Long life

Two ways to disgrace a president

It was touching how Washington honoured Ben Bradlee. Monica Lewinsky can't look forward to similar treatment

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

8 November 2014

9:00 AM

On 21 October Ben Bradlee, the famous ex-editor of the Washington Post, died, aged 93. The day before that, on 20 October, Monica Lewinsky, 41, the even more famous ex-girlfriend of Bill Clinton, made her first public speech after ten years spent keeping out of the public eye. They had nothing in common except for the fact that each had been responsible for bringing disgrace to a president of the United States.

Richard Nixon would have faced impeachment by Congress over the Watergate scandal, which the Post exposed, if he had not first resigned in 1974 (the first president ever to do so) and then been pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. President Clinton was impeached in 1998, but acquitted by the US Senate. He was only the second president in history to suffer this humiliation (Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, but also acquitted). So we were suddenly reminded within a couple of days of two of the greatest scandals ever to engulf the American presidency.

Lewinsky’s re-emergence from the shadows coincided with the cranking up of Hillary Clinton’s efforts to seek the Democratic candidacy for the White House in succession to Barack Obama, who saw off her first attempt six years ago. What effect, if any, it will have on this ambition of hers is hard to know, but it is a reminder of an exceptionally grubby episode of sexual exploitation by a serving president, Hillary’s husband, of a young White House intern and of the lies with which he subsequently disowned her.

Invited surprisingly by Forbes magazine to address a convention in Philadelphia of under-30 ‘young entrepreneurs and achievers’, Lewinsky used the occasion to give her own version of what happened: ‘Fresh out of college, a 22-year-old intern in the White House — and more than averagely romantic — I fell in love with my boss in a 22-year-old sort of way…. We started an affair that lasted, on and off, for two years. And, at that time, it was my everything.’

‘That woman’, as Clinton dismissively called her when he denied that they had ever had a sexual relationship, then claimed to have been the first ever victim of ‘cyberbullying’, ‘the first person to have their reputation completely destroyed worldwide via the internet’. This had triggered anxiety, depression and self-loathing and brought her to the brink of suicide, from which she had only been deterred by the support of her family and friends, who convinced her that she wasn’t the slut the world considered her to be. Her purpose now, she said, was to change ‘the culture of humiliation’ that continued to pervade the internet: ‘Having survived myself, what I want to do now is help other victims of the shame game survive too. I want to put my suffering to good use and give purpose to my past.’

It must be bewildering to Monica Lewinsky that the Clintons have not only survived this scandal but now even have realistic hopes of returning to the White House, while she has found her reputation in shreds.

Watergate, on the other hand, was the making of Ben Bradlee. He was a charismatic figure in any event, a well-born, charming, fun-loving, energetic man who combined perfect manners with a vulgar taste for profanity that he had acquired in the navy. He actually possessed even more star quality than Jason Robards, the actor who won an Oscar for playing him in the 1976 film All The President’s Men, which was based on the book of that name by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the Post reporters who exposed the Watergate affair.

But they could never have done so without the courageous backing, in the face of constant White House denials and threats, of their tenacious editor, a man whose establishment connections — he had been a close friend of President Kennedy — never weakened his commitment to the pursuit of truth. I watched his funeral in Washington Cathedral on YouTube. Everyone who was anyone was there, including Vice-President Joe Biden and Secretary of State John Kerry. The coffin was draped in the Stars and Stripes. The choir sang the ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ and ‘America the Beautiful’. It seemed a rather wonderful thing about America that shaming the head of state of the world’s most powerful nation could be seen as a great act of patriotism, worthy of such a celebration.

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  • mickc

    Bradlee, the man who wielded the sword on behalf of the canonised JFK, but who had not been quite so assiduous in revealing his misdeeds.

  • what a weird article: “everyone” at his funeral, doesn’t seem to include any republicans. “establishment connections” with democrat JFK didn’t prevent him from laying into republican Nixon. might it be that partisanship is not actually a new thing after all?

  • Curnonsky

    Watergate and the Washington Post’s now-canonized coverage it of was the worst thing ever to happen to American journalism. It became the creation myth for our wonderful media class, now well removed from Grub Street and comfortably ensconced in the world of power, money and influence. And how superficial of Bradlee to be seduced by JFK’s good looks and charm while ignoring the Kennedys criminal past (and present).

  • carl jacobs

    Watergate was the seminal moment of the American media. They were fat with monopoly profits, and utterly convinced of the divine right of Journalists to act as the Priesthood of Democracy. The sacrosanct boundary between business desk and editorial desk encouraged them to believe it was someone else’s responsibility to keep bringing in the tithe due the Priesthood.

    Times were good. Advertisers had no other direct channel to market. Profit margins of 40% kept everybody happy. Journalists became rich (well, some of them) , isolated from their audience, arrogant, and fancied themselves major players. This was the future, and journalists liked it. They had been predestined by the gods of Democracy to “make the world a better place.” They were unique in the purity of their vision. And here they had a President’s scalp to justify themselves.

    My how times change. Newspapers never were in the business of selling news. They were in the business of selling audience and news was the way to get the audience. As long as newspapers had that monopoly on direct to market advertising, newspapers could extort advertisers for those monopoly rates. But of course the high cost gave advertisers an incentice to find other channels. And they did.

    Newspapers aren’t arrogant anymore. They are all going out of business. And journalists are discovering new phrases like “How do we monetize our work?” This is the stuff of Greek tragedy. We have reached the point where the hero’s fatal flaw brings about his tragic end. Cue the final chorus. You won’t see the likes of Ben Bradlee again.

    • Swanky

      Oh shut up. Every election ‘Watergated’ everybody. It only became a great scandal when the Republicans did it. God I hate the Democrats. No principles, no integrity.* They would sell their grandma to the Arabs — if the bastards would have her.

      *The only thing they believe in is equal misery for everyone, except the special, self-selected luxurious few. Like Gordon Brown. And the Milibands.

  • Rush_is_Right

    I think this idolatry directed at Ben Bradlee is quite misplaced. The REAL hero of contemporary US journalism is Martin Baron, the current editor of the Washington Post.

    Who can forget his Pullitzer-winning exposés of the IRS scandal and of the Benghazi fiasco, or his corruscating criticism of the shambles at the VA? And let nobody overlook his withering disclosures of the immigration disgrace and systematic Democrat voter-fraud? Not to mention the shambles that is Obamacare, all written up at great length by the Washington Post. Yes, Martin Baron is truly the journalistic titan of our time, the man who turns over the stones and fearlessly reveals what he finds crawling around underneath.

  • Swanky

    Hillary Clinton is just the ultra-left-wing femi-despot lawyer that married Bill because he wanted power and by god, he wanted it, too (how they ever got it together otherwise is fortunately a mystery shielded from us all. But then, so is most reproductive sex, let’s face it.). Hillary is a radical Leftist in the Stalinist Hoorary Harry style. She would garrotte you as soon as look at you. She is the enemy of freedom and good people everywhere, in my opinion. And she would love a U S of A where expressing the opinion I’ve expressed would get me sent to a gulag. She is that (((((((((____

    • Bonkim

      Watch it Gal – Nixon would have hauled you in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee and branded you a Commie; and Nixon was a Republican.

      • Swanky

        Nonsense! Same with your comment about bats.

        • Bonkim

          I know my bats – they live in the loft.

          • Swanky

            Bats in your belfry: I shoulda guessed!

          • Bonkim

            Have provided holes for them to come and go – that is a legal requirement.

            To be fair ones views are shaped by those prevailing around where one grows up – analysing cause and effect is also relative to ones experience – so no offence meant – I think you come up with a lot of sense in your comments and I admire intelligence in a woman even if I may not always agree.

            I acknowledge everyone has a right to their views/beliefs and these are bound to vary with various factors. I don’t know how to skin a moose like Sarah Palin but may have other strengths that she does not.