Ten years ago, on January 17, a news aggregator and part-time journalist named Matt Drudge broke the story of President Bill Clinton’s liaison with intern Monica Lewinsky—or, more precisely, he published on his Web site the fact the story had been spiked by Newsweek (the Times of London offered a good synopsis of the event, with a useful rundown of the dramatis personae, for the 10thanniversary date). Once out, there was no putting the toothpaste back in that tube.
Bill Clinton, as we know, coasted downhill to the end of his second term and became the itinerant lecturer in moral philosophy he is today. But Monica-gate (better called, perhaps, “Monica-quiddick”) has had enduring consequences beyond the Clinton household.
Post-Monica, the organized feminist movement ceased to carry any moral authority. Its original clout, like Martin Luther King’s, was based on appeals to moral intuitions: first, a liberal appeal to equality of opportunity and of compensation; later, an appeal to sympathy for the underdog, based on a post- Marxist analysis of the imbalance of power relations.
At the zenith of its prestige, feminism could topple or damage almost any male executive by charging him with creating a “hostile work environment”— a fact determined wholly by the subjective reactions of his female subordinates. Faced with the possible downfall of Bill Clinton, however, feminists sacrificed moral clout for political expedience and threw their support behind the predator di tutti predatori, whence their vaunted “sisterhood” was revealed for what it was: just another grubby special interest group. Organized feminism still provides a voting and funding bloc to be reckoned with, but the disparity in its treatment of Anita Hill and Juanita Broaddrick has made it a moral laughingstock.Not even Democrats care what Susan Hoerchner thinks anymore.
Post Monica, the prestige media suffered a loss of face from which they never recovered. This was partly because the networks and broadsheet newspapers were usually a couple days behind the Internet in delivering the goods; partly because the prestige media insinuated the Drudge stories were unreliable—an insinuation that proved to be false; partly because people resented the claim of the prestige media that their reluctance and tardiness was professional rather than ideological in origin.
In fact, Clinton’s impeachment made the political stakes so high that the mainstream media abandoned any attempt to hide partisan bias. Time magazine White House correspondent Nina Burleigh admitted she was thrilled when Clinton once ogled her legs in the front cabin on Air Force One, and told an interviewer, “I’d be happy to give him (oral sex) just to thank him for keeping abortion legal.” Surprised? If so, you haven’t been paying attention.
Yet another casualty of the Bill & Monica saga was the conservative momentum that had taken off in 1994, during the mid-term elections. This was a paradox, since it was disgust for both Clintons that was the unifying factor of the 1994 shake-up, and the Oval Office capers ought to have crystallized this detestation. Yet the compromises made (chiefly by Republican senators) during Clinton’s impeachment trial revealed that conservatives did not enjoy a coherent moral unity, and that opposition to governmentfunded health care did not always coexist with disapproval of adultery or perjury.
In important respects, the Drudge Report of January 17, 1998 played a role analogous to Judge Constance Sweeney’s 2002 decision to make public the Boston archdiocesan files on child abuse. The ground rules had changed and there was no going back.
In both cases, it became impractical for the malefactors to cover lies with more lies. In both cases, the liars were slow to realize that their customary accomplices were no longer in a position to effect a rescue. In both cases, in making the choice for mendacity, a once-prestigious institution lost the benefit of the doubt regarding disclosure of its own operations. But let’s not overstate the impact of Drudge or of Sweeney: in both cases, the chief malefactors in the drama are still at liberty. And prospering.
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