Monica Lewinsky has unwittingly done this country a great service. In 1998, she forced America to bumble through an unprecedented national conversation about sex, power, and sexism. And in 2014, she has returned to compel us to review how we handled the assignment. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd—who covered the scandal obsessively and, as my colleague Mike Pesca notes in his podcast “The Gist” on Wednesday, won the Pulitzer Prize for that work—is as good a case study as any for examining what’s changed in the 16 years since Monicagate hit.
In 1998, a week rarely went by where Lewinsky’s name did not appear in Dowd’s column. When the scandal broke in January of that year, Dowd was initially sympathetic to Lewinsky and damning of an administration that rushed to smear her in a bid to cover its own ass. “Inside the White House, the debate goes on about the best way to destroy That Woman, as the President called Monica Lewinsky,” Dowd wrote. “Should they paint her as a friendly fantasist or a malicious stalker? … At least some of the veteran Clinton shooters feel a little nauseated this time around, after smearing so many women who were probably telling the truth as trashy bimbos. … It is probably just a matter of moments before we hear that Ms. Lewinsky is a little nutty and a little slutty.” Dowd also had words for feminists who were eager to throw Lewinsky under the bus to save their Democratic overlord: “[O]nce you decide it’s O.K. to sacrifice individual women for the greater good, you set a dangerous precedent,” Dowd wrote. “The revolution always eats its own.”
And how! It didn’t take long for Dowd to buckle under the power of the Clinton narrative and join the pile-on herself. By February, she was calling Lewinsky “a ditsy, predatory White House intern who might have lied under oath for a job at Revlon” and “the girl who was too tubby to be in the high school ‘in’ crowd.” At first, Dowd attempted to pass this nastiness off as a sly, satirical commentary on the caricature of Lewinsky that the Clinton administration had painted in the press. But soon, the artifice disappeared, and Dowd devoted her column to arguing that, come to think of it, Lewinsky was both nutty and slutty.
In May, Lewinsky was asked to submit a handwriting sample to the FBI, and Dowd wrote a satirical column imagining the scene. “Her stream-of-consciousness ramblings are on F.B.I. letterhead—in a girlish scrawl, with loopy letters, little hearts and breathless punctuation,” Dowd said. “Here’s what she wrote: Monica Clinton. Monica Lewinsky Clinton. Monica Lewinsky Rodham Clinton. Mrs. Big Creep. (Frowny face.) First Lady Monica. (Smiley face.) Menu for MY Italian State Dinner: Spaghetti Carbonara. Tiramisu. Spumoni. Table placement: Me between Leonardo DiCaprio & John Travolta. Also, cannoli.”
By June, no level of Lewinsky news was beneath Dowd’s scorn. She wrote that Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair photo shoot had “shades of JonBenet Ramsey” and that “It appears that there’s one thing Monica has immunity from: brains.” That same month, Dowd happened to run into Lewinsky while both were dining at Washington’s Bombay Club, so she transcribed the contents of Lewinsky’s dinner plate (“veggie appetizers and chicken tandoori”) and claimed that her presence at the White House–adjacent restaurant “suggested the former intern was still trying to grab the President’s attention, like some love-struck teen-ager, loitering outside Billy Clinton’s biology class.”
Nearing the end of the summer, Dowd had tired of her characterization of Lewinsky as a naïve Valley Girl and advanced her argument to claim that Lewinsky was the real harasser. In August, Dowd compared Lewinsky to Glenn Close’s bunny-stewing murderess in Fatal Attraction and wrote that “Monica has at least one special talent: she is relentless. It was the quality that got her noticed by Bill Clinton, and it is the quality that will prevent him from ever escaping her.” The occasion for this observation was Lewinsky’s agreement to appear in front of a grand jury as requested—how tastelessly aggressive. In September, Dowd penned Lewinsky’s book proposal for her: “Preface: Powerful men who are busy running things aren’t as hard to get as you think. It’s really, really easy if you show a little gumption and a lot of cleavage.” Later that month, she wrote, “It is Ms. Lewinsky who comes across as the red-blooded predator, wailing to her girl friends that the President wouldn’t go all the way.” And, “It is Mr. Clinton who behaves more like a teen-age girl trying to protect her virginity. … Ms. Lewinsky is the one who bristles with testosterone.”
In October, Dowd called Lewinsky a dingbat. Then, in November, she decreed that Lewinsky’s 15 minutes were up. “Her commercial window of opportunity is slamming shut,” Dowd wrote. “The nation, once glued to the soap opera of Monica and Bill, has canceled the show. … Monica must be in a panic to squeeze the last drop of profit from this sordid tale.” Nevertheless, it was Dowd who kept writing about Lewinsky week after week, capitalizing on her crazed bimbo character for the better part of 1999.
Fast-forward to 2006. Monica Lewinsky is laying low at the London School of Economics, and Maureen Dowd, hard up for news fodder, writes a think piece about how the term slut is wielded against women. She reaches back into the Lewinsky file to lend some historical context: “Republicans denigrated the prim law professor Anita Hill by painting her, in David Brock’s memorable phrase, as ‘a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.’ Clinton defenders demonized Monica Lewinsky the same way.” Huh. Is that what happened?
In the excerpt from her forthcoming Vanity Fair interview, Lewinsky writes that in 1998, she dubbed Dowd “Moremean Dowdy,” but that “today, I’d meet her for a drink.” Dowd took Lewinsky up on her offer in her column this week, and she appears unaware that it’s the caricature she helped to build that’s still haunting Lewinsky after all these years. “Though she’s striking yet another come-hither pose in the magazine, there’s something poignant about a 40-year-old frozen like a fly in amber for something reckless she did in her 20s, while the unbreakable Clintons bulldoze ahead,” Dowd writes. While Lewinsky expresses regret for her ill-fated relationship with Clinton—and many Americans have come to realize that Lewinsky got a raw deal—Dowd is not yet ready to assume responsibility for her own role. On the occasion of Lewinsky’s reappearance, Dowd has this to say: “It was like a Golden Oldie tour of a band you didn’t want to hear in the first place.” What Dowd doesn’t seem to get: She was the one beating the drum.