There has been a lot of spilling the White House tea lately. And who doesn’t like tea!
I’ve slowly gotten back to the habit of following events in the US, now that it’s become more regular geeking out about news than voluntarily inhaling asbestos as was the case for a couple of years. Two former White House trainees are providing entertainment this autumn, and it’s some good entertainment as well, plus some food for thought.
Monica Lewinsky, the one who became a household name in her very early 20s, is a rather formidable personality now that we finally get to see the full person. She’s the co-producer of two TV-series: Impeachment – the American Crime Story (BBC2, Tuesdays at 22:15 Brussels time – it’s excellent) and 15 Minutes of Shame, which tells the stories of those who have been in the eye of public shaming storm.
I’ve spent hours listening to Lewinsky do press interviews about the TV productions and what her life looks like these days, so I’m basing my statements on this scientific evidence: she’s absolutely brilliant, and tremendously funny. I don’t even care to think how many hours of therapy it has taken to get her to where she is now, but really, she’s a true force of nature. Her twitter account is hilarious. She jokes about herself in the 90s. I was listening to her having a conversation with John Favreau (Obama’s former speechwriter) in a podcast as they were discussing social media and how events online start seeping into the real world, and Lewinsky’s points were not only poignant (she calls herself the patient zero of online bullying) but really fucking smart.
Not that we haven’t already heard about this analogy, but her example of the ancient ritual of stoning a person is a good one: would the people just throw one stone and be done with it, or keep throwing more and more stones, and gather more people to the agora to create an avalanche of stones to hurl at the person who’s likely dead already? For the latter is the mob behaviour online.
Equally, she says, if she’d punch a random person in the gut while queuing in a supermarket, there would be consequences. Yet we are able to hurt people online often without the merest afterthought “I wonder if this (bullied) person is actually OK?“
Huma Abedin started her traineeship in the White House one year after Lewinsky, and she was assigned to work in the office of the then First Lady Hillary Clinton. Unlike the Lewinsky/Clinton couple, the Abedin/Clinton twosome stayed together for a quarter of a century and continue to be close friends.
Abedin now has a book out, Both/And, which is about her story of working 25 years as the closest aide to one of America’s most famous politicians, the almost first woman president, as well about Abedin’s devastating marriage to former congressman Anthony Weiner, nowadays a convicted sex offender.
I’ve also listened to Abedin on nearly all forums she’s done press lately,* as well as read a couple of reviews on her book. Like Lewinsky, also Abedin went through a period of high-level national humiliation, although in her case it was her husband repeatedly causing the outrage. There’s a part in the Guardian review that summarises her devastation well: ‘Abedin had expected to spend that year working as chief of staff to the first female president; instead, she was shuttling her son to prison for visits with his father in a country that was enacting a Muslim ban’ (Abedin and her family are Muslim).
I wasn’t expecting Lewinsky and Abedin to be besties just because they interned in the White House at the same time. Their stories and life paths could not be much different, after all. However I was somewhat surprised at Abedin’s replies regarding what happened between Lewinsky and president Clinton in the 90s. In the Guardian interview she as good as declines to believe there was a relationship at all.
“There must have been some part of Abedin that thought Lewinsky was telling the truth.
“No,” she replies before I finish the question.
“For me, as an intern, it seemed not possible. We never saw [the president]! You would turn on the TV and it was Ken Starr this, Ken Starr that, Whitewater this, Whitewater that – but when you turned away from the TV and you looked at your desk, really important work was continuing. Northern Ireland, the Middle East peace process. The other stuff was just distractions on TV. Maybe if I hadn’t been an intern it would have been different, but I knew how it was [in the White House] and it seemed impossible,” she says.
Given the meticulousness of the Lewinsky/Clinton -affair investigation, this seems like an extremely bold statement to make. Abedin herself made claims in her book that as a young staffer she had been the subject of unwanted, inappropriate advances by a sitting US Senator. A morning show host** pressed Abedin to reveal the identity of the man who had made these sexually inappropriate moves, and she (quite rightly) dodged the question by replying that:
“women tend to hide their trauma… as I was watching the (Kavanaugh hearings), my experience came back to me. For me it’s about to be able to share my truth. I think in 2000 there were many women also outside politics who just buried these experiences. I chose not to name this individual, because this story is not about him, it is about me. And in 2021 a woman should be able to talk about her trauma and her confusion and her experience. And it should be OK.”
I totally agree with Abedin on that. It’s just massively at odds with what she said about Lewinsky’s right to her trauma and confusion.
But this is the thing about politics. Inner circle doesn’t spill the tea. Abedin has (wisely) chosen her side and stayed firmly there, for admirable 25 years, and as politics pro, can’t and won’t deviate from the line. As much as Abedin’s story is hers alone to tell, her public statements about the events that led to the sex scandal impeachment seem to be carefully vetted by the Clintons.
Similarly, any parallels, suggestions and references to similarities between Abedin’s marital problems related to a sex addict husband who caused her public humiliation and Hillary Clinton’s marital problems related to… well you get my point, are strictly off limits in any interviews, which is a bit too obvious. Especially as the two women seem to have been extremely close, something that Abedin keeps highlighting.
For politics-nerd both of these women make for excellent reading and listening (I haven’t read Both/And). And whatever we might think about Abedin’s and Lewinsky’s respective motives, it is rather great to have more women in politics and public life tell their stories.
* There’s a reason I listen to smart American women on various forums: they are, almost without exception, trained speakers and performers. They probably receive coaching ahead of live TV interviews, which everybody should. Their replies are structured, concise and to the point, and they have clearly thought about their spin before getting in front of the camera. Having gathered decades of experience in politics absolutely helps with the latter.
** The clip is below.
Despite the fetching photo of an influencer-breakfast of avocado toast and coffee at the Ludlow, I am not in New York.