To Motta, the Lewinsky saga is nothing more than some lurid reality TV precursor from before she was in elementary school that happens to be, strangely, a trending topic on Twitter now. “Because I was so young when it happened, I see Hillary more as having had her own career separate from Bill,” she says. “As far as my campus, I think pretty much everyone feels the same way as me.”
Caleb Cavarretta, a 21-year-old junior who co-founded the University of Missouri chapter of “Ready for Hillary,” agrees Clinton’s impeachment isn’t relevant to his life or the lives of his peers, and he also only learned the details because of a college class. “I don’t think there was any time that I ever had a conversation with a person my age about the scandal that wasn’t started by a class discussion or something like that,” he says.
Cavarretta, who was 5 years old when the Lewinsky scandal broke, views the story with more bewilderment than anything else. “The one common idea I’ve encountered when that’s come up in a class has been this was kind of like—there’s not a very strong understanding of why it was so significant in terms of how it affected the media.”
For the most part, millennials have grown up with a completely different image of Bill and Hillary Clinton than their 1998 versions. They know President Clinton for his post-presidency, not his second-term scandal. Both Motta and Cavarretta note that there have been multiple incarnations of Hillary since the late 1990s—the senator, the presidential candidate, the secretary of state, and the candidate-in-waiting. Those are the Hillary Clintons they know.
These views track closely with current poll data on the Clintons. In a Washington Post survey published at the start of this month, 77 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 39—those who would have been 2 to 23 during the height of the scandal—had a net favorable view of the Clinton family.
When Howe, the co-author of Millennials Rising, has conducted interviews about Lewinsky, he says the saga is remembered by older millennials with a sort of “titter” or with “embarrassment.” That was the exact response I got when I put the question to my 26-year-old sister’s friends on Facebook.
“I have immense nostalgia for this whole event, and while I’m usually not one to pick up a Vanity Fair or be that interested in gossipy tell-alls, I’m really looking forward to reading Monica’s piece,” said one woman, who was 11 years old at the time. “I mean, childhood in the ’90s? Britney Spears, pogs, Nike pump shoes, and the Lewinsky scandal. It’s a uniting generational event.”
Today, when Beyoncé sings about having her gown “Monica Lewinsky’d” upon, it’s a funny callback for young people to their childhoods and not some hideous moral outrage. Either that, or it’s a completely alien subject of little to no interest.
“It just doesn’t come up,” said the journalism and political science student Cavarretta, laughing. “I don’t think any young person takes it very seriously as being newsworthy.”
Of course those of us who were following politics at the time remember it as a nearly seminal event. “In the late ’90s it seemed to make sense,” says Howe. “There weren’t any big political or geopolitical crises to worry about. This is what was there. … You can be excused for thinking it was very serious [at the time].”
In light of everything that has happened since—Bush v. Gore, 9/11, the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, the financial crisis, Barack Obama’s election—it obviously seems silly in retrospect. But more than that, it seems completely irrelevant as anything other than nostalgia fodder. Rehashing Lewinskygate is rightfully seen by young people as an unnecessary wallowing in a kind of historical embarrassment and curiosity.
“I think it can only be told so many ways,” said Motta. “I don’t think anything new can really come of it.”
Pay heed, Rand Paul.