Monica Lewinsky turns 40 today. Fifteen years ago, this photo of a 24-year-old Lewinsky was more ubiquitous than every current reality TV star combined. Her physical relationship with President Bill Clinton spurred debate about what actually defined sex. Clinton’s original, strongly worded denial was rooted more in legal technicalities than the straightforward and fairly simple definition of “what would really piss off my wife?”
Lewinksy’s peculiar dry-cleaning habits left Clinton with no option but to confess to the affair that threatened the security and prosperity of no single American citizen.
Unfortunately, this took some steam out of Hillary Clinton’s statement on The Today Show about a “vast right-wing conspiracy” against her husband; however, Clinton’s philandering didn’t make it any less true. The right never fully accepted Clinton’s election in 1992, just as it never fully accepted Barack Obama’s election in 2008. The efforts to unseat Clinton and tag the Democratic party with its own Watergate were altogether pointless and needlessly destructive, but rather than serving as the nadir of what House leader Richard Gephardt called the “politics of personal destruction,” it proved to be the cold open.
Curiously — or perhaps not so curiously — Lewinksy suffered the most from the scandal. Independent Counsel Ken Starr has returned to obscurity and perhaps contents himself with community theater productions of The Crucible. Clinton’s eventual impeachment is now a mere footnote in a presidency that most Americans regard fondly. Hillary Clinton’s public humiliation arguably softened her image in the public and helped her win her New York Senate seat. Newt Gingrich lost the Speakership but returned to run for president in 2012.
Monica Lewinsky, unfortunately, became the national joke, and as she enters mid-life, it’s unlikely she’ll ever supplant in public memory her starring role in a presidential sex scandal.
Yet in a just world, no one would know her name.