Even before the re-emergence of Monica Lewinsky with Thursday’s Vanity Fair article offering her latest take on her affair with Bill Clinton and the ensuing constitutional crisis, stories about the world’s most famous intern had been hovering in the national news for months.
Lewinsky had become a subject of conversation again because of the ongoing debate within the Republican Party over how to treat President Clinton’s impeachment if Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016. Back in February, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said Monicagate was very much a live issue. Sen. Rand Paul, the supposed GOP youth savior in 2016, also views the Lewinsky affair as a rich line of re-inquiry, having called Bill Clinton a “serial philanderer” who displayed “predatory behavior.”
Karl Rove, meanwhile, said talk of anything impeachment-related would only make a potential GOP candidate look petty. Whether or not it’s wise to do so, some Republican operatives see a potential Hillary candidacy as an opportunity to reintroduce a new generation of voters to some of the more salacious aspects of the first Clinton presidency.
“A huge portion of the electorate that’s going to be her target don’t remember the Clinton administration at all,” said Tim Miller, executive director of the early 2016 super PAC America Rising, in a Talking Points Memo article published a day before Vanity Fair announced its Lewinsky story. “A lot of the negative stuff about the Clinton era has congealed into like a joke or a historical blip, but people don’t remember the details.” Miller, whose group had already begun looking for opposition research on Clinton last year, wants to make sure that these young voters don’t have a “a clouded vision, a nostalgic vision of the Clinton era.” (I reached out to Miller for this story, but he declined to comment.)
The idea of the GOP reintroducing Bill Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky to younger voters may seem pointless and potentially self-damaging. When you dig deeper, it becomes even dumber. More than any other emotion, the millennial generation that would be offered this introduction to the high crimes and misdemeanors of President Clinton are either bored by the story, or view it with the sort of nostalgia that Miller described.
When the “new” Lewinsky story came up in the Slate newsroom on Tuesday, there was a millennial cohort that responded with total indifference.
“The whole scandal remains opaque to me to this day,” said one colleague who was 10 years old at the time. Her main interaction with the affair had been a question on her high school AP U.S. History exam. (She had to guess at the answer; some of her classmates had no idea.) “It’s a black hole of knowledge for me, between my actual current events experiences and study of history. I guess I should read up on it and inform myself, but it just seems so silly in hindsight that I wouldn’t waste my time.”
The idea that there will be an entire voting bloc in 2016 with limited memory or interest in Lewinskygate is borne out by data. In a Survey Monkey survey conducted by Slate after the Vanity Fair article was announced, we asked several age groups what they remembered about the impeachment saga and how closely they followed it. The millennials in the survey, those aged 18 to 29 years old, have relatively little recollection of it. Only 46 percent of this subgroup said they remember it very or fairly well, compared with 69 percent of the total survey and 76 percent of all other groups.
When you look at the younger range of millennials, the numbers become even starker. Only 28 percent of the younger group, between 18 and 24, remembers the story well. (It’s understandable—some of them were toddlers!) Ten percent of this group remembers following it either very closely or fairly closely. “Age is really important,” in terms of how people view the Lewinsky affair, says Neil Howe, a co-author of the 2000 book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. “As you go younger and younger, it gets more and more sort of lurid and weird.”
We were curious how that stacked up against people’s memory of other events, namely the Sept. 11 attacks, the O.J. Simpson trial, the Clarence Thomas hearings, the Iran-Contra hearings, Watergate, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. We found that, except for the major historical events of JFK’s assassination and the 9/11 attacks, the age cutoff for having strong memories and having followed big news events is around between 10 and 13 years old. A strong majority of people who were between ages of 11 and 16, about 63 percent, had vivid memories of the O.J. trial in 1995, while only 36 percent of the millennial group, who would have been 10 or younger at the time, remembers it well. That said, 50 percent of the people in the 6–10 age group in 1995 say they have some memory of the O.J. trial. The Clarence Thomas hearing saw a similar result with 14 percent of people in their 30s (7–16 age range at the time) having strong memories, compared with 35 percent of people in their 40s (17–26 age range). The numbers are similar for the Iran-Contra scandal as well, suggesting that those two events were less important to the public consciousness of young people than the O.J. trial.
The exception to that early teenage cutoff seems to be big generation-defining events. For example, 82 percent of those older than 50 remember JFK’s assassination in 1963, and 74 percent of all millennials said they followed coverage of 9/11 closely, while 85 percent said they remembered it well. Those numbers hold up when you look at the younger group who would have been between 5 and 11 at the time, of which 74 percent said they remembered 9/11 well.
Still, for events that didn’t qualify as world-shattering news, which the Clinton impeachment apparently did not, that 10–13 cutoff range appears sound. A colleague who was 13 years old at the time says he followed the news closely. “I feel like people forget how explosive it really was [at the time],” he said. “Imagine Obama having a ‘blue dress’ situation on his hands. It would be unbelievable.”
Many of those who were younger than 10 during the height of the scandal don’t have any memory of the public outcry at all. They may be familiar with the Clinton impeachment trial, but it’s often only because of a class they took in college.
“I never really learned about it in, like, a history class until this year, actually,” says Ashley Motta, a 19-year-old freshman at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire. Motta, who founded Saint Anselm’s “Ready for Hillary” group—a college affiliate of the national super PAC that is urging Hillary to run for president, said, “I’ve obviously learned second-hand and been learning more every day as the scandal keeps coming up.”
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.