Monica Lewinsky had a piece in Vanity Fair where she “broke the silence.” We always felt that the shaming of Monica was one of the most shameful and excruciating episodes in American politics. In the wake of 9/11 it seemed perhaps something anomalous, unique to its time. But on the contrary the intervening years have only demonstrated how the shaming culture, with its bullies and victims, has become the dominant tone in our all-pervasive social media climate. In 2002 we produced Monica In Black and White for HBO. When Sheila Nevins asked us to come meet Monica we were surprised at how sweet and smart she was, and following is what we wrote about America’s sorry savaging of Monica for our book The World According To Wonder. Idris and Tony took these stunning Hurrell-like portraits revealing her incredible beauty.
January 16, 2002, the Television Critics Association
“Over here, Monica!”
“Monica! After September 11, can’t you just let the country move on?”
“How do you feel about the stain you brought on the presidency?”
“On your right! Monica! Why are you putting yourself in the spotlight again?”
“Monica, why don’t you just curl up and die?”
That one even drew a gasp from the audience.
“You said they’d be nice,” joked Monica in what
subsequently would be reported as “a pathetic wail.”
She didn’t have a chance. She said that she just wanted to set the record straight. But they didn’t care about our film, Monica in Black and White, and they didn’t care about the record. They just wanted to rip her to shreds.
We so should have seen it coming.
Everyone’s got an opinion about Monica. People smirk. Roll their eyes. Crack jokes. When Sheila Nevins first got us in the room with Monica, we were struck by how pretty she was. She quickly put us at our ease, explaining she was no stranger to people being surprised that
someone about whom so many ugly things have been written could be attractive in person.
The film’s format would be simple, Monica would field questions from an audience of law students. Law students because Monica wanted to talk about the legal issues and shed light on the way she had been manipulated and coerced by prosecutors. Monica would not be protected by a host. She would be up on stage, alone. And the students would be free to ask her anything they wanted. But it soon became apparent as she walked out to lukewarm applause for the first of several question-and-answer sessions we were filming at Cooper Union, that the law students hadn’t come prepared with legal questions. Instead, they wanted to know what she called the president when she was alone with him. Which is what we all wanted to know. Because this was not about law. This was about love.
And as Monica chatted openly about it, it looked a lot like love. They chatted on the phone about nothing. They exchanged silly gifts. But, in a series of stunning betrayals, Monica’s fairytale became
a nightmare, and her romantic reverie became
a sexual grotesque.
Cue the wicked witch, Linda Tripp, with a tape recorder for a broomstick. And the handsome prince (that’s what she called her Bill, “Handsome”). On January 26, 1998, the day before the State of the Union address, Bill denied the state of his union with Monica when he said, “I did not have sex with that woman.” More Pinocchio than Prince Charming.
But, initially, Monica was glad of this disavowal, since it was their plan. “It’s people’s natural inclination to lie about sex,” said Monica. Besides, telling the truth about sex is a dangerous business. When D H Lawrence put the sex in romance in Lady Chatterly’s Lover, he ended up on trial for obscenity. Madonna’s book Sex almost derailed her career. The Starr Report would prove to be no less controversial. Casting himself as the long suffering clean-up guy (subtly underscored by his habit of taking out the trash as he left his home chit-chatting with reporters), Starr autopsied Monica and Bill’s affair, detailing every sexual gesture and moment. Extramarital affairs aren’t that unusual, but what is unusual is to see moments of illicit passion clinically listed in a criminal report. The subjects’ passion was cleverly crafted to become the reader’s revulsion. And so the Starr Report was the crowning betrayal of Monica. Thanks to it, we know more about her than we have a right to know about any individual. And because she retains not a shred of privacy with which to cover herself, she has also been stripped of the dignity and respect any fellow citizen enjoys. To say she has been a victim of an invasion of privacy is a considerable understatement. Informational gang rape is more like it.
Not that she got much sympathy from the audience. Why did she talk? they asked her. Because she was threatened with jail, because she was under oath. Why does she continue to talk about it? they asked her.
But that was why they were there. This was the show they had come to see.
Patiently, Monica said she would give anything to have her anonymity back but she also had to set the record straight: She never meant this to become public, she signed a false affidavit to cover it up. Yes, she told a few friends. But there’s a difference between telling someone something in private and having it revealed in public. There’s a difference between confiding in someone over the phone and hearing it played back in the offices of the FBI. There’s a difference between something you write and then delete from your computer, and seeing it published in a government report and distributed over the internet.
But why, the audience kept on, didn’t she put herself out to pasture in Nebraska or Nova Scotia?
As the back-and-forth went on, it became clear that the audience and Monica were engaged in some kind of struggle. Linda Williams in her book Hardcore characterizes the evolution of pornography as “a frenzy of the visible,” describing the way the medium is forever striving to show sex more explicitly, more realistically, and more close-up. It’s ultimately an exercise in futility, because the thing we seek to see cannot be shown. It was no different in Monica’s case; the audience came frenziedly seeking the visible, the striptease of her soul. The more Monica gave, the more they wanted. And yet the more she revealed, the less they actually saw. Meanwhile, Monica was there to recover her dignity. Like Peter Pan, she wanted her shadow back. But the audience wouldn’t let her have it.
Sitting on the dais with Monica as the critics tore her apart at TCA, we felt we had finally lived a tiny bit of what Monica has had to endure.
Shortly after we left the stage, out came Rudolph Giuliani, so-called hero of 9/11. The television critics gave him a standing ovation. They kissed
his ass with the same kind of fervor with which they had savaged Monica. It was sick-making.
Listening to one of Linda Tripp’s taped calls with Monica one day, we noticed that David Bowie’s “Heroes” was playing in the background. It was an epiphany. The song’s ache for transcendent heroism paired with the melancholy recognition that this was simply wishful thinking, perfectly captured the plight of all those who, in this episode, aspired to be heroes only to fall short. Bill Clinton, Kenneth Starr, Linda Tripp – they all emerged lesser people. But not Monica.
She did her best. She refused to wear a wire to trap the president. And where everyone else got to walk away and go on to other things, she paid for all this with the loss of her good name.