WASHINGTON – Monica Lewinsky tends to avoid politics these days, after becoming instantly famous nearly 20 years ago as the White House intern who had an affair with President Bill Clinton.
Unfortunately for Lewinsky, the 2016 presidential race keeps getting stuck in the past.
In the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the thrice-married Republican hinted at the Clintons’ marital problems and brought up Bill Clinton’s infidelities directly soon after. For now, Trump says he won’t discuss the subject at Sunday’s debate. But he has been known to change his mind.
“Let’s see what happens,” Trump said at a town-hall event Thursday in New Hampshire, referring to whether he will hold off on the topic. “I think we’re all better off if we can do that because it is about issues, it is about policies.”
Hillary Clinton may not want to relive this period. But Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said any attack by Trump on the topic would backfire, showing Trump to be “combustible and erratic.” Some political analysts said Trump risks showing Clinton in a sympathetic light as the wronged wife — hardly helpful as he struggles to draw support from women.
Yet it’s a fraught subject for both candidates. Bill Clinton aides moved aggressively to discredit women who alleged sexual contact with him, while Hillary Clinton stood by her husband publicly in much of that era and cast his accusers as part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, said the Lewinsky episode humanized the Clintons for many Americans. “People felt sorry for her,” she said.
Campaigning for his wife this week in Ohio, Bill Clinton dismissed Trump’s threats to bring up his infidelity. “He’s been making those attacks from the beginning of this campaign, so I don’t think there’s anything new,” Clinton told reporters.
Lewinsky declined to be interviewed for this story. After staying out of the public eye for many years, she recently re-emerged as an anti-bullying advocate. She has talked about the public shaming she experienced in a well-received 2014 Vanity Fair essay and a TED Talk.
“I’ve decided, finally, to stick my head above the parapet so that I can take back my narrative and give a purpose to my past,” Lewinsky wrote in Vanity Fair.
In June of that year, Hillary Clinton told ABC’s “Nightline” that she wishes Lewinsky well, adding: “I hope that she is able to think about her future and construct a life that she finds meaning and satisfaction in.”
The end? No.
Trump in 2016 threatened to bring up Bill Clinton’s infidelities and congratulated himself for refraining in the first of three presidential debates. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said Thursday he does not plan to talk about the Lewinsky relationship or others during Sunday’s showdown.
Bill Clinton has long been dogged by allegations of womanizing, extramarital affairs and abuse. During his 1992 campaign, Betsey Wright, a longtime aide to the Clinton, dubbed the problems “bimbo eruptions,” a label that appeared aimed at discrediting them.
But the most damaging episode was his relationship with Lewinsky. The two met in 1995 when she was a 22-year-old intern and she later revealed they had a series of sexual encounters over a roughly 18-month period. Clinton initially denied the relationship, but eventually admitted it and said he “misled people, including even my wife.”
The president was impeached over the episode, accused of obstruction and perjury, and acquitted by the Senate.
In her book “Living History,” Hillary Clinton described the moment in August 1998 when he told her that he had lied. She said she could hardly breathe, and screamed in rage.
“I was dumbfounded, heartbroken and outraged that I’d believed him at all,” she wrote.
Lewinsky is not the only relationship baggage for Clinton. In 1998, he agreed to an $850,000 settlement with Paula Jones, an Arkansas state worker who had accused Clinton of exposing himself and making indecent propositions when Clinton was governor. The settlement included no apology or admission of guilt.
Juanita Broaddrick, a nurse, in 1999 claimed she was raped by then-state Attorney General Clinton at a Little Rock hotel in 1978. Clinton’s attorney denied the claim at the time and Clinton was never charged. Kathleen Willey, a White House volunteer, claimed Clinton fondled her when she met privately with him at the White House in 1993 to seek a job. Clinton has denied the allegations by both women.
Hillary Clinton’s involvement in efforts to undermine the credibility of her husband’s accusers remains the subject of speculation; What’s known is that people close to her or Bill Clinton spared little effort on that front.
Writings about the Clinton White House years suggest she was active behind the scenes, helping to drive political and legal strategy to defend her husband during the Lewinsky investigation. Her friend Diane Blair wrote in her diary that Hillary Clinton had called Lewinsky a “narcissistic loony tune.” Former Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos, in his 1999 memoir, recalled Hillary Clinton in 1992 saying of one woman who claimed to have been propositioned by her husband, “We have to destroy her story.”
After the first debate, Trump supporter Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor, raised the Lewinsky affair, arguing that Hillary Clinton attacked Lewinsky after the revelations and saying that “if you didn’t know the moment Monica Lewinsky said that Bill Clinton violated her that she was telling the truth, then you’re too stupid to be president.”
Clinton has stayed above the fray, but in her efforts to connect with women she has highlighted Trump’s long history of derogatory comments about women and used the first debate to revive the story of a former Miss Universe who says Trump shamed her for gaining weight.
Democratic consultant Lis Smith said that if Lewinsky or infidelity comes up on Sunday, it could give Clinton an opportunity “to drop the facade, drop the mask and have a real human moment.”
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Bill Barrow contributed to this report.