An exhausted Hillary Clinton crying on the New Hampshire primary trail. Bill Clinton’s heart ailment. Jimmy Carter equating actual religious persecution in the world with religious teachings that he believes demean women (see his latest book). They’re all reminders that politicians are people, too.
With the reappearance on the national stage of Monica Lewinsky, the young woman at the center of the impeachment battle of the late 1990s, one storyline is a review of who did not come to her aid back in the day. The “one free grope” pass that leading feminists gave their favored president, when faced with questions of abuse of power and sexual harassment, was far from the feminist movement’s best moment. But those weren’t pretty days, and living through them once was enough. Recycling rhetoric from two decades ago does little good now — unless you’re a campaign strategist thinking it can help your candidate, or hurt a rival. It also might miss the most important lessons of that shameful moment of contemporary history.
In her Vanity Fair piece, Lewinsky writes about the impact Tyler Clementi had on her life. Clementi was an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman who killed himself after a video of him kissing another man was made public. The death deeply affected Lewinsky’s mother, whose heart bled for Clementi’s parents. Lewinsky realized her mother “was reliving 1998, when she wouldn’t let me out of her sight. She was replaying those weeks when she stayed by my bed, night after night, because I, too, was suicidal. The shame, the scorn, and the fear that had been thrown at her daughter left her afraid that I would take my own life — a fear that I would be literally humiliated to death.”
Life does go on, though. Humiliation can even strengthen us, stripping us of pretension and of a false sense of control of the elements and the trajectory of our all-too-human lives. Lewinsky writes that in the wake of Clementi’s death her “own suffering took on a different meaning. Perhaps by sharing my story, I reasoned, I might be able to help others in their darkest moments of humiliation.”
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd took a familiar cynical view of Lewinsky’s announcement that she feels a call to help those who in our reality-TV/social-media times have their reputations destroyed by our tell-all/show-all/shock-all culture. And all are certainly free to be skeptical. But it may also be that the bleeding is so great in our times that it might just be imperative to hope that Lewinsky does have an impact. You don’t have to take her at her word, but let’s consider — maybe just for one opinion column, anyway — the humanity.
Today, just about everything is a spectacle to comment on. People’s lives — sometimes by conscious choice, often just because it’s the air we breathe now — are lived in public. Abortion is presented as a privacy issue, even as one woman tapes hers for the viewing, and the public square has become the venue for the insistence on the availability of abortion and even, at times it seems, a preference for it, while only the pain is supposed to be private.
But sometimes, now and again, we are reminded that even the high and mighty — even the former president and his first lady, who may become president herself — are human. By all means be absolutely truthful — investigate a secretary of state’s role in the Benghazi disaster — and have robust political debates. But remember, too, that there is more to life than our mistakes and our wrongheaded political platforms — or our campaign successes.
Reading the Vanity Fair piece, we are reminded of the humiliation Hillary Clinton suffered. As political junkies devour the latest news story on the road to 2016 — although much of it is not really new — we are reminded that even power couples are dealing with the drama of life, whatever the choices they’ve made. Mrs. Clinton, confiding to a friend, might have tried to cast her husband in the best possible light, even while furious at him. The first lady of the United States might have gone on TV doing her best stand-by-her-man thing, even while denying doing anything of the sort. None of that changes the fact that she’s a woman, a wife, and a mother, having to read about her family’s ugly secrets in the newspaper. Again and again.
When Ted Kennedy died, my immediate reaction was to remember how I would sometimes sit behind him in church. Kennedy seemed to be praying. The powerful senator was a man. One whom I disagreed with, but whom I can still pray for. I hope he prayed for the young Heritage Foundation intern he saw on the Communion line, too!
When we fail to see the humanity, we’ve lost something of our souls. One is reminded of the Christmas Truce of 1914; even in the midst of war, sworn enemies on the battlefield can stop and realize there is something more.
In his new book, What Works, newspaper columnist Cal Thomas makes a suggestion: “Start introducing yourself to people of political persuasions different from yours. Build a relationship with them if they would be willing to join a group you are putting together that would focus on solving problems instead of winning elections. Eventually you can invite your elected representatives to observe what you are doing and the success you are having.” He suggests, “When they see there is no political price to pay — and much which they can benefit — they are more likely to identify with what you’re doing than they are with the lobbyists and contributors who clamor for their attention and votes.” Think about common goals and results, he suggests. In the book he lays out a whole host of contentious issues and opportunities for convergence. Also, opening lines that make clear that you’re more about humanity than ideology. And that your politics are actually based on wanting to see people do well in life.
The next time you see your political enemy stumble, consider it an opportunity. Not to go in for the kill, not for false civility, but for brotherly love. It might just make our politics more merciful. And more constructive. It may even be the chance justice has to soar.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a founder of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.