Monica Lewinsky on Bill Clinton's 'Lethal Charm' and Why She Doesn't Need Anything from Him Anymore
"In the first few years after the scandal," Monica Lewinsky says now, from her home base on the West Coast, over 20 years later, "I ran away and went to graduate school and thought, I'll go to another country and get a master's degree and get a job."
She imagined how her life might finally unfold: "I'm going to get married and have kids and everyone will forget that Monica Lewinsky. But that didn't work."
"A lot of what had to happen was integration," she tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "Well, this is what happened."
The this follows that: Lewinsky's mid-'90s affair with Bill Clinton, an era-defining political scandal that fueled his impeachment.
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Clinton was acquitted, while Lewinsky was tried in the court of public opinion. (A New York Times columnist compared her to a "red-blooded predator.")
It would take years for opinions to change about the relationship between the 49-year-old president of the United States and the 22-year-old White House intern. It took about as long for Lewinsky — who retreated from the spotlight in the mid-2000s after fitful public appearances — to evolve herself.
She let go of the shame and found the courage to reclaim her story and to examine the power differential, she says, "between the most powerful man in the world and an unpaid intern less than half his age."
It's one of underlying themes of the new FX series Impeachment: American Crime Story, which premiered Tuesday night, on which Lewinsky, 48, is a producer. It tells the story of Clinton's scandals, including his affair, through the perspectives of the women involved.
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Looking back, as Lewinsky tells PEOPLE, "For me, at 22 there was this combination of the awe of being at the White House, the awe of the presidency and the awe of this man who had an amazing energy and charisma was paying attention to me."
"I was enamored with him, like many others," she continues. "He had a charisma to him — and it was a lethal charm and I was intoxicated."
"I think there are a lot of people who might find themselves in these situations," she says. "It might be a professor or a boss, your immediate supervisor at your first job. We think we're on his terra firma in our early twenties and yet we're really on this quicksand. [You think], I'm an adult now. It didn't matter that I couldn't get a rental car without a parental signature."
That kind of examination has also brought perspective to Clinton's actions.
"Especially if you look at it through the lens or imagine other presidents who weren't involved in sex scandals, you imagine there would have been a moment of, Oh, I've still got it, and a smile to themselves and then they would have moved on and not created a sort of energetic bubble for something to happen," she says. Unlike Clinton, "They would not have encouraged a 22 year old. And certainly not kept things going for as long as they did."
Now that more than two decades has passed, Lewinsky no longer needs his apology.
"If I had been asked five years ago, there would have been a part of me that needed something — that still wanted something. Not any kind of relationship, but a sense of closure or maybe understanding," she says, "and I feel incredibly grateful not to need any of that."
What she does hope for is a continued discussion, especially about the dynamics between men with power and those without it.
"As we all came to see," she says, "it wasn't just about losing a job but about the power to be believed, the power to be inoculated from the press, the power to have others smear someone's reputation in all the ways that work, the power to understand consequences having held many important jobs, where this was my first out of college."
Last year, in the Hulu documentary Hillary, the former president maintained that their affair, in part, was something he did to "manage anxieties."
"I can't speak to how he really felt or if what he has said over the years is true to him," Lewinsky tells PEOPLE. "At 22 years old, I mistakenly thought the sliver of him that I got to know was the whole of who he was. And with that, I thought I mattered more than I did."
"That's not to say this was transactional. But he clearly didn't care in the way I thought he did at the time and the way some of his gestures would have conveyed," she says.
Beyond Impeachment, Lewinsky hopes her work as an activist, a storyteller and producer (next up is 15 Minutes of Shame on HBO Max) will make a difference.
"Obviously I have personal and selfish reasons, all sorts of reasons, for having participated in Impeachment, but the larger goal is how to move the conversation forward, a sort of collective shift — whether it's a sex scandal or not, and the kind of blame that was put on a young person and the kind of erasing and turning a blind eye to where responsibility really sat," she says.
She remembers how, in 2014, in one of the first Q&As she did after ending her 10-year silence about the scandal and it's aftermath with an essay in Vanity Fair, "A woman asked me if I was now going to lecture young women on not having affairs with their married bosses."
"I was completely caught off guard," Lewinsky says. "I don't remember what I said. After that [I thought], Well, is anybody going to ask the president if he's going to go around and lecture bosses on not shtupping their interns?"
In 2021, though, "I don't think I'd be asked that question," she says. "I think today I'd be asked appropriate questions about levels of responsibility and I've tried to take that responsibility."
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