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.”