Monica Lewinsky’s TED Triumph

Stewart Lawrence Stewart J. Lawrence is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy analyst who writes frequently on immigration and Latino affairs. He is also founder and managing director of Puentes & Associates, Inc., a bilingual survey research and communications firm.
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Monica Lewinsky was so poised and polished in her “TED” talk about her experience as one of the world’s most notorious mistresses that someone unfamiliar with her story might have mistaken her for a politician gamely working a room. She poked fun at herself for having “fallen in love with her boss” — former president Bill Clinton, of course — and apologized for having contributed to her own public ridicule by “wearing that stupid beret.”

Her comedic timing was deft, and she provided a number of terse and memorable turns of phrase – “shame cannot withstand the power of empathy,” for example — that revealed her to be a surprisingly forceful and articulate speaker.

The audience, like all of us, so accustomed to seeing Lewinsky as a girlish and bubbly 20-something. clearly warmed to the 41 year-old former White House intern, scarcely believing that she was the same woman who graced so many tabloid covers or became the butt of so many cruel and sexist jokes. By the time she was done, having issued an impassioned — and at times tearfully moving — call for greater compassion and dignity in American public life, she received a standing ovation that was richly deserved.

Whether Lewinsky can actually lay claim to being the first and most notorious victim of “cyber-bullying” – as she strained to suggest throughout her talk — is a matter of dispute. But she made a strong case that her overnight transformation from a private, unassuming figure into a global laughingstock was unprecedented and indeed, might well have caused her to take her life were it not for the steadfast support of family and friends.

It is hard to think of another major sex scandal in which the woman in question – and such a young and highly vulnerable one at that – received so much of the blame, while her ostensible perpetrator, then one of the most powerful men on earth, actually garnered sympathy — especially from his fellow Democrats, many of them women and avowed feminists.

Lewinsky insisted at the end of her crisp 22-minuite talk that she did not come forward to speak because of the coming presidential campaign season – and we have no real reason to doubt her. She said that the death of an 18 year-old gay college student, who committed suicide after a surreptitiously taped encounter of his sexual liaison with another student went viral, inspired her to reflect on how she could use her own deeply troubling experience as a power of example and perhaps, more deeply heal in the process. “I want anyone who feels the shame and humiliation of being bullied to know that you can write a different ending to your story,” she urged.

Lewinsky’s road back has not been easy.  She’s largely been unable to find a job, and though she posed in Playboy – who can blame her, for wanting to reclaim her “public” body for herself again – until recently she has avoided the public limelight.  And despite some earnest dating, she apparently has not married.  But she’s gone on to obtain a master’s degree in social psychology and seems well on her way to becoming the serious professional she set out to be two decades ago – before fate intervened.

Of course, for the Clintons and for so many Democrats and their media supporters anxious to promote Hillary’s ascension to the White House, the Lewinsky scandal is “old news.” (Hillary herself, in an interview years ago, once cruelly dismissed Lewinsky as a ”narcissistic loony-tune”). But watching the former White House intern stand so self-assuredly before a packed audience and demanding to be a part of a new dialogue on the quality of American political discourse, it’s clear that she’s part of our living present. Whatever her character flaws and her foibles – and few were evident in her talk — her survivor’s tale is one of hope and triumph and vindication for a young and beleaguered woman who’s still struggling to reclaim her identity as a human being — and to make her way humbly in a world where women no longer easily rise to prominence on the coattails of powerful men.

Perhaps, her story, far more than Hillary’s, is the real chronicle of our time?