Monica Lewinsky is back. Again.
A Thought Experiment:
Imagine that a serious young woman in the late 1990s worked as an intern for the vice
president, did a fine job and, based on this, was admitted to a prestigious graduate degree program. Imagine that she finished the program and turned her thesis into a thoughtful
book about mistreatment of women in American culture. Imagine that the book was well- received by academics and pundits alike.
As a result, would the young woman
a) be the subject of a biography by the same author who wrote about Princess Diana,
b) be interviewed by Barbara Walters,
c) be offered a chance to write about herself for Vanity Fair magazine,
d) be invited to give a TED talk on her book's subject, or
e) none of the above
I'm going with e). The serious young woman would be a very minor celebrity in intellectual and political circles, but that would be the end of it until she wrote another good book.
Let us speak now of Monica Lewinsky. We know what she did as an intern in the late 1990s. She acknowledges that this was a mistake, but she has not apologized, exactly. She has asserted that she was a willing adult participant in an affair with an unhappily married man.
She has taken up the cause of people who have been shamed by cyber bullying, starting with herself. She is angry at the treatment she has received over many years. She is weary of being called a slut in internet jokes and rap lyrics.
She has a valid point. Who can blame her? The internet is an ugly, anonymous place. People are targeted and humiliated -- women much more often than men.
Now Lewinsky wants to use her fame for good. "We need to return to a long-held value of compassion and empathy," she instructs us.
Yesterday, her photograph covered the top half of the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times. This was the headline: "In Her Own Voice: But this time it's on her own terms"
The article goes on at length: Monica attending a play called "Slut" and comforting teenage performers, Monica explaining her continuing distress, at 41, at still being called "that woman" after winning a master's degree in social psychology, Monica's long-time relationship with Vanity Fair magazine and her famous 2014 autobiographical article, two late-night hosts' regrets at how she was treated in the late 1990s, Monica's brains and her wish to "give a purpose to my past."
Everything in the article, like everything about Monica Lewinsky's fame, traces to her early notoriety. Many years later, she wants to remain in the public view to press her case as a virtuous victim showing the world the errors of its ways.
In her TED talk, now online and quoted in the Times article, Lewinsky asks: "Can I see a show of hands of anyone who didn't make a mistake or do something they regretted at 22?"
This is a fair question.
But here's another question. Who wants a mistake at the age of 22 to define her life?
Ultimately, this is what Lewinsky wants. If the story of her dalliance with a president goes away, so does her fame. So does Vanity Fair, so does the New York Times, so do the TED talk organizers.
Another Thought Experiment:
Imagine that Lewinsky withdrew from public life after the scandal was revealed. Imagine
that she moved to a remote place, perhaps changed her name and certainly refused all interview requests. Imagine she took up a new career as a doctor or a tech engineer or a librarian.
Had she done this, Monica Lewinsky now would have a record of genuine accomplishment. People seeking to judge her would have to weigh 15 years of adult integrity and modesty against several months of adolescent misbehavior at the age of 22.
Lewinsky would be a joke no longer. She would have a private life. What she would not have is her fame.
Lewinsky wants the fame. Sadly, her only claim to fame requires keeping the blue dress and cigar stories alive. She wants to have it both ways.