This is a transcript of Episode 7 of Season 2 of Slow Burn. Listen in the player below, or subscribe here.
Lisa Chase and all her friends loved Bill Clinton from the beginning.
LISA CHASE: After a lot of years in the political wilderness, if you were a liberal Democrat in Manhattan in 1993, Bill Clinton was, you know, what you dreamed of. That kind of voluble intelligence he had—that was an aphrodisiac for, I think, lots of people—women and men.
Chase spent the second half of the 1990s working as an editor at the New York Observer, a small weekly newspaper known for covering Manhattan society in columns like Sex and the City, which became an HBO series. Chase was a liberal in her 30s, and as a woman, she always thought of Bill Clinton as being on her side. A lot of feminists did, because broadly speaking, his policies reflected the agenda of the women’s movement.
That’s not to say all left-leaning women saw Clinton as their ally—he had alienated many supporters, particularly women of color, with his approach to welfare reform and other issues. Even so, Clinton got credit for being pro-choice—during his first week in office, he marked the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade by lifting restrictions on abortion that had been put in place by his Republican predecessors.
BILL CLINTON: Today I am acting to separate our national health and medical policy from the divisive conflict over abortion.
Later, many feminist organizations cheered Clinton for signing legislation like the Violence Against Women Act. Also for appointing Ruth Bader Ginsberg to the Supreme Court.
BILL CLINTON: In her pioneering work on behalf of the women of this country, she has compiled a truly historic record of achievement.
And for installing more women in senior positions than any administration in history.
LISA CHASE: He was enthusiastic about working with women, you know? He did not come across as a sexist. You just felt that what he loved was intelligence. And he liked women.
Chase knew that Clinton had a history of sexual indiscretion. But his apparent inability to control himself was almost part of the appeal.
LISA CHASE: He was like that guy who was so great but flawed and you were trying to figure him out, right? You were just trying to unlock it and if you could unlock it, you could potentially fix him.
The Monica Lewinsky story broke in January of 1998. About a week later, Chase was at a bar with a bunch of her friends, and they were talking about the scandal—the only thing anyone wanted to talk about.
LISA CHASE: One of us said—it might have been me, it might have been one of the other women—“well, would you sleep with the president? Would you fuck the president?” And every woman said “yeah!”
The conversation gave Chase an idea: What if the Observer brought together a group of notable New York women and asked them the question on the record? Would they fuck Bill Clinton—why or why not?
The Observer’s focus group included Katie Roiphe, Erica Jong, Patricia Marx, and a half dozen others. Each woman was influential in her field—and most of them were somehow involved in the public dialogue around sex. The moderator was Francine Prose, and the location was Le Bernardin, a fancy restaurant in midtown that was chosen in part because it was owned by a woman.
The resulting piece ran in February of 1998 under the headline “NEW YORK SUPERGALS LOVE THAT NAUGHTY PREZ!” At this point, Clinton was still denying that he’d had an affair with Lewinsky, but everyone quoted in the piece pretty much took it for granted that he had—and they didn’t care. Patricia Marx talked about how she liked the president more now. Katie Roiphe said that “this virile President [was] suddenly fulfilling [a] forbidden fantasy of [an] old-fashioned, taboo aggressive male.” Erica Jong declared, “I want [a president to be] alive from the waist down.” The through-line was that these women were kind of excited for Monica Lewinsky, and maybe even a little envious of her.
LISA CHASE: We were projecting ourselves onto her. It was almost as if a lot of the women in that room felt this is a right that we’d fought for—the right to pursue powerful men in whatever way, you know, professionally or sexually.
Journalist Marjorie Williams, writing in Vanity Fair, said the Observer piece was “the most embarrassing thing [she] had read in a long time.” Williams, who died in 2005, called out the women who participated in the roundtable for the gleefully raunchy way in which they had talked about the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. “Why,” Williams asked, “do feminists find it so hard to acknowledge the ugliness of this arrangement?”
As Williams’s piece itself demonstrated, not everyone did. Today it’s conventional wisdom that all feminists hypocritically turned their backs on Monica Lewinsky. In fact, the scandal provoked an intense debate within the feminist movement about sex, power, consent, and priorities. For some, it was obvious that Clinton had victimized Lewinsky and needed to be thrown overboard despite his policies. For others, like Lisa Chase, it was just as obvious that the scandal was part of a political war in which Clinton was the good guy.
LISA CHASE: We felt that there was this incredibly ridiculous thing happening and this incredibly dangerous thing happening and we felt defensive for our president. We weren’t sure what was going to happen. We weren’t sure who was going to win.
It was clear from the beginning how Clinton’s enemies were going to react to the Lewinsky revelation. The more interesting question was: What would his friends think? What were the arguments and ideas that divided liberals—and feminists in particular—at the height of the scandal? And what did it mean that Monica Lewinsky herself had always considered her relationship with Clinton to be a consensual love affair?
This is Slow Burn. I’m your host, Leon Neyfakh.
RUSH LIMBAUGH: Everybody’s talking about the feminists and their absence here.
ELIZABETH TOLEDO: I think those that would accuse the feminist movement of having a double standard don’t understand well what we do.
ANDREA MITCHELL: As women continue to talk around the country about the man, the women, and the presidency.
Episode 7: Bedfellows.
About three weeks after Clinton publicly confessed to his affair with Monica Lewinsky, he called a cabinet meeting in the White House residence. The mood was tense; Clinton had been depressed, distracted, and afraid that at any moment he might be abandoned by his allies—both in the administration and on Capitol Hill. After about two dozen cabinet members filed in and took their seats, Clinton stood in front of a fireplace and addressed the group in a somber voice.
PETER BAKER: He begins with apology. He’s trying to explain himself to them. He’s got tears in his eyes.
This is journalist Peter Baker, who covered the White House for the Washington Post.
PETER BAKER: And it’s a powerful moment. He gets support from people who stand up and quote Bible verses and tell him that they are behind him and they know that God believes in forgiveness. And then finally comes to Donna Shalala.
Donna Shalala was Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services. She was a Clinton administration lifer—she had joined the team at the very start of his first term. The week the Lewinsky story broke, she had stood in front of the press corps and said she believed the president. Remember the Madeleine Albright statement you heard in last week’s episode?
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I believe the allegations are completely untrue.
RICHARD RILEY: I’ll second that. Definitely.
DONNA SHALALA: Thirded!
That confident, carefree voice saying “thirded”? That was Shalala.
Eight months later, she sat and listened as her fellow cabinet members assured Clinton, one by one, that they forgave him. With every minute, Shalala grew more resolved to change the temperature in the room. Here she is talking about it back in 2007.
DONNA SHALALA: I was irritated that I had defended him publicly, that he had told me he hadn’t done it and told everybody else. We were all told to tell the president the truth so I told him the truth.
Shalala said to Clinton that what bothered her most was not his lying. It was that Lewinsky was just barely out of college.
DONNA SHALALA: If he had an affair with a married person then lied about it, I don’t think I would have been bothered about it all. It was the young person thing.
This wasn’t some abstract principle for Shalala. As she reminded Clinton, she’d served as a college president earlier in her career. And she’d fired professors for exactly this type of behavior.
DONNA SHALALA: It just it just hit against every principle I’ve had in my life and the world that I come from. You know, if you’re a college president, last thing you do is let people hit on students. I mean, we have rules about these things. And it was just unacceptable, and everybody was being a bit of an apologist for him in the room and I just blew up.
Clinton asked Shalala: Does this mean you’d prefer Richard Nixon over John F. Kennedy? According to Peter Baker, her exact words in response were “You’ve got to be kidding.”
PETER BAKER: The Cabinet members who are around the room at that time were just, you know, stunned and their eyes were wide and they’re absolutely riveted by this confrontation. And now, how much that got through to Clinton? I don’t know. But, she gave it to him, and at the end of the meeting, he, you know, pulls her aside and says, well you know you always you’re always tough on me. And she said only when you deserve it.
DONNA SHALALA: We sort of hugged at the end of the thing but I was just pissed off.
Shalala had considered resigning. But after discussing it with a few of her colleagues who were considering the same thing, she concluded she should stay by Clinton’s side.
DONNA SHALALA: We actually all decided the same thing, that we should not turn this into a constitutional crisis. We should just get our work done and keep the government together—our parts of the government together—that we should not be drawn into this. And that’s what we ended up doing. I talked to three other cabinet members who I don’t want to name and all of them were feeling the same way I was. And that is this is disgusting. But we’ve got to keep going.
DAVID BLOOM: On Capitol Hill, the independent counsel’s report arrived this afternoon.
LISA MYERS: It took two FBI vans to deliver the evidence: 18 boxes of what Ken Starr and his prosecutors say is proof of possibly impeachable offenses by the president.
The Office of the Independent Counsel delivered its 445-page report to Congress on Sept. 9. More than four years in the making, if you include the Whitewater investigation, the report was meant to inform members of Congress of what the Independent Counsel had learned, and to make a case as to whether the president should be impeached.
For two days, the report sat unread in the Ford Office Building while Democrats and Republicans in the House debated what do with it. Finally, they voted to release it to the public “sight unseen”—meaning they would get to read it at the same time as everyone else. House Speaker Newt Gingrich called it a gesture of transparency intended to guarantee an unbiased airing of the facts.
ANNOUNCER: This is an NBC News Special Report: The White House in crisis, the Starr Report.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: The report from Ken Starr is out.
TOM BROKAW: Some major surprises, none of them pleasant of the president of the United States.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: The details are tough to take—decidedly not for the fate of heart, certainly not for children.
The Government Printing Office couldn’t produce enough copies for every Congressman and all 7,000 journalists who wanted one. To accommodate demand, the House clerk’s office struck a special deal with Kinko’s to get the report printed at just 7 cents a page. For the general public, the quickest way to get a hold of the report was online, as news organizations and even local libraries uploaded it to their servers.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: The biggest internet event ever: the scramble to get access to the Starr Report.
GEORGE LEWIS: America Online said traffic was 30 percent higher than normal.
The Starr Report was an immediate sensation. This was mostly due to the so-called narrative portion that consisted of detailed descriptions of Clinton and Lewinsky’s sexual encounters.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Oh my God.
GEORGE LEWIS: The customers here at the Java Cafe are among the millions reading the Starr Report all over the country and around the world.
STAN BERNARD: There is nowhere to hide from the Starr Report.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: I don’t think there’s a need to have the first 12 pages of all the major newspapers cover his sexual experiences with Monica Lewinsky.
The phrase “oral sex” appeared in the Starr Report 85 times, as in, “the President initiated the oral sex by unzipping his pants and exposing his genitals.” The word “breasts” appeared 51 times, as in, “the President lifted Ms. Lewinsky’s sweater [and] fondled her bare breasts with his hands.” “Whitewater,” meanwhile—the Arkansas land deal Starr set out to investigate when he became independent counsel—was mentioned just four times, a number the administration was happy to round down to zero when pushing back on the report.
DAVID BLOOM White House lawyers pointing out that there is no mention of that original land deal controversy, nor the FBI files case, nor the scandal involving the travel office.
GEORGE LEWIS: And here’s a big irony: Congress once tried to pass a law protecting kids from internet smut. Now, thanks to the Starr Report, it’s that same Congress that’s putting X-rated material on the net.
But the Starr Report contained more than just bureaucratic smut. It also formally accused Bill Clinton of committing impeachable offenses. Starr pointed to multiple instances of obstruction of justice; witness tampering, abuse of power; and perjury both in a civil and criminal context. According to Starr, Clinton had done more than lie to the Paula Jones lawyers back in January. He had also lied to Starr’s grand jury in August with his parsing of the term “sexual relations.”
LISA MYERS: Specifically, the president told the grand jury that he never touched Lewinsky’s breast or other intimate parts of her body, and therefore had not perjured himself in his deposition in the Jones case last January when he said he had not had sexual relations with Lewinsky.
If you’ll recall, the Jones lawyers had defined “sexual relations” as touching another person’s genitals with intent to arouse or gratify their sexual desire. In his grand jury testimony, Clinton had insisted that according to that definition, Lewinsky had had sexual relations with him but not the other way around. But the Starr team was not having it.
LISA MYERS: Prosecutors cite at least 13 instances in which he touched her in very intimate ways, including one episode involving a cigar.
This was how Starr justified going into such excruciating detail in his referral to Congress—Clinton was the one trying to argue about what kind of touching counted as sex. If that was how he wanted to play it, then Starr had no choice but to include all the gnarly details that proved Clinton was lying.
As it turned out, many Americans found that argument about as persuasive as Starr had found Clinton’s. Remember, Clinton was an extremely popular president, and his supporters did not want to see him humiliated like this.
ELIZABETH BENEDICT: I remember where I was when I read it in the New York Times and how pissed off I was at Ken Starr for having pursued this.
This is novelist Elizabeth Benedict. She was one of the women who participated in the New York Observer roundtable. She’d been invited because she was the author of a book about how to write sex scenes.
ELIZABETH BENEDICT: Ken Starr was the only person who cared about this. Monica wasn’t complaining; she wasn’t filing a charge against him; his wife wasn’t threatening to divorce him that we knew about. But there was this government official who was prosecuting him and persecuting him about this. I mean, he was sort of the pervert in this. And I think people found that very disturbing and they kind of understood that he was the weirdo, right? He was like the voyeur. And he was making all this happen.
When Benedict read the Starr Report, her reflex was to imagine herself being pursued and exposed the way Ken Starr had pursued and exposed Bill Clinton.
ELIZABETH BENEDICT: Because we’re all human beings, and whatever you do sexually you don’t really want in the New York Times. And then there was Ken Starr saying, these are matters of grave importance and it was like, no they’re not.
For some people, Starr’s investigation had the curious effect of humanizing Clinton. Here’s Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women, better known as NOW, talking about how the scandal might be affecting Hillary Clinton.
PATRICIA IRELAND: She is seeing her husband, I suspect, in the same way the women voters do—that is, as a complex human being with strengths and flaws—I think helps shore him up.
In his novel The Human Stain, Philip Roth would later describe the summer of 1998 as a summer of nausea. In one passage, Roth imagined a banner hanging from the front of the White House that said “a human being lives here.” That image echoed a comment Clinton had made during his grand jury testimony, which the House Judiciary Committee voted to release on video one week after the publication of the Starr Report.
PROSECUTOR: Had you tried not to let anyone else know about this relationship?
BILL CLINTON: Well, of course.
PROSECUTOR: What did you do?
BILL CLINTON: Well I never said anything about it, for one thing. And I did what people do when they do the wrong thing: I tried to do it where nobody else was looking at it.
“I did what people do when they do the wrong thing.” Whether or not he’d intended it this way, Clinton’s framing invited Americans to see themselves in him. It also established a meaningful distinction between his misdeeds—committing adultery and covering it up—and those of Richard Nixon, the last president to face an impeachment campaign. The difference was, Nixon had abused the power he had as the president of the United States; Clinton had done something anyone could do. You didn’t have to be president to lie about an affair.
In 1991, millions watched as Anita Hill accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Seven years later, Hill was probably the country’s best-known anti-sexual harassment activist. So it carried weight, when, after the release of the Starr Report, Hill stressed that what happened between Lewinsky and Clinton had nothing to do with workplace sexual harassment. The Starr Report did make absolutely clear that Lewinsky had pursued Clinton with unreserved enthusiasm. Unlike in the Paula Jones case, no one was accusing Clinton of making unwanted advances toward Lewinsky or trying to coerce her into sex.
But was consent the only factor to consider in the context of an affair between the most powerful man in the world and a 22-year-old intern? This was a key question for anyone trying to assess the nature and gravity of Clinton’s misdeeds.
LINDA HIRSHMAN: This is a place where reasonable people can differ, so I don’t want to make it into a catfight. But it’s a major difference of worldview.
This is Linda Hirshman, a philosopher and historian who studies the intersection of sex, social movements, and the law. When Hirshman started looking at the Lewinsky-Clinton relationship back in 1998, she saw something other than a consensual affair.
LINDA HIRSHMAN: You don’t have such fraught relationships with people who are so fragile. I just went back to her grand jury testimony, and it is really wrenching. I mean, and what her friends were saying at the time and what her mother was saying. Obviously there was available to objective observers evidence of how painful this was for her no matter what she was saying about how she was fine. Any mother of a teenage daughter knows that they’ll always say they’re fine.
Hirshman was sure that Monica Lewinsky had been abused by a predator, and she stands by that assessment now.
LINDA HIRSHMAN: It’s pretty clear that there was an inequality—not just of age and money and power, but of rationality, right? She was delusional and he was instrumental. I mean, he was using her for whatever sexual satisfaction he could clean in his very constrained situation.
Hirshman remembers hearing other feminists argue that Clinton’s private life was no one else’s business. She saw in this argument a betrayal of women: a worldview in which men’s sexual behavior is cordoned off from moral judgment by the veil of privacy.
When we spoke, Hirshman made the analogy to domestic violence. Not so long ago, she said, police officers would show up at the home of a domestic abuser and then turn right around as soon as he told them everything was fine.
LINDA HIRSHMAN: A big achievement for feminism was to bring the social technology of law into the single-family dwelling—that was a place where women lived in anarchy with a stronger player. And so, to me, the philosopher, to say that sex between an intern and the president of the United States—or any unequal power situation—is beyond judgment, is just a variation of “we don’t go into the house and police domestic violence.”
Above all, Hirshman felt sorry for Monica Lewinsky.
LINDA HIRSHMAN: Look at how Monica Lewinsky suffered. There’s that scene where he wins the election in ’96 and she expects him to call her back to the White House, where she gets a fresh haircut and she lays out her clothing. That’s Madame Butterfly. I’m an operagoer. That’s Butterfly, right? She sees the ship coming into the harbor and she’s sitting there in her house on the hill waiting for it with her kimono, waiting for him all night. That’s one of the saddest scenes in the entire western culture. So you can’t take that degree of human intensity and sensitivity and say it’s meaningless. Morally meaningless?
It’s safe to say that Linda Hirshman was far outside the mainstream in 1998. That September, a CBS News poll showed that most Americans viewed Lewinsky unfavorably, and that she was more unpopular with women than with men. Meanwhile, on TV and on the radio:
CHARLES RANGEL: Monica was a young tramp.
CARMEN PATE: Monica Lewinsky’s behavior was unacceptable.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: There’s something about Monica: Her lips never say no. There’s something about Monica.
Lewinsky was portrayed not as a victim, but as a desperate and conniving slut whose obsessive behavior was to blame for the whole mess.
BILL MAHER: She comes off as someone who basically blackmails the president of the United States.
That’s Bill Maher in 1998, after the Starr Report came out.
BILL MAHER: And Katie Roiphe wrote a great article the other day and she said there should be a term connoting the opposite of sexual harassment—when a person of less power uses her sexual attractiveness or personal relationship with the person in greater power to get ahead. No pun intended.
As Maher saw the situation, it was Lewinsky who had seduced Clinton.
BILL MAHER: I think Monica Lewinsky is the one who should apologize to America. She’s the homewrecker. And if anybody really owes an apology, I think it’s her.
Howard Stern, the radio personality, commissioned a song about Lewinsky.
FEMALE SINGER: Hey look at me, I’m Monica Lewinsky. They print pictures of my fat face and my ‘do. Though I’ve barely finished school, I still know the golden rule: do unto others then have them do you too.
As the jokes poured in, Monica Lewinsky herself was silent—granting no interviews, making no public statements. Her only press appearance came when she posed for a photo spread in Vanity Fair—photographer Herb Ritts shot her on a beach in Malibu, wearing diamonds and wrapping herself in the American flag.
TOM BROKAW: The photos are out. Do they help or hurt?
LISA MYERS: It is hardly the image of innocence her new lawyers are trying to sell.
Predictably, that photo shoot only earned Lewinsky more criticism. Maureen Dowd, writing in the New York Times, said she was sickened to see Lewinsky “mocking her role as the silent center of a case that could bring down a president.” “Her short nails are painted red, like a little girl who has put on her mother’s polish,” Dowd wrote. “Shades of JonBenét Ramsey.”
Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards were in their late 20s when they wrote an essay for the Nation magazine called “In Defense of Monica.”
AMY RICHARDS: I remember being very angry.
This is Richards. I interviewed her and Baumgardner together a few months ago.
AMY RICHARDS: I mean, I remember feeling angry, both about how Monica was being treated but feeling angry about every young woman who wasn’t given respect.
Now, if you’re listening to this in 2018, you might be thinking: What a relief to learn there was someone willing to call out Bill Maher and Howard Stern and everyone else who had ridiculed and condemned Monica Lewinsky. But while Richards and Baumgardner did briefly address Lewinsky’s public humiliation in their piece, they were primarily focused on defending Lewinsky from a different threat: feminists, in the Linda Hirshman mold, who insisted on treating her like a victim. Here’s Baumgardner.
JENNIFER BAUMGARDNER: To have somebody speak on behalf of Monica Lewinsky and say, “She says her experience was this but it’s actually this” to me is so distasteful.
In their essay, Baumgardner and Richards wrote that “at the root of feminism is the right to make our own choices, and with freedom comes the possibility that we will make bad choices. We want the right to be sexually active without the presumption that we were used or duped.”
AMY RICHARDS: When we were defending Monica, I think what we were implicitly saying was we believe her. We believe that she’s telling us the truth and she’s telling us that she was not a victim of Bill Clinton’s. And we were defending her truth as much as I think we were also sort of defending choices that she made and that any other young woman might make in a similar situation.
Richards and Baumgardner braced themselves for a backlash when they published the essay. Above all, they were thinking about the reactions of an older generation of feminists, those who identified as part of the movement’s second wave.
JENNIFER BAUMGARDNER: It felt risky.
AMY RICHARDS: Yeah it felt risky and uncomfortable a little bit—
JENNIFER BAUMGARDNER: We were probably like 27—we were 28, I guess.
AMY RICHARDS: There was a lot in the conversation about: who was the bona fide feminist? What institution got to be the feminist institution? Which book got to be the feminist book?
As expected, the piece earned Baumgardner and Richards derision from some of their elders.
JENNIFER BAUMGARDNER: There were people who were like, “Honey.” I remember there was a letter to the editor that was like, “you two sweethearts, no.”
AMY RICHARDS: ”You’re so naïve. You don’t know.” And I then and now, I felt like, “no, no no, I know. We know.”
For Linda Hirshman, this is a familiar point of view.
LINDA HIRSHMAN: You know, feminism has been having an argument between the Libertines and the egalitarian feminists, the equal rights feminists, since the porn wars.
The porn wars were a debate that divided feminism in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and created a lasting ideological fault line. On one side, roughly speaking, were feminists who defended pornography on the basis that human sexuality should be free and out in the open, not regulated and hidden away. On the other were those who believed in restricting access to pornography because of its degrading and misogynistic treatment of women.
LINDA HIRSHMAN: It’s a question of: At what point do you say that the sexual relationship is should be legally regulated or morally regulated? Where do you draw the line between an area of human life that you look at—legally, culturally, morally, however—and an area of human life that is beyond judgment.
By the time the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke, the porn wars were effectively settled: the pro-porn feminists had won, both in the courts, on First Amendment grounds, and in everyday life, because technology had made pornography too ubiquitous to regulate. But the divide within feminism had persisted, and the Clinton-Lewinsky affair brought it back into the open.
On Jan. 26, 1998, just a few days after the Lewinsky story broke, the radio show Democracy Now convened a panel of feminists to discuss the scandal.
CLIP FROM DEMOCRACY NOW: Today, Below the Beltway: We’ll talk with a group of prominent feminists.
Linda Hirshman was one of the panelists. So was Katha Pollitt, a writer for the Nation who saw the Clinton-Lewinsky affair pretty much the same way Amy Richards and Jennifer Baumgardner did.
KATHA POLLITT ON DEMOCRACY NOW: And to say that it is not possible to give consent is the same logic as that a woman can’t make up her mind about an abortion. It’s the same thing as “the best thing is for a woman to be married.” All of this garbage, this anti-feminist garbage. This leads directly to that.
Hirshman acknowledges the power of Pollitt’s argument. There is something intuitive about a feminism that calls for treating Monica Lewinsky as an independent adult capable of making her own sexual choices. But Hirshman insists that it’s not so straightforward.
LINDA HIRSHMAN: What the libertines offer is sex. You’re old enough, you can have it with an older man, you can have it with your thesis adviser. You know, as long as you’re happy and you’re having a wonderful experience, it’s all fine. That is a sexual offer and what we egalitarian feminists have to offer in exchange is not so easily appealing. We’re saying hard things right: Discipline yourself, forego the immediate pleasure. Keep an eye on your power relationships. Those are harder sells but in the long run—like not drinking too much and getting into a car or smoking cigarettes—it’s better. But it’s hard.
At one point during the Democracy Now discussion, Linda Hirshman did something surprising: She began to praise Republican senator John Ashcroft.
LINDA HIRSHMAN: Ashcroft, who was on the news yesterday, saying—I thought quite movingly and convincingly—that the disproportion of power between the chief executive of the United States and a young woman two months out of college on the other, would at least give you some pause.
Ashcroft, who would later become George W. Bush’s attorney general, was a key figure in the Christian right. Hirshman—who identifies as a radical feminist—typically did not agree with him on anything. This issue seemed to be different; when Hirshman heard Ashcroft speaking about the power imbalance between Clinton and Lewinsky, she found herself nodding along.
LINDA HIRSHMAN: And it was a little weird but not completely unfamiliar that someone of a religious background would stand up for the human dignity of the female involved. Christianity is actually one of the great sources of egalitarianism. ”Every person has a platonic soul until they have equal value.” That’s a change from the tribal beliefs of the Old Testament.
To be clear, it’s not like disapproving of Clinton suddenly made Hirshman and John Ashcroft political allies. But they did both think Clinton should resign, and they did both want to revive an idea that, in 1998, had become unfashionable: that private, consensual sex should be governed by rules.
LINDA HIRSHMAN: The argument that sex is beyond human judgment is a relatively recent argument. For most of human history, sex has been heavily regulated by the church and so forth. You know, gradually and culminating in the sexual revolution, western societies have moved sex away from the area of legal regulation, moral judgment. But that’s a mistake because sex is a human transaction like any other human transaction. And so there are right and wrong aspects to it.
For feminists like Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards, the regulation of consensual sex, inevitably penalizes the very women it’s supposed to be protecting.
JENNIFER BAUMGARDNER: I mean, I think we’re so repressed as a culture and I think totally you see this and the tragedy of the Clinton story. There’s just so much repression around and so much dissociation in our culture, and feminism was never meant to be a way of like, heaping on more repression for women about, you know, policing their behavior or their bodies.
I asked Lisa Chase, the New York Observer editor, whether, at the time of the supergals roundtable, she had considered herself a feminist.
Absolutely, she said, and proudly so. She then made the following point: Feminist thinking about sex can be divided into two strains—one that’s all about a woman’s right to sexual agency, and one that’s about a woman’s right to be free from sexual predation. Chase thinks that maybe the supergals at Le Bernardin 20 years ago were more focused on the former because they were that much closer to a time when women didn’t have sexual autonomy and self-determination.
LISA CHASE: Everybody who was in that room was somebody who had made their way to whatever position of accomplishment, power, being the head of their own company, being a successful author, whatever—and had encountered sexual stuff along the way from men they worked with, and figured out a way to deal with it and move on. So we didn’t feel like victims, right? And so the thing that comes through in that story is that we weren’t we weren’t thinking about a victim. Maybe to our detriment.
For a long time, Monica Lewinsky herself rejected the label of victim. When her first lawyer Bill Ginsburg told her privately that he thought Clinton was no better than a child molester, she pushed back. Later, in interviews, she described her relationship with Clinton as a sincere crush that blossomed into a romance. And as recently as 2014, she wrote in Vanity Fair, “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.”
Last year, Lewinsky returned to the pages of Vanity Fair with an update: In the midst of the #MeToo movement, she wrote, she had come to “see how problematic it was that [she and Clinton] even got to a place where there was a question of consent.” As for the meaning of their relationship, and how it fits into the conversation around sex and power, Lewinsky wrote: “I’m sorry to say I don’t have a definitive answer yet…I am unpacking and reprocessing what happened to me. Over and over and over again.”
It’s worth acknowledging that the intellectual debate we’ve been talking about took place within a fairly narrow corner of the world. If you added together everyone who read those pieces in the Observer and the Nation, and everyone who listened to that Democracy Now discussion, you wouldn’t exactly be looking at a cross-section of American society. But feminists didn’t just treat the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal as a moral quandary to be debated at the level of ideas. It was also a mass political issue—one that spurred advocacy groups to mobilize.
Here’s Patricia Ireland, president of NOW, making the argument in 1998 that Clinton’s policies were worth defending no matter what.
PATRICIA IRELAND: Women care about the issues. They care about child care, they care about family and medical leave, about Social Security, about public health and public education. And I think that we are not about to be rushed to judgment—none of us believes that a charge made is a charge proven.
NOW, which represented the mainstream of the feminist movement, had local chapters all around the country and it had real influence with elected officials. NOW lobbied for equal pay and laws protecting women against sexual harassment, and its leadership considered Clinton an ally in the fight for women’s equality. When the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal first broke, the organization briefly considered having its interns march on the White House with a proclamation condemning “sexually intimate relations between employees and volunteers.” But the idea never came to fruition. And within just a few weeks, Patricia Ireland was defending Clinton by emphasizing his policy record and contrasting it with that of the politicians who were calling for his head.
PATRICIA IRELAND: Most of his opponents of Bill Clinton oppose him for the very reason that the women in the country support him: He has been good on women’s issues.
Ireland was not going out on a limb with this argument—many prominent feminists, including Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem, defended Clinton on the basis of his record on women’s issues. The argument wasn’t just that Clinton had earned the benefit of the doubt through his policies—it was that those policies would actually be imperiled if Republicans defeated him. As the head of the Feminist Majority Foundation told Marjorie Williams, “We’re trying to think of the bigger picture, think about what’s best for women.”
Here again is novelist Elizabeth Benedict.
ELIZABETH BENEDICT: We really did understand that this was a political crusade. And there was a very deliberate hunting of Bill Clinton from the time he was a governor—and never mind his sexual indiscretions. You know, people did go after him. And, of course, you know he participated in some of his own destruction, but there was a right-wing conspiracy to bring him down.
Even if Clinton didn’t always make it easy to defend him, Benedict was simply not going to side with his tormentors.
ELIZABETH BENEDICT: It wasn’t like everybody was defending Clinton in an unthoughtful way. But we also understood that this was a political kind of conflict and we were, you know, Democrats and liberals and he represented us and we didn’t want him to be any more of a victim than he already was.
Feminists like Linda Hirshman felt caught between two intolerable positions: They could either stand with Republicans, who were willing to condemn Clinton and at least pay lip service to the idea that he had abused Lewinsky; or they could stand with Democrats, who refused to abandon their president because it was politically inconvenient.
LINDA HIRSHMAN: Feminists lose both ways: They lose if they are in the hands of the retrograde reactionary Southern- and religious-based American right. The sad thing is, they also lose if they are in the hands of the libertine liberal, let it all hang out, male American left. I thought it was time that women got tired of giving head to the men of the left. And so feminism—meaningful feminism—had nowhere to go.
On Nov. 3, 1998, the country held midterm elections. It was three months after Clinton’s public confession, two months after the release of the Starr Report, and one month after the House began impeachment proceedings. In the lead-up to the midterms, Republicans had widely assumed that all the turmoil would depress Democratic turnout, and that by the end of election night, Republicans would have an even more powerful majority in both the House and the Senate. So, the Republicans made Clinton the issue.
TOM BROKAW: The Republican party has unveiled something of an October surprise.
DAVID BLOOM: The Republicans’ tough new nationwide TV ad campaign.
COMMERCIAL: Should we reward not telling the truth? That is the question of this election.
If the Republicans won big in the midterms, who knew what could happen? Maybe the Democrats that remained would get the message, maybe turn on Clinton in big enough numbers that removing him in the Senate would actually become possible.
NEWS ANNOUNCER: Decision ’98.
But that is not what happened.
TOM BROKAW: Tonight, there are some major surprises.
JONATHAN ALTER: The Monica Lewinsky scandal actually helped the Democrats.
Instead of fortifying their control of Congress, Republicans lost four seats in the House and failed to make any gains in the Senate. It was a massive upset—and it was widely interpreted as a repudiation of the Republicans for going too far in their quest to bring down Clinton.
TOM BROKAW: And that’s cost them a chance to kick-start impeachment proceedings when they return.
Newt Gingrich, who had orchestrated the Republican takeover of Congress just four years earlier, resigned his post as Speaker of the House.
It looked like Clinton was finally out of the woods. Yes, he could still be impeached by Republicans in the House, but even if that happened, there was no longer any chance that Senate Democrats would turn on him. That meant the two-thirds Senate majority that Republicans needed to remove Clinton from office would remain out of reach.
Heading into winter, there was talk among Republican leaders about dropping the impeachment drive. But then, a woman from Arkansas named Juanita Broaddrick decided to intervene.
JUANITA BROADDRICK: I thought I was doing a service, you know, by telling the people of America who Bill Clinton was and what he had done to me. I was hoping it would make a difference in the impeachment process.
Most feminists had decided that Clinton having consensual sex with a subordinate was something they could forgive. How would they—and the rest of the country—react to an allegation of rape?
The season finale of Slow Burn will appear on Wednesday, Oct. 10. But first, we have a special episode next week, featuring excerpts from some of the best Slate Plus interviews we’ve been releasing exclusively to our members. If you like Slow Burn, I promise you will like these bonus episodes—everyone who listens to them does. And you’ll get a taste of what you’re missing next week.
In this week’s bonus episode, Slate Plus members will hear an absolutely unique interview with someone who interned in the Office of the Independent Counsel during college and helped copy-edit the Starr Report.
DILLON TEACHOUT: The people in the office had been doing what they thought was important and good work. And then also it was like deeply problematic. Those two things kind of seemed like they could both exist.
Her name is Dillon Teachout—and if that last name sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard of her sister Zephyr, who recently ran for New York state attorney general.
This episode of Slow Burn was produced by me and Andrew Parsons, with editorial direction by Josh Levin and Gabriel Roth. Our researcher is Madeline Kaplan. Our theme song is by Spatial Relations, and this episode featured music by Nick Sylvester of Godmode. Our artwork is by Teddy Blanks at Chips NY. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of Slate Podcasts.
T.J. Raphael is the senior producer for the Slate Podcast Network.
Thanks to the NBC News archives, C-SPAN, the Miller Center Oral History Project, Pacific Radio Archives, and Democracy Now for the archival audio you heard in this episode. For a full bibliography of all the works we consulted while making this episode, check out our show page at Slate.com/slowburn.
For script notes and all kinds of other help, we want to thank to Duchess Harris, author of the new book Black Feminist Politics From Kennedy to Trump, as well as Russell Riley, Michael Greco, Susan Faludi, Alana Newhouse, Hanna Rosin, Christina Cauterucci, Elizabeth Gumport, David Friend, Ava Lubell, Jeff Friedrich, Benjamin Frisch, Ben Kawaller, Mary Wilson, Chau Tu, Avi Zenilman, and Camilla Hammer.
See you next week.