laws to bring down a president for his pro-female policies.”
On the other side of the street, while most social conservatives were disgusted and outraged by the tawdry details of Monicagate, they weren’t particularly surprised by them. To these conservatives, the scandal was simply the smoking gun that everything they’d been saying about Bill Clinton—that he was a dope-smoking, wife-swapping, sociopathic user, a self-indulgent narcissist contemptuous of “family values”—had been right all along. Indeed, if Jerry Falwell or Antonin Scalia had been allowed to look ahead 20 years at all the things they would hate the most about 2018 society—open gay marriage, “Shout Your Abortion,” transgender teens using the girls’ locker room—they would have probably almost expected it. The fact that Bill Clinton not only got away with the Monica mess but was de facto rewarded for it, with a five-seat pickup in the 1998 congressional midterms followed by complete Senate acquittal, was proof of the “moral opprobrium” (to use Scalia’s favorite phrase) that they saw in U.S. society.
Indeed, Lewinski sizzlingly pulled back the cover on the cracks that were starting to form in the post-Reagan Republican dam. Does anybody really think that Newt Gingrich, who left his first wife when she was in the hospital recovering from cancer surgery, let alone people such as Dennis Hastert, who later elocuted in court to abusing young boys sexually, or toe-tapping closet cases such as Mark Foley and Larry Craig—does anybody think that these people really went all Aunt Pittypat with shock at Bill and Monica having a little after-hours fun? Or even at the fact that Clinton lied about it under oath—as if any of them were exactly truth machines?
But watching such conservatives as Jerry Falwell and William Bennett wailing “Where is the Outrage?!” on CNN or John Hagee fulminating on TBN about “Witchcraft in the White House!” made many members of the strictly-business wing of the party (including overtaxed doctors and lawyers as well as true plutocrats) wonder if the Red America social conservatives they had regarded privately as useful idiots had now taken over the asylum. Did some hotshot exec really want some snoopy special prosecutor like Kenneth Starr tattle-taling to his wife about all those sexy salesladies and coked-up, lap-dancing babes back at Convention Week? Pat Buchanan’s famous 1992 “Culture War speech” may have been the appetizer, but Monica was the main course, the episode that stirred many secular Wall Street and Silicon Valley types to say au revoir to the Republicans and sign up with neoliberal, corporate Clinton Democrats.
Perhaps most importantly, Monica symbolized the passing from second- to third-wave feminism. The height of the 1970s-style, Gloria Steinem/Gloria Allred era of “women’s lib” was also the height of titillating, sexy pop culture shows like Three’s Company, Charlie’s Angels, Dallas, and first-wave slasher movies (not to mention Boogie Nights-era “respectable” porn.). Objecting to the “objectification” of the “jiggle” era, the shoulder-padded, power-suited, largely desexualized female executive (not unlike Hillary Rodham Clinton) now became the new feminist icon. Murphy Brown, Clarice Starling, Agent Scully, and Cagney & Lacey were to be judged as professional women on their career accomplishments, not on sudsy, sexploitative love scenes or how they looked in wet T-shirts and bikinis.
Ironically, the only women who were truly allowed to playfully express their sexuality and exert sexual power over men in the mid-to-late ’80s and early ’90s were the “bad girls”—Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Joan Collins on Dynasty, Susan Lucci “having it all” on All My Children, Heather Locklear on Melrose Place.
But that era was fading when Monicagate broke. The hottest book this side of Harry Potter was Bridget Jones’s Diary. The two most influential sitcoms to appear as impeachment loomed were Will & Grace and Sex and the City. Buffy and Xena had just started kickin’ butt in sexy form-fitters, Ally McBeal was balancing a thriving work and love life and Monica, Phoebe, and Rachel were trading off smokin’ hotties among their Friends. Desperate Housewives, The Devil Wears Prada, and Eat Pray Love were coming up next, followed by Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling, and Lena Dunham after that.
Hollywood A-lister Shonda Rhimes told the press that she insisted her educated, self-sufficient, professional TV heroines be overtly sexualized and have steamy scenes as a sign of their feminist liberation. “I hope my daughters grow up to have amazing sex,” she said, later adding that “women owning their sexuality” should not be “taboo.” When a conservative woman angrily questioned why Rhimes insisted on regular and graphic LGBT sex scenes, Shonda shot back on Twitter “[You] are not only LATE to the party but also NOT INVITED to the party. Bye Felicia!” Not surprisingly, her fellow auteur Ryan Murphy announced that Season 4 of American Crime Story would be All About Monica. And for all the slut-shaming and late-night TV jokes that she had to endure, Monica Lewinsky personified the educated Gen-X or Millennial woman envisioned by Shonda Rhimes, “reclaiming” her sex-positive power instead of trying to lock it up and hide it in a briefcase.
The biggest blowback from Monicagate was, of course, its official sequel—Bush v. Gore. Vice President Al Gore was absolutely horrified when he learned the truth, not only because it offended him and Tipper but because of what they (correctly) feared it would do to Gore’s presidential prospects. After all, he had been an overtly pro-life (84 percent from Right to Life) and anti-gay (voting at times alongside Jesse Helms) “family values” congressman and senator while representing conservative Tennessee. He switched to social liberalism only when he went national on the 1992 Democratic ticket.
Last year in The New Republic, Jeet Heer controversially accused Republicans of being “Addicted to Whiteness.” Likewise, the more the ascendant Democratic elites became proudly diverse and alternatively lifestyled, the more Al Gore embraced, in the wake of impeachment, “respectability politics.” Whether it was shaming a dreadlocked young black man about gangsta rap and hip-hop on MTV, or lecturing blingy Democratic donors such as Barbra Streisand, David Geffen, Les Moonves, and George Clooney about Hollywood immorality, or even tongue-kissing his wife Tipper at the Democratic convention to “prove” that their marriage wasn’t in any danger of breaking up (not yet, anyway), Al Gore just couldn’t quit “distancing himself” from Clinton. When Gore chose William F. Buckley’s and Rush Limbaugh’s favorite Democrat for his running mate, finger-pointing conservative Joe Lieberman, a one-man trigger warning to the progressive left, Ralph Nader’s insurgent third-party campaign gained sufficient strength to be a factor in the outcome.
The result was an analog-era version of this year’s Bernie Sanders/Jill Stein disruption. Even including Hillary’s subpar scores among Millennials, no Democratic candidate since Michael Dukakis had scored worse among 18-34 voters than Al Gore in 2000. By contrast, Bill Clinton won Generation X by almost 20 points in 1996, and Obama’s later blowouts among youngsters were even bigger. Even as most socially conservative voters thanked God for Dubya’s victory (initially), their worst fears were realized. Young and lefty voters had walked out on Gore in Florida and New Hampshire (in favor of Nader) not because Gore was too liberal and combative but because he hadn’t been liberal and combative enough. Meanwhile, Clinton left office with Reagan-like approval ratings. The country got Bush—and the Iraq war, as Don Hewitt notes.
Asked why he wanted to impeach Clinton, Newt Gingrich famously replied “Because we can!” Bill Clinton, far from apologizing, tossed down the gauntlet with the words, “We’ll just have to win, then!” And after months of defending Clinton as totally innocent and Kenneth Starr’s investigation as just a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” when Monica’s telltale dress finally came out of the closet, defensive media Clintonites were just as unapologetic in their attitude. There is a straight line from “Because I can!” and “We’ve just got to win then!” to today’s liberal protest marches proclaiming #Resistance, while red-staters reply “Trump 2016: F— Your Feelings!” We want to win because we want YOU to lose. The all-or-nothing, zero-sum, no-mercy rules of today’s “trolling” politics were written all over Monica Lewinsky’s blue Gap dress.
Don Hewitt was right. The Monica Lewinsky scandal changed the world. Far from just another tabloid trashout, Monicagate was a dose of truth serum to Washington’s platitudinous facade. The 1998 Clinton impeachment circus cut so close to so many raw nerves that the actual truth of “who done it” became a subordinate clause to the very inconvenient truths of sex, power, and gender that no one had wanted to talk about—until they were brutally forced to. Now they’re not forced to, but it often seems that’s all they want to talk about.
Telly Davidson is the author of a new book on the politics and pop culture of the ’90s, Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Like it Or Not). He has written on culture for ATTN, FrumForum, All About Jazz, FilmStew, and Guitar Player, and worked on the Emmy-nominated PBS series “Pioneers of Television.”