Commentary Magazine


Topic: Monica Lewinsky

Why Are We Talking About Lewinsky? Not Because of Conservatives.

Although Republicans often find themselves on the wrong end of media bias, they can take some comfort in the periodic reminders of just how much said media care for them, for their reputations, and for their electoral fortunes. That’s the only explanation for the near-constant free, unsolicited advice leaping from the pages of major newspapers, helpfully informing Republicans exactly what not to do.

This paternalistic instinct is reasserting itself as Monica Lewinsky returns to the spotlight. By now you’ve probably heard: Lewinsky penned a piece for the newest issue of Vanity Fair about her post-scandal recovery from the humiliation of being that intern. So, like it or not, Lewinsky is back in the news. What does this have to do with Republicans? Nothing yet–and the media would like it to stay that way. Here’s Chris Cillizza:

The one-time paramour of the sitting president of the United States is featured in Vanity Fair breaking her silence and telling her side of the story. Even though that story isn’t out yet, it’s already one of the most clicked-on pieces of content on the Internet.

The temptation for Republicans in all of this is obvious.  Hillary Clinton is the clear frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and an early favorite to keep the White House for her party.  Knocking Clinton back a bit has to be the focus of not just Republicans thinking about running for president in 2016 but of the entire GOP over these next months. Reopening one of the most lurid episodes in the history of the modern presidency would seem to be a no-brainer for the party.

“Seem” is the key word in that last sentence. Dig even slightly below the surface of the Lewinsky issue and you quickly see that Republicans would do well to stay as far away from it as possible.

Here’s the bizarre sentence in that piece of advice that should jump right off the screen at the reader: “Reopening one of the most lurid episodes in the history of the modern presidency would seem to be a no-brainer for the party.” We’re talking about Lewinsky not because Republicans want us to but because Lewinsky wants us to.

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Although Republicans often find themselves on the wrong end of media bias, they can take some comfort in the periodic reminders of just how much said media care for them, for their reputations, and for their electoral fortunes. That’s the only explanation for the near-constant free, unsolicited advice leaping from the pages of major newspapers, helpfully informing Republicans exactly what not to do.

This paternalistic instinct is reasserting itself as Monica Lewinsky returns to the spotlight. By now you’ve probably heard: Lewinsky penned a piece for the newest issue of Vanity Fair about her post-scandal recovery from the humiliation of being that intern. So, like it or not, Lewinsky is back in the news. What does this have to do with Republicans? Nothing yet–and the media would like it to stay that way. Here’s Chris Cillizza:

The one-time paramour of the sitting president of the United States is featured in Vanity Fair breaking her silence and telling her side of the story. Even though that story isn’t out yet, it’s already one of the most clicked-on pieces of content on the Internet.

The temptation for Republicans in all of this is obvious.  Hillary Clinton is the clear frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and an early favorite to keep the White House for her party.  Knocking Clinton back a bit has to be the focus of not just Republicans thinking about running for president in 2016 but of the entire GOP over these next months. Reopening one of the most lurid episodes in the history of the modern presidency would seem to be a no-brainer for the party.

“Seem” is the key word in that last sentence. Dig even slightly below the surface of the Lewinsky issue and you quickly see that Republicans would do well to stay as far away from it as possible.

Here’s the bizarre sentence in that piece of advice that should jump right off the screen at the reader: “Reopening one of the most lurid episodes in the history of the modern presidency would seem to be a no-brainer for the party.” We’re talking about Lewinsky not because Republicans want us to but because Lewinsky wants us to.

The only Republican who has really made this an issue was Rand Paul, when the senator brought up the scandal more than three months ago. But there’s an obvious reason Paul mentioned it:

Paul, a potential 2016 GOP presidential nominee, also said that the Democrats’ argument that Republicans are waging a “War on Women” by opposing coverage for birth control in Obamacare and by opposing abortion is undercut by the memory of Bill Clinton as a sexual predator.

“One of the workplace laws and rules that I think are good is that bosses should not prey on young interns in their office. And I think really the media seems to have given President Clinton a pass on this. He took advantage of a girl that was 20 years old and an intern in his office. There is no excuse for that, and that is predatory behavior….. Then they (Democrats) have the gall to stand up and say, ‘Republicans are having a war on women.’ ”

Indeed, Paul had the temerity to remind the public that the Democrats’ phony “war on women” narrative was completely and totally disingenuous. The party that worships Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and others like them is not a party that cares a whit for the wellbeing of young women. It’s true that Paul probably didn’t need to keep bringing it up, but he also understood that he struck a nerve.

The war on women was relevant more to Bill than to Hillary. Bill Clinton gave the major speech at the Democratic National Convention renominating Obama on the same night that Sandra Fluke gave a stock “war on women” convention speech. The irony may have been lost on Democrats, but the contrast was pretty glaring. Either way, Paul’s purpose was not really to attack Hillary or even Lewinsky, but Bill Clinton and the entire dishonest Democratic establishment, which is what really bothered people.

There’s one other aspect of this worth mentioning. Not only did Vanity Fair publish Lewinsky’s dramatic return, but it’s liberal writers who want to talk about it–and tie it directly to Hillary. Here’s the New Republic declaring that “Monica Lewinsky Is the Perfect Person to Kick Off the Conversation About Hillary Clinton’s Presidency.” And here’s Slate’s Amanda Hess reminding readers how obsessively Maureen Dowd trashed Lewinsky at the time, and that Dowd seems positively elated to take more cheap shots at Lewinsky this time around, no doubt feeling the exhilaration of relevance for the first time since, well, probably since the last time she was trashing Lewinsky.

Those attacking Lewinsky are liberals; those desperate to use Lewinsky to talk about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign are liberals; those actually defending Lewinsky from a predatory cad–those are conservatives. And that’s when liberals step in to tell them to pipe down.

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NYT to GOP: Remember Monica Lewinsky

On Wednesday I mentioned the possibility that President Obama will be treated as though his name is on the ballot in 2016 even though he won’t be running–much the way Obama himself ran against George W. Bush in 2008. But today the New York Times tackles a much more immediate version of this story: whether and how Obama will be used against Democrats in next year’s mid-term congressional elections.

The conceit of the Times story is that Republicans are tempted to tie Obama to the various scandals of his administration currently in the news, and then tie Democrats to Obama, but they face a major obstacle: voters give Obama high marks for personal likability. It is another article warning Republicans against “overreaching,” with an added–and, frankly, bizarre–twist. The Times claims Republicans risk re-enacting the fallout from their predecessors’ conduct during Bill Clinton’s scandal-plagued year in his second term.

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On Wednesday I mentioned the possibility that President Obama will be treated as though his name is on the ballot in 2016 even though he won’t be running–much the way Obama himself ran against George W. Bush in 2008. But today the New York Times tackles a much more immediate version of this story: whether and how Obama will be used against Democrats in next year’s mid-term congressional elections.

The conceit of the Times story is that Republicans are tempted to tie Obama to the various scandals of his administration currently in the news, and then tie Democrats to Obama, but they face a major obstacle: voters give Obama high marks for personal likability. It is another article warning Republicans against “overreaching,” with an added–and, frankly, bizarre–twist. The Times claims Republicans risk re-enacting the fallout from their predecessors’ conduct during Bill Clinton’s scandal-plagued year in his second term.

There are plenty of sensible suggestions in the article, but the overarching comparison doesn’t hold up. Although many Americans believed Clinton had acted unethically with Monica Lewinsky and illegally by misleading the grand jury, many of those same Americans also agreed when Clinton said that he had been asked “questions no American citizen would ever want to answer.” He would later be impeached for it.

Additionally, plenty of Clinton’s supporters argued the personal scandal had nothing to do with Clinton’s presidential responsibilities. That cannot be persuasively argued in the case of President Obama’s scandals, which are on the issues and which are completely intertwined with his approach to governing and how his decisions in the White House impact Americans. The tragedy in Benghazi is testament to the dangers of the president’s “lead from behind” foreign policy and refusal to be frank about the threats facing America.

The IRS scandal was about a powerful enforcement arm of the government targeting those who disagreed with Obama and blatantly trampling on the constitutional rights of his political opponents. As McClatchy reports, the IRS abuse may have been much more comprehensive than first reported:

A group of anti-abortion activists in Iowa had to promise the Internal Revenue Service it wouldn’t picket in front of Planned Parenthood.

Catherine Engelbrecht’s family and business in Texas were audited by the government after her voting-rights group sought tax-exempt status from the IRS.

Retired military veteran Mark Drabik of Nebraska became active in and donated to conservative causes, then found the IRS challenging his church donations.

While the developing scandal over the targeting of conservatives by the tax agency has largely focused to date on its scrutiny of groups with words such as “tea party” or “patriot” in their names, these examples suggest the government was looking at a broader array of conservative groups and perhaps individuals. Their collective experiences at a minimum could spread skepticism about the fairness of a powerful agency that should be above reproach and at worst could point to a secret political vendetta within the government against conservatives.

The emerging stories from real people raise questions about whether the IRS scrutiny extended beyond applicants for tax-exempt status and whether individuals who donated to these tax-exempt organizations or to conservative causes also were targeted.

McClatchy’s use of the term “real people” here is awkward to say the least, but the point the reporters are making is that the IRS was initially believed to have targeted organizations but in fact may have been targeting individuals as well, expressly for their political beliefs. The IRS appears to have gone looking for possible conservatives to hassle and silence.

Obama’s health-care reform sets out to expand the size and scope of both the federal government generally and the IRS specifically. Whether Obama personally ordered the IRS to target conservatives and pro-Israel groups beyond simply egging on suspicion of them publicly and repeatedly doesn’t change the way his approach to governing enables this behavior. Clinton’s dalliances may have had limited or no relevance to Americans’ own lives, but the opposite is true of the Obama administration’s IRS scandal.

Conservatives don’t have to accuse Obama of unethical behavior to make this point. The president’s vision for the country, and that of his party, is to increase the power and reach of the IRS into the health care of Americans. If Democrats think that constitutes a personal attack, then they object to any criticism of their leader. And they shouldn’t expect congressional candidates around the country to play along.

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Paterno and the Curse of Self-Righteousness

In the wake of the release of the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh about the Penn State University child abuse scandal, even some of the late Joe Paterno’s most vociferous defenders have fallen silent. Pete Wehner wrote compellingly on Friday about the way this terrible story illustrates not only that each individual must choose between good and evil but also what happens when institutions fail to take human failings into account. Yet as we read and listen to people struggling to accept the truth about Paterno (especially those in Pennsylvania for whom Paterno and Penn State football symbolized something more than just sports excellence), we are still left with an important question that we struggle to answer. How can a man who was widely believed to be a pillar of his community and force for integrity in his sport and his university have stood by and let unspeakable crimes be committed on his watch by one of his closest associates?

Paterno’s defenders point to his many good works and ask us to look at his life as a totality rather than solely through the lens of the crimes that for all intents and purposes he appears to have condoned. But it was this that led to his downfall. Like his legions of followers, he was so convinced of the value of all that he had done, that he seemed to have believed that preserving that legacy was more important than putting an end to the abuse being committed by his friend and colleague. Even more to the point, he was so convinced of his good intentions and the righteousness of his work that he came to see himself as above scrutiny. So while we may never know with certitude exactly what Paterno thought and why he acted as he did, this is actually a very recognizable pattern of behavior. We have no shortage of politicians who are similarly besotted with their own high opinion of themselves and willing to forgive any of their own personal failings because they think their cause is just.

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In the wake of the release of the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh about the Penn State University child abuse scandal, even some of the late Joe Paterno’s most vociferous defenders have fallen silent. Pete Wehner wrote compellingly on Friday about the way this terrible story illustrates not only that each individual must choose between good and evil but also what happens when institutions fail to take human failings into account. Yet as we read and listen to people struggling to accept the truth about Paterno (especially those in Pennsylvania for whom Paterno and Penn State football symbolized something more than just sports excellence), we are still left with an important question that we struggle to answer. How can a man who was widely believed to be a pillar of his community and force for integrity in his sport and his university have stood by and let unspeakable crimes be committed on his watch by one of his closest associates?

Paterno’s defenders point to his many good works and ask us to look at his life as a totality rather than solely through the lens of the crimes that for all intents and purposes he appears to have condoned. But it was this that led to his downfall. Like his legions of followers, he was so convinced of the value of all that he had done, that he seemed to have believed that preserving that legacy was more important than putting an end to the abuse being committed by his friend and colleague. Even more to the point, he was so convinced of his good intentions and the righteousness of his work that he came to see himself as above scrutiny. So while we may never know with certitude exactly what Paterno thought and why he acted as he did, this is actually a very recognizable pattern of behavior. We have no shortage of politicians who are similarly besotted with their own high opinion of themselves and willing to forgive any of their own personal failings because they think their cause is just.

Self-image is often decisive in determining our behavior. If we see ourselves as working on behalf of a good cause, that makes it easier to condone misbehavior we think is not that important in the big picture. But while it is possible to make a case that defending one’s country in wartime can require lying, as well as all sorts of things we would label crimes in other contexts, the problem is leaders often conflate their careers with that of the fate of civilization.

In my lifetime, I have seen presidents of the United States who believed the preservation of their administrations was more important than telling the truth about either political dirty tricks or personal misbehavior. In each case, we can tell ourselves that neither the Watergate break-in nor the Monica Lewinsky affair was as bad as Jerry Sandusky’s raping children, and we’d be right. Indeed, there is no comparison between these incidents.

But that should only heighten our disgust with Paterno. In his case, his conduct appears to have been based on the idea that a football program’s good name and the prestige of a university was more valuable than the lives of children. Rather than allowing his achievements to overshadow his failings, we must understand that his complicity in Sandusky’s ability to go on abusing kids was rooted in those accomplishments. Paterno should stand as a warning to anyone in a position of authority that their self-image as good guys can never justify cutting moral corners.

We may never be able to fully understand the evil of Sandusky or the moral blindness of Paterno. But the pattern here is not all that unique. The willingness of leaders to believe their good works are so important that nothing — even the truth about their personal conduct or those of their associates — can be allowed to tarnish them is a standing invitation to wrongdoing.

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