Does Hillary Clinton care about Monica Lewinsky? The press sure does.

By Anthony Zurcher
Editor, Echo Chambers

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The 1998 Monica Lewinsky sex scandal casts a shadow over politics in 2014

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wants to have a drink with Monica Lewinsky.

To understand what this means, you have to go back in time to 1998, when President Bill Clinton was mired in a growing scandal over his extramarital affair with "that woman, Ms Lewinsky" - and Dowd was cranking out column after column on the subject. Her work would eventually garner her a Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

Now Ms Lewinsky, Dowd and the whole sordid story are back in the news, thanks to Ms Lewinsky's essay in the latest issue of Vanity Fair.

Ms Lewinsky says she wants to put the past behind her and become an advocate for "victims of online humiliation and harassment". She reaches out to Dowd, who she says she once called "Moremean Dowdy" because of the harsh criticism. "Today," she writes, "I'd meet her for a drink."

"I'm game," Dowd replies in her most recent column. She expresses sympathy for the former White House intern's travails, including difficulties finding a job and suicidal thoughts.

"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.

She says the scandal turned Ms Lewinsky into that "most loathed stereotype … the overripe office vixen who seduces her married boss."

She warns, however: "Monica is in danger of exploiting her own exploitation as she dishes about a couple whose erotic lives are of waning interest to the country."

Not so fast, writes Slate's Amanda Hess. Dowd "appears unaware that it's the caricature she helped to build that's still haunting Lewinsky after all these years".

Dowd, she writes, wrote columns calling Ms Lewinsky "ditsy" and "predatory", comparing her to the scorned, psychotic ex-lover in the film Fatal Attraction. She was acting like "love-struck teenager" who lacked brains.

Hess writes:

While Lewinsky expresses regret for her ill-fated relationship with Clinton - and many Americans have come to realise that Lewinsky got a raw deal - Dowd is not yet ready to assume responsibility for her own role.

Dowd wasn't the only subject of media navel-gazing following news of Ms Lewinsky's re-emergence on the national stage, as more and more commentators proved unable to resist the siren call of a turn-back-the-clock scandal.

Daily Beast's Emily Shire cites one columnist's recent reference to Ms Lewinsky as a "a horny 21-year-old White House intern" as she writes:

It would be nice to think that in 2014, when we're much quicker to call out slut-shaming in politics, entertainment, and everyday life, Lewinsky would be received with a little more understanding. But apparently when it comes to Monica Lewinsky, it's 1998 all over again.

The Lewinsky scandal is "worth revisiting occasionally", says the Federalists's David Harsanyi.

"It's always valuable to revisit the smarminess, ruthlessness, mendacity and corruption of Bill Clinton, a guy who is paraded around as the paternal voice of the Democratic Party," he writes.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Lewinsky affair "will not be taboo" if Hillary Clinton runs for president

Once you perform fellatio on a sitting president your narrative is pretty much written for you. Life's unfair like that. And it really is a sad episode. The thing is, life's not equally unfair for everyone.

Ah yes, the Clintons.

This recent Monica Lewinsky boomlet isn't about revisiting past media excesses. And it's not because Ms Lewinsky has finally decided to "break her silence" - given the fact that she cooperated in a book and a documentary on the affair and has given numerous interviews about what Slate's David Weigel calls "the most thoroughly reported extramarital affair of all time."

This, at least in the media's minds, is about Hillary Clinton and her 2016 presidential aspirations. One Republican presidential aspirant has already raised the sex scandal as a black mark on Ms Clinton's record, and the affair lurks beneath the surface as the former first lady considers another attempt to become the first female US president.

Although Ms Clinton ran for president six years ago, this time it's going to be different, writes the Washington Post's Ruth Marcus.

"The Lewinsky affair never really came up in 2008; the subject was too raw and too fraught, and Clinton did not make it to the ugliness of a general election campaign," she says. "It's clear, though, that the subject will not be taboo in 2016."

She say that by stepping forward now, Ms Lewinsky is actually doing Ms Clinton a favour.

"If and when a Clinton presidential announcement comes," she writes, "Lewinsky will be old news."

The Boston Globe's Joan Vennochi disagrees:

Lewinsky's re-emergence on the public stage is not something Hillary Clinton, presumed Democratic contender, would really welcome. At the very least, it's a reminder of the tawdriest aspect of the Clinton administration, and gives the public more grist for Clinton fatigue.

The Lewinsky saga also "raises judgement questions about Hillary", she says. Ms Lewinsky notes that Ms Clinton once called her a "narcissistic loony toon" in a private conversation, and Vennochi says this could be trouble for "the potential presidential candidate who talks about empowering women".

Thanks to Ms Clinton's potential candidacy, writes the New Republic's Rebecca Traister, this subject was going to arise one way or the other.

Better that it comes from Ms Lewinsky, she says, than from the conservatives who "wielded her as a weapon".

"For the past year, Republicans have been aching to gather millennials - too young to remember the dirty details - round the campfire and tell them tales of cigars and blue dresses," she writes.

If we're lucky, she says, this renewed interest in the scandal will allow us to have a more nuanced conversation about gender and the presidency.

"Finally having a woman in the White House is a knotty project, two centuries in the making, all hoo-ha about 'inevitability' to the contrary," she writes.

There's a reason why neither Ms Clinton or Ms Lewinsky can move on from the affair story:

It is the story of women in the United States: marginalised, sexualised, and pitted against each other since time began in an attempt to keep them at the fringes of a power structure and very far from the top of it.

The media are definitely going to have a conversation about Hillary Clinton, feminism, the Lewinsky affair and presidential politics. Whether it's a "more nuanced" one, however, seems overly optimistic.