I'll never forget where I was the morning of Sept. 12, 1998: on the tarmac at Newark Airport, slack-jawed and reading from the Starr Report, the document that led to President Clinton's impeachment over his sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. It was excerpted in newspapers everywhere that day, and it was brimming with sordid details never before seen in "family publications."
This was before the era of hand-held reading devices, and it seemed everyone on board was clutching a big, ungainly newspaper with both hands, heads tucked into the pages as if we were each viewing our own private peep show.
Over the last week, a portion of that peep show has returned. In a bid to "stop tiptoeing around my past," Lewinsky herself has written a Vanity Fair article discussing the culture of public shaming and describing a life that, even 16 years post-scandal, still delivers humiliating moments on a regular basis. The magazine officially hits the stands Tuesday, but the story is available online, and so far the commentariat has accused Lewinsky of everything from a simple rehash to conspiring with the "liberal media" to get out ahead of the Republicans' dredging it all up should Hillary Rodham Clinton run for president.
In fairness, though, it mostly seems like Lewinksy is just trying to get a life, or at least a job. Even with a master's degree from the London School of Economics, employers shy away from her, citing the problematic nature of her "history." Now 40 and still single, she's watched friends hit the requisite milestones of adulthood while she remains almost suspended in time, coping with constant knocks in the media, song lyrics making disparaging use of her name and the indelible legacy of her association with a particular sex act.
She writes of being deeply affected by the story of Tyler Clementi, the college student who committed suicide in 2010 after his roommate used a webcam to secretly record him having a sexual encounter with a man.
"My current goal," Lewinsky says, "is to get involved with efforts on behalf of victims of online humiliation and harassment and to start speaking on this topic in public forums."
Hear that, folks? Lewinsky is available for campus lectures and corporate gigs. And she'll probably be great at them. Because if there's anyone who bridges the gap between the days when everyone on an airplane could be reading the same article about the same scandal and today, when millions of different scandals ricochet off millions of different devices, it's she.
It was the Drudge Report, after all, that first brought Lewinsky's name to light in January 1998. She was, she writes, "possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet."
But as Lewinsky leads the charge to preserve the dignity of America's youth, she might find that global humiliation isn't quite as humiliating as it used to be. In fact, a lot of people seek it out, believing (often correctly) that it's the road to fame and a remunerative future.
Lewinsky recalls an ugly exchange in 2002 when a student asked her a rude question while documentary film cameras were rolling. Had it been a few years later, she writes, "the humiliation would have been even more devastating. The clip would have gone viral.... It would have become a meme of its own."
She's right, but would the humiliation really have been more devastating? Maybe for someone Lewinsky's age.
But a young person today might take the whole thing just a tiny bit more in stride. She would have been born into a world where fame and shame are virtually interchangeable. She would know that her public humiliation is competing with countless other humiliations, and most people don't have the attention span to care about it for too long anyway.
For every kid like Clementi, who suffered tragic consequences from public shaming, there are countless others who don't care what the world sees them doing.
Our threshold for shame is so high now that we don't merely tolerate the public stockade; we essentially live in it.
That's it's own tragedy, of course. But it also means that those who find themselves embroiled in scandals today needn't be quite as paralyzed by mortification as Lewinsky was in 1998. By making that clear, her past has already served a purpose. And her future doesn't look half bad.