Alexander Chancellor

Two ways to disgrace a president

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

Two ways to disgrace a president
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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.