Clinton, Lewinsky and power

“MONICA Lewinsky may be a dumb, fat girl. But she got the President,” Emma Forrest wrote on this paper’s opinion page on Wednesday, apparently elevating Lewinsky’s brief encounter to some kind of triumph.

What does “got” mean? That Monica “got” Bill in the way that Doris Day used to “get” Rock Hudson at the end of their movies together? How laughable. Or that Monica “got” Bill in that she has effectively shafted the President of the United States, possibly destroying his administration? How ugly.

Forrest was the second commentator in as many days to assert that Lewinsky personifies something important about womanhood and the way it is constructed today. In her “defence” of Lewinsky she took the opposite view to the first, Charles Laurence (on the features page on Tuesday), who saw the spoilt, greedy Monica as “an everywoman of her generation”.

By concentrating on personalities, both miss the point. This saga is as much about power structures as about individual frailty. This is a menage-a-trois of power junkies: Bill, Monica and Hillary. The problem for the women is that institutional power is held by men. Women who want a share of it, by and large, must do so indirectly through men. (And, as Lewinsky apparently knew, the way to a man’s heart is not always through his stomach.)

The indirect routes to power have traditionally been the only ones open to the talent-free. But the barriers are still in place even for skilled, clever women such as Hillary Clinton, who might herself be a presidential hopeful if not for her sex. If America was a matriarchy, with men largely locked out of institutional power, “bimbo eruptions” might be replaced by “himbo eruptions” as men tried to claw themselves some status by pleasuring powerful women. (Now there’s a concept.)

As it is, the Hillarys, when they stand by philandering men, seem to trade their self-respect for a power trip in much the same way as the Monicas.

It is possible to imagine a noble motivation for Hillary’s stance; perhaps she stands by her man because she cares about the ordinary people his policies protect. Perhaps they have a private arrangement about an open marriage.

But, at this stage, it is nearly impossible to find anything admirable in Lewinsky’s course of action. I don’t know whether she is dumb, and I don’t think she is fat. Americans analyse the looks of their sirens with the sniffy intensity of maiden aunts who think life is what they see on Days of Our Lives.

But I think Forrest got it wrong when she wrote of Lewinsky, “I don’t like you. But I do like what you did.”

I don’t know Monica, so I can’t presume to dislike her. But I do dislike what she did, as do many women who would like to be taken seriously in a man’s world.

Whichever way you interpret Forrest’s “what you did” – as referring to the sexual encounters, or the potential for their consequences to unseat a president – Lewinsky has done other women no favors. The image of Monica as the vengeful femme fatale whose sexuality could bring down a bastion of male power plays into male fears that female power is destructive. She will get no thanks from women hoping for promotion at work.

Clinton and Lewinsky have also done untold damage with the images they have embedded in public discourse: the iconic man of power, middle-aged and arrogant, with a young woman kneeling before him, worshipful not of him as a person, but of his dominance as a leader.

That’s some metaphor for future historians analysing the gender politics of public life at the end of the 20th century.