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Fairness for Lewinsky

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

In the various books I've read about the Bill Clinton impeachment scandal -- a scandal because of what was done and a scandal because the president was impeached for it -- the same story is told over and over again. When the prosecutors or lawyers or whoever finally got to meet the storied Monica Lewinsky, they were floored by her. She was smart, personable and -- as the record makes clear -- dignified. This is more than can be said about some of the people who write about her.

I will not name names. But in recent days, Lewinsky has been back in the news. In December she graduated with a master's degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics. Her thesis was titled "In Search of the Impartial Juror: An Exploration of the Third Person Effect and Pre-Trial Publicity." Her thesis might well have been called "In Search of the Impartial Journalist," because she was immediately the subject of more poke-in-the-ribs stories about you know what. The Post, a better paper than it was that day, called her "dumb-but-smart." It was more than could be said for that piece.

It does not take a Freudian to appreciate why Lewinsky chose the topic she did. She is a victim of publicity, and her life has been a trial -- enough to floor almost anyone. But in Lewinsky's case, she took a bad situation and made something good of it. That hardly makes her "dumb-but-smart," but rather once young -- and now older and incomparably wiser. An approximation of this befalls us all, but before we got to become wise and prudent in all things we were probably irresponsible, outrageous and wild -- in other words, young.

Fortunately for me -- and probably this applies to you as well -- my outrageous deeds are known to only a few, and some of those people, after a lifetime of bad marriages and poor investments, have probably forgotten them. In Lewinsky's case, her youthful indiscretion has been forgotten by no one. On the contrary, it's recorded for the ages, in House and Senate proceedings, in the files of the creepy special prosecutor, in the databases of newspapers, in presidential histories and the musty joke files of second-rate comics.

She is a branded woman, not an adulterer but something even worse -- a girl toy, a trivial thing, a punch line. Yet she did what so many women at that age would do. She seduced (or so she thought) an older man. She fantasized that he would leave his wife for her. Here was her crime: She was a girl besotted. It happens even to Republicans.

But she is now a woman with a master's degree from a prestigious school and is going to be 34 come July. Her clock ticks, her life ebbs. Where is the man for her? Where is the guy brave enough, strong enough, admirable enough to take her as his wife, to suffer the slings and arrows of her outrageous fortune -- to say to the world (for it would be the entire world) that he loves this woman who will always be an asterisk in American history. I hope there is such a guy out there. It would be nice. It would be fair.

It would be nice, too, and fair, also, if Lewinsky were treated by the media as it would treat a man. What's astounding is the level of sexism applied to her, as if the wave of the women's movement broke over a new generation of journalists and not a drop fell on any of them. Where, pray tell, is the man who is remembered just for sex? Where is the guy who is the constant joke for something he did in his sexually wanton youth? Maybe here and there some preacher, but in those cases the real subject matter is not sex but hypocrisy. Other than those, no names come to mind.

This is the year 2007, brand new and full of promise. It would be nice if my colleagues in the media would resolve to treat Monica Lewinsky as a lady, to think of her as they would themselves, to remember their own youth and the things they did and to understand that from this day forward anyone who takes a cheap shot at Lewinsky has a moral and professional obligation to look in the mirror. To proceed otherwise is to miss the joke entirely. No longer is it Monica Lewinsky. It is now the people who write about her.

cohenr@washpost.com


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