In January 1998 I arrived in Washington DC, a bright, young intern for a national news broadcasting bureau. When not in the newsroom, I spent most days hanging around The White House pressroom, eager for Mike McCurry to sputter some juicy soundbites about stained dresses, or chasing down senators at on Capitol Hill in hopes of snagging a word or two about impeachment. Monica Lewinsky was THE story in DC and I had a front row seat.
Monica and I had at least three things in common: We both spent our 22nd year getting to know the scene at The White House, we both had the same hair cut and long black wool jacket (I cannot tell you how many times I walked past a sidewalk stakeout and heard photogs yell, “Monica! Monica!”), and we both had a crush on Bill Clinton.
I remember the first time I heard her name. I was sitting in a classroom, waiting for our morning presenter, ABC’s Ann Compton, to arrive. She was late. Finally Ann dashed in breathlessly, unbuttoning her royal blue blazer and wiping her brow. She had big breaking news and we lucky students were the first to hear her account. “President Clinton had an affair with his former intern Monica Lewinsky,” she reported. She colored a shocking picture for us. Her raw enthusiasm was intoxicating. I couldn’t wait to get to work and hear all the salacious details. And I wasn’t disappointed.
My own newsroom was absolutely on fire. People were laughing and speculating and gossiping, imaginably excited to switch gears from dry Congressional hearings examining black lungs and dead cowboys (thank you Phillip-Morris) to blow jobs and slippery cigars.
Procuring news about Monica was part of my job. And I wouldn’t consider my attitude about this procurement neutral. Like I said, the scandal was downright thrilling. I heartlessly joined the crowd of news shapers and rode atop the wave of public humiliation crashing over Washington.
I never considered Monica the young woman. I never imagined her crying into her mother’s arms at night, afraid to leave her house, dreaming of ways to end her life, while we in the newsrooms reveled in her humiliation.
I may have imagined myself in her shoes from time to time, but certainly not in a way that was inspired by compassion. Amongst us students, “Would-you-or-wouldn’t-you do it with Bill?” was a hot party topic. I myself fell into the “would” category, along with the majority of my girlfriends (and a few of my guy friends).
Fortunately for me, my only access to the President was from 20 feet away during press conferences in the East Room. And also, fortunately for me, my own boss was not a charming world leader, but a 50 year old lesbian whose claim to fame was getting fired from her last gig for throwing a chair at a cameraman. Clearly the question of “inappropriate sexual relations” with my boss was a non-issue.
Fast forward 17 years. I’ve moved on. Grew up. Got married. Had kids. Found peace. My internship in Washington DC is a fond, fading memory. But until this day, watching Monica bravely deliver a TED Talk on public shaming, I never stopped to think what happened to her. Never considered that 17 years later a part of her is still the girl under the desk in the Oval Office. A part of her doesn’t get to move on. A part of her will be 22 for the rest of her life.
I reflect upon my own contribution to that gotcha-style news coverage that ravaged this young girl’s reputation. Granted I was just a kid, an intern, but I was there. I was a part. My energy fed that beast, too.
I stop. I cry. I reconcile.
I’m humbled and grateful to Monica for this lesson.
Check out Monica’s most excellent TED Talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/monica_lewinsky_the_price_of_shame?language=en. And #clickwithcompassion.