Monica Lewinsky is back. She opened a Twitter account Monday morning. And then she delivered a speech at the first-ever Forbes "30 under 30" event in Philadelphia, in which she declared: "I was Patient Zero. The first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the Internet.”
That quote got me thinking about Lewinsky, her affair with President Bill Clinton in the late 1990s and what it all meant for politics and the media who cover politics.
Lewinsky, in her remarks at the Forbes summit, was focused heavily — as her quote above suggests — on the influence of sites like the Drudge Report and the rise of the social media news cycle. Here's a bit more from her on that topic, according to Forbes:
“There was no Facebook, Twitter or Instagram back then. But there were gossip, news and entertainment websites replete with comment sections and emails which could be forwarded. Of course, it was all done on the excruciatingly slow dial up. Yet around the world this story went. A viral phenomenon that, you could argue, was the first moment of truly ‘social media.’ ”
Lewinsky is right. The story of her affair with the president of the United States, which turned Matt Drudge and his eponymous Web site from a nobody into a household name, was the first massive political story of the emerging Internet era of journalism. Before Lewinsky, there were plenty of tawdry sex scandals involving politicians, but technology didn't allow them to go from local or even regional stories to national ones in a matter of moments. The Lewinsky story broke that ground — and either created a hunger among the public for those sorts of stories or simply filled a hunger that had always been there but was never sated.
But the Lewinsky story's impact is significantly wider than that. Lewinsky — and all that came from the way that episode was covered and felt in politics — represents a critical moment in both the polarization of the country and the line between the personal and the political in media coverage.
Let's start with that second point first. New York Timesman Matt Bai, in a new book titled "All Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid," cites the 1987 affair revelations surrounding Colorado Sen. Gary Hart as the start of the intense focus on the personal lives of politicians. If Hart and Donna Rice started it, then Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky took it to a whole new level. The coverage — I was a young reporter working for the Cook Political Report in 1998 when the Starr Report came out — was all-encompassing and without any filters. "Thong" became part of the political conversation. (Shudder.) Intimate details about their relationship were broken down like exit poll data. Amateur psychoanalysis of why Bill Clinton would do something like this — did it have to do with his upbringing? — was everywhere.
From 1998 on, it was open season on politicians. The "hoisted with his own petard" storyline was too appealing to ignore; the idea that members of Congress, particularly those who talked a good game on values but didn't live that way, became a massive and ongoing story. As I have written before — in response to Matt's book — I am not one of the people who believe the breaking down of the lines between personal and professional is a bad thing. But it is inarguable — whether you think it's a good thing or a bad thing — that the Lewinsky story took a kernel of a trend and sent it into the stratosphere from which it has never landed.
The other important thing that the Lewinsky story did was to begin the true entrenchment of partisans — the polarization of the public — that has paralyzed our current politics.
While things were far from hunky-dory in terms of relations between the two parties pre-Lewinsky — Newt and the 1994 GOP takeover of the House, anyone? — the way in which opinion bifurcated about whether the affair mattered presaged the increasing party split which we have grown used to.
Democrats came to view the whole Lewinsky saga as a personal foible that, while awful for the Clintons, meant nothing as to whether or not Bill Clinton was — or could be — an effective president. Republicans, on the other hand, viewed Clinton's initial lies about the relationship as fundamentally disqualifying. (For the best account of the entire impeachment drama, make sure to read Peter Baker's "The Breach.") The impeachment of President Clinton by the Republican-led House — he was eventually acquitted by the Senate — felt, even at the time, like a major moment in American politics. Democrats and Republicans had, for a very long time, believed that while the other side might be misguided, they weren't evil or ill-intentioned. The fight over impeachment changed that.
The ripples of those events are evident in any long-term studies of the partisanship in the country. Check out Pew's amazing study on how much more ideological we are as a country as compared to just two decades ago.
Or Gallup's data on partisan views of presidents, which shows that of the 12 most polarized years in the last 50, 10 have been since George W. Bush was elected in 2000.
Putting all of this increased polarization on an affair between the president and a White House intern is a bit much. The contested 2000 election didn't help matters. The rise of powerful and well-funded outside interest groups — not to mention the Citizens United ruling — played a big part. So did lots and lots of other things both large and small.
But there's no question that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal — and by that I mean the whole thing, including how the media covered it, how politicians reacted to it and how technology turned into a worldwide sensation — was a pivot point in American politics, a time when things changed and haven't changed back.