By Clarence Page
Tribune Content Agency
A surprising contriteness has taken hold of Bill Maher and David Letterman about one of their favorite high-value targets: Monica Lewinsky.
After reading Lewinsky's first-person essay in last June's issue of Vanity Fair, Maher said on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher that, "I was moved by it. I gotta tell you, I literally felt guilty."
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Letterman responded similarly on his The Late Show on CBS: "I feel bad about my role in helping push the humiliation to the point of suffocation."
To which his guest Barbara Walters replied, "Good. Then we can stop."
Indeed? If late night comedians are suffering post-Monica remorse, what about the rest of us?
I feel my own version of the malady in looking back at some of my past columns. Back in 2002, for example, after watching the opening segment of the HBO special Monica in Black and White, which featured her last major interview until recently, I wrote sarcastically about helping her wish to be left alone: "I turned off my television."
But 13 years later, "that woman," as Bill Clinton famously called Lewinsky, finally seems to be finding the best way to make a comeback: Don't make it about you; make it about what others can learn from your mistakes.
With Hillary Clinton likely to enter the 2016 presidential race soon, along with platoons of reporters looking for "What happened to Monica Lewinsky?" stories, the former intern wisely appears to be trying to get ahead of that story and define her own narrative before mass media do it for her.
Her image remake began with the poignant and perceptive Vanity Fair essay that impressed Letterman and Maher and was nominated for a National Magazine Award.
It describes the mangling that her reputation took as media cast her as a "little tart" (The Wall Street Journal), a "Portly Pepperpot" (New York Post), and "ditsy" and "predatory" (Maureen Dowd in the New York Times) and "some little twerp" (feminist icon Betty Friedan), among other put-downs.
She also describes her difficulty with finding employment, even after she earned a master's in social psychology in 2006 at the London School of Economics. It's hard out here for a woman named Monica Lewinsky.
Most recently she delivered an 18-minute speech against "The Culture of Humiliation" on March 18 in front of a Vancouver audience for the TED Talks website.
Check it out. She had me when she asked for a show of hands by anyone "who didn't make a mistake or do something they regretted at 22?"
Right. How about 32? 42? 52? Et cetera?
Lewinsky drew sympathetic laughs by recalling how, at age 41, she was "hit on by a 27-year-old guy" at last year's Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit who promised to make her "feel 22 again."
"I'm probably the only person over 40," she said sighing, "who does not want to be 22 again."
But, as a New York Times headline on a recent profile put it, "Monica Lewinsky Is Back, but This Time It's on Her Terms." She's taken up a cause that is appropriate to the treatment she received in digital-age media: cyberbullying.
If anybody knows what it is like to be bullied in news, political and entertainment media, it is Lewinsky.
But she's not alone. We're in an age when actor-activist Ashley Judd, among others, is pushing back against the obscenely sexist rudeness of internet trolls. And a new generation of young women has taken to the streets in "slut walks" to push back against the "slut-shaming" that plagued Lewinsky.
Changing times have made it harder for her old critics to be mad at Monica. She calls herself "Patient Zero" in the epidemic of Internet-fueled scandals that routinely devastate personal reputations on a global scale almost every day. She's hardly the first scandalized figure in American politics, but hers was the first scandal to break over the Internet in a scoop by the Drudge Report about a story on which Newsweek was working.
Since then, private political lives have become more public than ever before and the line between news, politics and entertainment have become increasingly blurred.
But what can be done about it? The coarsening of our politics, the heckler's veto of cybertrolling and other nuisances is obvious, but the remedies are less clear. We can't legislate good manners, but we can speak out to isolate and condemn the rude, crude and callous whenever we see it or hear it — or that's all we'll have left.
Reach Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.