Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Nutty and slutty: then and now

Have we learned anything at all from Monicagate?

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LOS ANGELES -- Monica Lewinsky has unwittingly done us a great service. In 1998, she forced America to bumble through an unprecedented national conversation about sex, power and sexism. And in 2014, she has returned to compel us to review how we handled the assignment in a Vanity Fair article. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd -- who covered the scandal obsessively and won the Pulitzer Prize for that work -- is as good a case study as any for examining what's changed in the 16 years since Monicagate hit.

In 1998, a week rarely went by when Lewinsky's name did not appear in Dowd's column. When the scandal broke in January of that year, Dowd was initially sympathetic to Lewinsky and damning of an administration that rushed to smear her in a bid to protect itself.

"Inside the White House, the debate goes on about the best way to destroy That Woman, as the President called Monica Lewinsky," Dowd wrote. "Should they paint her as a friendly fantasist or a malicious stalker? ... It is probably just a matter of moments before we hear that Ms. Lewinsky is a little nutty and a little slutty."

Dowd also had words for feminists who were eager to throw Lewinsky under the bus to save their Democratic overlord: "(O)nce you decide it's OK to sacrifice individual women for the greater good, you set a dangerous precedent," Dowd wrote. "The revolution always eats its own."

And how! It didn't take long for Dowd to buckle to the power of the Clinton narrative and join the pile-on herself. By February, she was calling Lewinsky "a ditsy, predatory White House intern who might have lied under oath for a job at Revlon" and "the girl who was too tubby to be in the high school 'in' crowd." At first, Dowd attempted to pass this nastiness off as a sly, satirical commentary on the caricature of Lewinsky that the Clinton administration had painted in the press. But soon, the artifice disappeared, and Dowd devoted her column to arguing that, come to think of it, Lewinsky was both nutty and slutty.

In May 1998, Lewinsky was asked to submit a handwriting sample to the FBI, and Dowd wrote a satirical column imagining the scene: "Here's what she wrote: Monica Clinton. Monica Lewinsky Clinton. Monica Lewinsky Rodham Clinton. Mrs. Big Creep. (Frowny face.) First Lady Monica. (Smiley face.) Menu for MY Italian State Dinner: Spaghetti Carbonara. Tiramisu. Spumoni. Table placement: Me between Leonardo DiCaprio & John Travolta. Also, cannoli."

Nearing the end of the summer, Dowd had tired of her characterization of Lewinsky as a naØve Valley Girl and advanced her argument to claim Lewinsky was the real harasser. In August, Dowd compared Lewinsky to Glenn Close's bunny-stewing murderess in Fatal Attraction and wrote "Monica has at least one special talent: she is relentless. It was the quality that got her noticed by Bill Clinton, and it is the quality that will prevent him from ever escaping her." The occasion for this observation was Lewinsky's agreement to appear in front of a grand jury as requested -- how tastelessly aggressive.

In September, Dowd wrote, "It is Ms. Lewinsky who comes across as the red-blooded predator, wailing to her girlfriends that the President wouldn't go all the way." And, "It is Mr. Clinton who behaves more like a teen-age girl trying to protect her virginity."

Fast-forward to 2006. Monica Lewinsky is laying low at the London School of Economics, and Maureen Dowd, hard up for news fodder, writes a think piece about how the term slut is wielded against women. She reaches back into the Lewinsky file to lend some historical context: "Republicans denigrated the prim law professor Anita Hill by painting her, in David Brock's memorable phrase, as 'a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.' Clinton defenders demonized Monica Lewinsky the same way." Huh. Is that what happened?

In the excerpt from her forthcoming Vanity Fair interview, Lewinsky writes that in 1998, she dubbed Dowd "Moremean Dowdy," but "today, I'd meet her for a drink." Dowd took Lewinsky up on her offer in her column this week, and she appears unaware it's the caricature she helped to build that's still haunting Lewinsky after all these years. "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.

While many Americans have come to realize Lewinsky got a raw deal, Dowd is not yet ready to assume responsibility for her own role. On the occasion of Lewinsky's reappearance, Dowd has this to say: "It was like a Golden Oldie tour of a band you didn't want to hear in the first place." What Dowd doesn't seem to get: She was the one beating the drum.

-- Washington Post-Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2014 A2

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