NOTES ON A SCANDAL
Monica Lewinsky Sets the Record Straight on Bill Clinton: ‘I Was Completely at His Mercy’
Oscar winner Alex Gibney’s new A&E series ‘The Clinton Affair’ tracks the scandal that plagued the second half of the Clinton presidency, with Lewinsky finally taking center stage.
“Unbeknownst to me, I was on the precipice of the rabbit hole,” says Monica Lewinsky of her first encounter with then-President Bill Clinton in November 1995. Interviewed for A&E’s new docuseries The Clinton Affair, Lewinsky is candid, if not exactly nostalgic, about the torrid affair between her and Clinton that would come to define his presidency and, at the risk of sounding dramatic, the rest of her life.
The six-part series, which premieres Nov. 18, is yet another examination of Clinton’s presidency, and the various scandals—notably, the Whitewater controversy and the Paula Jones case, which would ultimately bring the Lewinsky affair to light—that punctuated his time in the White House. What’s notable about The Clinton Affair, however, is that it includes interviews with Lewinsky herself—and allows her to redefine the narrative years later, in the midst of #MeToo-inspired outrage at toxic men.
Not that Clinton was, in the eyes of Lewinsky, toxic at first. She concedes in the series that soon after starting work at the White House as an intern, she developed a “crush” on the charming, saxophone-playing president. Fresh out of college and working her first job, Lewinsky’s attempts at capturing Clinton’s attention are endearingly innocent at the start—attending official White House events, where Clinton would frequently interact with interns and staff. After finally meeting Clinton at one such event, the next day Lewinsky ran home during lunch to change into the same green suit she’d been wearing the day previous when Clinton had noticed her. “I thought, ‘Well maybe he’ll notice me again,’” she explains. “And notice me, he did.”
For the next few months, as Lewinsky tells it, their flirtation escalated, although nothing more than flirty banter or slight familiarity ever occurred, at least until the government shut down in November of 1995. Most full-time staffers were sent home, which left a skeleton crew and the White House interns to pick up the slack. Clinton would frequently wander around the West Wing, which just so happened to be where Lewinsky was working. “He passed by the office, looked in, and saw me sitting there, and smiled,” she says. “And I smiled back.” From there, the flirtation reached new heights.
At a birthday party for a staffer later that day, Lewinsky purposefully didn’t adjust her pants (to leave her underwear peeking through) and went to go wash her hands. “As I passed George Stephanopoulos’ office, I kind of looked into the open doorway,” she explains in the second episode of the show. “And Bill happened to be standing there. And he motioned me in—I don’t think my heart had ever beat as fast. Unbeknownst to me, I was on the precipice of the rabbit hole.”
The rest of the details about Lewinsky and Clinton’s affair are, by this point, common knowledge. It continued on and off for nearly two years, until the specter of Ken Starr and his investigation forced it to end. “I was completely at his mercy,” Lewinsky says of the power dynamic of their relationship. She was never able to contact him directly, and would instead spend weekends idling at her desk, waiting for him to call. And, of course, there was the clandestine aspect of the relationship that further complicated things. “There were always narratives of secrecy in this relationship,” Lewinsky explains. “We were both cautious, but not cautious enough.”
Lewinsky was unfairly demonized by the press at the time the allegations broke; poking fun at her weight and appearance, she was alternatively portrayed as a malicious homewrecker or empty-headed bimbo, and, above all, a threat to democracy. But The Clinton Affair shows that Lewinsky was perfectly aware of her actions, and was, like so many of us, merely dazzled by the charm and magnetism of someone who excels at attracting admirers, and who, in this case, just so happened to be the president of the United States.
“It’s not as if it didn’t register with me that he was the president,” Lewinsky says in the first episode of The Clinton Affair. “Obviously it did. But I think in one way, the moment we were actually in the back office for the first time—the truth is, I think it meant more to me that someone who other people desired desired me. However wrong it was... for who I was in that very moment, at 22 years old, that was how it felt.”
It’s a relatable sentiment, to be sure—the feeling of being desired is intoxicating, and thrilling, and anyone who says otherwise is definitely lying. And there were tender moments in the relationship, Lewinsky stresses, and it wasn’t purely sexual. She and Clinton would frequently talk about their days, with Lewinsky offering her input on global affairs. “It just felt like connecting,” she said of the good times. Clinton frequently gave her gifts, including a hat pin and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and would occasionally sing the Otis Redding hit “Try a Little Tenderness” to Lewinsky in moments of levity during their secret rendezvous.
Complicating the relationship was Clinton’s marriage, and, of course, the fact that Lewinsky was a young intern, and her paramour the leader of the free world at the time. Eventually, their affair would come to light, effectively marring Clinton’s presidency and reputation, and acting as the ammunition bloodthirsty Republicans needed to try to impeach him.
For Lewinsky, however, the aftereffects of her relationship with Clinton have permanently altered the course of her life. Her promising career in Washington was cut short, and the cruel attentions of the media eventually forced her to flee to Europe. She now works as an anti-bullying advocate.
More than 20 years after Lewinsky and Clinton’s first sexual encounter, it’s easy to write off the relationship as a schoolgirl crush gone wrong, or, as Lewinsky implied with her use of the hashtag #MeToo last October in the wake of the Weinstein allegations, a textbook predatory relationship. Indeed, Lewinsky’s powerful essay for Vanity Fair earlier this year sees her reexamining the relationship in light of #MeToo; previously, she’s written that the affair was “consensual,” and “any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.” Now, Lewinsky writes in her most recent essay, “I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege.”
It’s easy to wonder how Monica Lewinsky would be received today; most likely she’d be taken a lot more seriously, and there’s a decent chance her career and life could have rebounded substantially. Lewinsky deserves an opportunity to redefine the relationship on her terms—and with The Clinton Affair, she finally has her chance.