Politics & Policy

Blame Clinton for Monica Lewinsky’s Woes, Not Ailes

President Clinton addresses allegations in the Lewinsky scandal, January 1998. (Reuters photo: Win McNamee)
Lewinsky conflates Bill Clinton’s wrongdoing with the charges against Fox News’s impresario in the name of a lost liberal media monopoly.

Monica Lewinsky is entitled to hold a grudge. No one, especially no one in their early 20s, should be subjected to the sort of scrutiny she faced as her affair with President Clinton exploded into a scandal of unprecedented proportions.

But what happened to her is not the fault of Fox News.

That false charge is the conceit of an op-ed published today by the New York Times, in which Lewinsky seeks to add her grievances to those of the women who have accused the late Roger Ailes of sexual harassment and worse. According to Lewinsky’s argument, Ailes and Fox News got rich by overhyping the scandal that will forever link her name with Clinton’s, helping to shred the fabric of American democracy in the process.

One may sympathize to some degree with Lewinsky while still recognizing that her argument is complete hogwash. Fox News wasn’t responsible for destroying her life; that is a sin that ought to weigh on the conscience of the former president. Nor does Fox owe the nation or Lewinsky an apology for trying to hold Clinton accountable for his misdeeds. That Ailes was brought down from his place at the top of the most successful cable-news channel on television because of the same issue that nearly felled Clinton is ironic. But the rise of Fox News is not a moral fable about sexual harassment. Ailes’s success demonstrated the triumph of democracy, rather than portending its downfall.

Lewinsky’s misjudgments are a matter of public record. She committed the sort of mistake that many young people have made, getting involved with a predatory employer. And since the man who exploited her foolishness happened to be the president of the United States, she became the focal point of an investigation into the moral abyss that was Bill Clinton’s White House.

A friend betrayed Lewinsky’s confidences about her encounters with Clinton. That led, in turn, to relentless pressure from the independent counsel then tasked with investigating alleged Clinton wrongdoing. The probe led by Kenneth Starr latched on to Lewinsky because her dalliance provided proof that Clinton had lied under oath when questioned about his misconduct. That’s why her blue dress and the evidence it contained became part of American political history and the lynchpin for the president’s impeachment.

For Lewinsky, the furor over Clinton’s behavior was a personal nightmare. But those who subscribe to the notion that there was something profoundly wrong about the coverage of the affair that helped solidify a “culture of humiliation” misunderstand the role of Fox News and other outlets in the scandal.

The rise of Fox News is not a moral fable about sexual harassment. Ailes’s success demonstrated the triumph of democracy, rather than portending its downfall.

Fox didn’t achieve its dominance by exploiting Lewinsky. That happened because, along with conservative talk radio, it provided an alternative to a broadcast media that had hitherto been a virtual liberal monopoly.

Why is it so important for Lewinsky — and the Times — to blame not only “Monicagate” but also “our world — of cyberbullying and chyrons, trolls and tweets” on Fox News and Ailes? The answer is that the goal here is not to resurrect a lost world of civility but to conflate the misdeeds and hypocrisy of the Left with the shortcomings of some on the Right in order to delegitimize the force that broke up the liberal press monopoly.

The issue in 1998 wasn’t whether the press was being mean to Lewinsky but whether a Left that was prepared to pillory and drive from office any Republican accused of sexual harassment — as it had done only three years earlier to Senator Robert Packwood — was willing to do the same to a liberal Democratic president. The answer to that question was a firm “no,” as liberals and feminists decided to give Clinton a pass for disgracing his office and committing perjury.

For the Left, offenses that were merely about sex were insufficient to justify sacrificing the leader of the Democratic party. There is no dispute that Clinton was a serial philanderer and a liar, but that was no bar to his remaining a liberal icon after leaving office, beloved by his party and still the darling of the mainstream media. To even raise the specter of Lewinsky with regard to the 42nd president is, to this day, considered proof of conservative extremism if not bad taste.

Such liberal hypocrisy is, of course, no defense for anyone at Fox News as the network deals with myriad charges of sexual harassment against Ailes and Bill O’Reilly. But the clamor from the Left about the scandals that cost Ailes and O’Reilly their jobs must be tempered with the recognition that much of the liberal outrage is designed to discredit a formidable pillar of conservatism rather than to stand up for the women they victimized. That’s why Lewinsky’s attempt to link the sordid end of Ailes’s career to her own story rings false.

As we have learned in the last few election cycles, both the Left and the Right are capable of incivility. But as much as we may lament a bifurcated society in which the shrunken center is stranded between two warring ideological camps, the moral to be drawn from what happened to Monica Lewinsky shouldn’t be a call to stifle ideological diversity in the media.

That Roger Ailes wound up being sunk by the same charges that afflicted but did not destroy Bill Clinton’s career is ironic. It’s also sad to think that conservatives who once rightly warned us of the cost of Clinton’s conduct were hypocritically prepared to excuse Donald Trump when he came under fire for confessing to what sounded like sexual assault.

But the achievement of Fox News was to provide a counterweight to a liberal press, ensuring that the political class would be held accountable. And that’s something for which Ailes deserves credit, even if his legacy is tarnished by the cloud under which his career ended.

As for Lewinsky, it appears she still needs to come to grips with the fact that her problems were primarily the fault of the man she idolized and his supporters, not his ideological foes.

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