An exhausted Hillary Clinton crying on the New Hampshire primary trail; Bill Clinton’s heart attack; Jimmy Carter equating religious persecution with certain church propositions. They’re all reminders that politicians are people, too.
With the reappearance of Monica Lewinsky — the White House intern at the center of President Bill Clinton’s impeachment scandal — on the national stage, one storyline is a review of who did not come to her aid back in the ‘90s. The “one free grope” pass that leading feminists gave President Clinton when faced with questions of abuse of power and sexual harassment was far from the feminist movement’s best moment. But those weren’t pretty days, and living through them once was enough. Recycling talking points and rhetoric from two decades ago does little good now — unless you’re a campaign strategist thinking it can help your candidate or hurt another. It also might miss the most important lessons of that shameful moment of contemporary history.
In her recent piece in Vanity Fair, Lewinsky writes about the impact that Tyler Clementi had on her life. Clementi was an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman who killed himself after video of him kissing another man was made public. The death deeply affected Lewinsky’s mother. Lewinsky realized her mother “was reliving 1998, when she wouldn’t let me out of her sight. She was replaying those weeks when she stayed by my bed, night after night, because I, too, was suicidal. The shame, the scorn, and the fear that had been thrown at her daughter left her afraid that I would take my own life — a fear that I would be literally humiliated to death.”
Life does go on, though. Humiliation can strengthen us, stripping us of all pretension. Lewinsky writes that in the wake of Clementi’s death, her “own suffering took on a different meaning. Perhaps by sharing my story, I reasoned, I might be able to help others in their darkest moments of humiliation.”