Twenty years since the White House was rocked by a sex scandal, it is being seen through new #MeToo eyes as ‘The Clinton Affair’, writes TP O’Mahony.
The question caught her off-guard, though she knew she should have been ready for it.
It was early 2001, and Monica Lewinsky was sitting on the stage of New York’s Cooper Union in the middle of taping a Q&A for a HBO documentary of which she was the subject.
“How does it feel to be America’s premier blow-job queen?”
Writing about it in the April 2014 edition of Vanity Fair (the article was entitled ‘Shame and Survival’), Lewinsky described her response.
“Hundreds of people in the audience, mostly students, were staring at me, many with their mouths agape, wondering if I would dare to answer this question.”
As she looked at the audience, from which there had been audible gasps, she saw numerous blurred, faceless people calling out: Don’t answer it!
But she did.
“It’s hurtful and insulting,” she replied, attempting to gather her wits.
“And as insulting as it is to me, it’s even more insulting to my family.
"I don’t know why this whole story became about oral sex... The fact that it did may be the result of a male-dominated society.”
But why agree to the interview in the first place?
“You could argue that in agreeing to participate in a HBO documentary called Monica in Black and White I had signed up to be shamed and publicly humiliated yet again.
"You might even think I had been inured to humiliation.
“This encounter at Cooper Union, after all, paled in comparison with the 445-page Starr Report, which was the culmination of independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s four-year investigation of the Clinton White House.
"But the ‘BJ Queen’ question — which was included in the show when it aired on HBO in 2002 — sat with me for a long time after the audience left and the taping wrapped.”
She said the main reason she had agreed to participate in the programme was not to “rehash or revise the storyline of Interngate” but to try to shift the focus to meaningful issues.
“Many troubling political and judicial questions had been brought to light by the investigation and impeachment of President Bill Clinton. But the most egregious had been generally ignored.
“People seemed indifferent to the deeper matters at hand, such as the erosion of private life in the public sphere, the balance of power and gender inequality in politics and media, and the erosion of legal protections to ensure that neither a parent nor a child should ever have to testify against each other.”
Lewinsky admitted she had been naive to expect the HBO documentary to explore these issues.
In the new six-part documentary called The Clinton Affair — which began airing last week in America to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Starr Report — Lewinsky describes how she and Clinton tried unsuccessfully to keep their relationship — a consensual arrangement, she has always insisted (up until recently) — private.
“We were both cautious, but not cautious enough,” she said in a clip aired on Good Morning America.
She recounted how Clinton warned her she could face questioning as part of a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by another woman, Paula Jones.
They both decided to lie about their affair, Clinton doing so under oath.
It was this that would provide grounds later on for his impeachment.
After the publication of the Starr Report in 1998, Monica said she was “arguably the most humiliated person in the world”.
At the time both the Washington Post and the New York Times carried lengthy supplements with the full text, but her global humiliation was really driven by the internet.
In an attempt to escape, she moved to London and undertook a course of studies at the London School of Economics.
“My professors and fellow students at the LSE were wonderful — welcoming and respectful.
"I had more anonymity in London, perhaps due to the fact that I spent most of my waking hours in class or buried in the library.”
In 2006, she graduated with a master’s in social psychology.
Prior to her sojourn in London, however, she had agreed to co-operate with Andrew Morton, the author of Diana: Her True Story, which had become a worldwide bestseller.
Lewinsky had never read that book, but her New York attorney, Richard Hofstetter, had and it was he who set up the meeting that was to lead, in 1999, to the publication of a new book entitled Monica’s Story.
Morton recalled his first meeting with Lewinsky, describing her as “a demure, polite young woman who was a far cry from the brassy Beverly Hills babe of media mythology”.
The Lewinsky, he discovered, was “a bright, lively, and witty young woman who, while she bears the scars of her continuing public shaming, remains undefeated.
"She is a well-educated girl who likes singing, shopping, and poetry — TS Eliot is her favourite poet”.
The public shaming was the result of the Starr Report, a document later savagely criticised by the legal scholar Alan Dershowitz in his book Sexual McCarthyism for turning “a tawdry series of Oval Office encounters” into a constitutional crisis.
“The Starr Report chronicled in graphic detail not just the blue dress but the (unnecessary) specifics of Monica’s sexual encounters, from the infamous cigar to ‘oral-anal contact’ to Monica’s orgasms.
“It was released as a bound volume and is available, to this day, as an audiobook voiced by two soap opera alumni,” wrote the commentator Megan Carpentier in a long article in the Guardian in May 2014.
“It was used in an effort not to expose deep-seated corruption, indefensible criminal acts, or government involvement in war, death, or spying on its own citizens — but rather in an ultimately unsuccessful endeavour to impeach a sitting president over whether he had lied under oath about the affair itself.
“It cost taxpayers an estimated $70m.
Lewinsky was later to recognise that for Kenneth Starr and his investigators she was just a pawn used to get the president.
When told that the new mini-series was to be called The Clinton Affair, Monica Lewinsky was immediately pleased.
Hitherto all references to the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship have called it the ‘Monica Lewinsky Scandal’; even Cassell’s Dictionary of Modern American History has it listed under ‘The Lewinsky Scandal’.
Lewinsky always felt that was terribly unfair.
“The aim of the series is to shift the focus from the young intern to the president, who was a known womaniser,” Blair Foster, the director, told CNN.
She said her one big regret was that she couldn’t persuade Linda Tripp — Lewinsky’s one-time friend (who worked in the Pentagon) and later her betrayer — to participate.
As for Lewinsky, she gave 20 hours of interviews for The Clinton Affair – a title she found appropriate.
“Bye-bye Lewinsky scandal,” she wrote in the essay for Vanity Fair a few weeks ago. “I think 20 years is enough time to carry that mantle.”
Lewinsky was a 22-year-old intern when she and Clinton began a sexual relationship after she joined the White House staff in July 1995.
She was, at least initially, smitten with Clinton, later saying that “I fell in love with my boss”.
She testified that on November 15, 1995, she had her first sexual encounter with Clinton.
Their affair, which came to light in the context of court proceedings arising from a sexual harassment suit brought against him by Paula Jones, resulted in the first impeachment trial of an elected president in US history.
On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon had taken the unprecedented step of resigning the presidency in shame in order to avoid impeachment for his role in the Watergate scandal.
He was granted an unconditional pardon by president Gerald Ford on September 8, 1974.
While a battle raged in the US House of Representatives over whether to impeach Clinton and, if so, on what charges, on November 13, 1998, he reached an out-of-court settlement with Paula Jones in which he paid her $850,000 in return for her agreement to drop her sexual harassment suit.
On December 13, the House of Representatives voted 228-206 to impeach Clinton for perjuring himself, and by 221-212 to impeach him for obstructing justice.
In January 1999, the Senate sat in judgment on the impeachment charges.
In according with the Constitution, impeachment must be approved by a two-thirds majority in the Senate.
When it came to a vote on February 12, 1999, the articles of impeachment failed to reach the required majority; the case was closed and Clinton remained in office.
In addition to Paula Jones, allegations of sexual impropriety had been made by Gennifer Flowers, a singer, model, and actress.
Flowers came forward during Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, stating that she had a 12-year relationship with him.
After initially denying this claim on the 60 Minutes show, in January 1998 Clinton testified under oath that there had been a sexual encounter between Flowers and him.
In a deposition in January 1998, while denying Kathleen Willey’s sexual accusations against him, Clinton admitted he had sex with Flowers.
He stated it was on one occasion in 1997.
Bill Clinton had married Hillary in October 1975.
Flowers published her memoir, Passion and Betrayal: Sleeping with the President, in 1995.
Until Hurricane Katrina, she ran a cabaret called the Kelso Club in a former bordello in the French Quarter of New Orleans.
Flowers made her New York theatre debut in 2004, as a replacement in the off-Broadway hit, Boobs! The Musical.
On Fox News on June 5, 2018, Flowers levelled new allegations against Clinton, claiming her tryst, in hindsight, “was definitely sexual harassment”.
She added that if Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein were facing legal ramifications, why not Bill Clinton.
Twenty years on, Monica Lewinsky has emerged as an articulate anti-bullying advocate and a voice in the #MeToo movement, as well as being a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, after having years of her life derailed by the scandal that broke with the publication of the Starr Report.
That said, Monica is still defined by her participation in a relationship that is long since over.
“She was assigned her role in the world based on some very old dichotomies — bad girl, slut, mistress — that only ever apply to women,” said Megan Carpentier.
“And she became, as she herself wrote, ‘a social canvas on which anybody could project their confusion about women, sex, infidelity, politics and body issues’.”
Lewinsky is now very aware of the disparate power dynamic at play in a relationship in which a 22-year-old intern becomes involved with the leader of the free world, who was 27 years older than her.
She once wrote that while “my boss took advantage of me, I remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship”.
Now she believes the relationship was coercive.
And, ironically, it was something said by Linda Tripp — the one-time friend who betrayed her by secretly taping their telephone conversations and then turning the tapes over to Starr — that hit home.
Although Tripp refused to co-operate with the six-part documentary, she did present herself recently to the makers of a podcast called Slow Burn as an early adherent of the notion, now widely shared, that Clinton’s affair with his young intern was an abuse of power.
“I mean, how it was presented to the country is how it continues to be referred today, which is an affair, the Lewinsky affair.
"But by virtue of using that word, one assumes it was in some way an actual relationship of sorts — romantic, physical, whatever, it was a relationship — which couldn’t be further from the truth.
Lewinsky herself, who insisted all along that the relationship with Clinton had been a consensual affair, has recently come around to a similar idea.
“We now recognise,” she wrote in an essay earlier this year, “that it constituted a gross abuse of power.
"Now, at 44, I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern.”
Meanwhile, columnist TW Frank boldly suggests — not unreasonably — that the Starr Report was really a prologue to the Trump Age.
In an article in Vanity Fair in September to mark the 20th anniversary of the report, he said that with another impeachment trial looming, the whole saga offers important lessons.
“Today, there’s the spectre of another impeachment trial on the horizon. If it happens, the crime had better be good.
"Just as lying about Oval Office sex didn’t cut it, neither does hiding a payoff to Stormy Daniels.”