On January 21, 1998, the political maelstrom that eventually led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment began with a news-alert bow shock when it was revealed that he and I—during my tenure as a White House intern—had begun and maintained a long-running relationship.
What have we as a nation—and I personally—come to understand in the 25 years since? Let me share some thoughts.
1. You can make the right decision and still have regret. Also, don’t judge your insides by other people’s outsides. (Full disclosure: I learned these from my therapist.)
2. If you can’t laugh at yourself, you are so fucked.
3. In 2023, we are (sadly) closer to the reality of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale than we were when the book was published in 1985.
4. The blame-the-woman mindset has thankfully receded over time through social conditioning. One prime example: What began in 1998 as “the Lewinsky Scandal” or “the Lewinsky Affair”—an overheated trope straight out of Watergate or John le Carré or Britain’s notorious Profumo Affair—underwent a nomenclature upgrade as the years marched on. The culture and the media adapted—at the insistence of many offended observers and arbiters, including this magazine—to rebrand the whole narrative as “the Clinton Scandal” or “the Clinton Impeachment” or other taglines that were more in keeping with the original power dynamics. (Yes, I’m still lobbed in there on Wikipedia…but there’s time.)
5. As evidenced by some members of the political-operative class in this country, bullying, both online and in public, has become not only an accepted line of work but an ever-growing profit center. (It has also contributed to too many innocent people’s suffering.)
6. And yet…bullying comedy has gotten tired. The Tonight Show With Jay Leno died in 2014. For me, not a day too soon. At the end of Leno’s run, the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University analyzed the 44,000 jokes he told over the course of his time at the helm. While President Clinton was his top target, I was the only one in the top 10 who had not specifically chosen to be a public person.
7. How to measure progress? In 1998, the 105th Congress was made up of 65 female members and 67 members who identified as Black, Hispanic, Asian or Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, Native American, or multiracial. In 2023, the 118th Congress is composed of 149 female members and 133 members who identify themselves in diverse categories.
8. Finding joy—hunting for it, even—is an essential part of life. You mustn’t wait for joy to find you. (Corollary: Disneyland is still the happiest place on earth.)
9. I wish I could say I get royalties now. I don’t. But at least the lyrics got better. (IYKYK.)
10. It took me 22 years to be able to watch The West Wing—which, yes, I agree, was brilliant. (And thankfully, no one wore a beret.)
11. As the years pass, one’s taste in partners gets better. (Wink.)
12. Two benchmarks of social triumph, 1998–2023? The freedom to marry whomever one wants was made possible (2015) and protected (2022). #MeToo is now a baseline, not an aberration.
13. Grief reigns in the kingdom of loss. I refer to not only the loss of a loved one but also the loss of a hope, a dream, or love itself. It seems we don’t finish grieving, but merely finish for now; we process it in layers. One day (not today) I’m going to write a short story about a vending machine that serves up Just the Right Amount of Grief. You know, the perfect amount that you can handle in a moment to move yourself along, but not so much that you’ll be caught in an undertow.
14. Turns out our parents are not “dumb.” Quite the opposite. (But they are still annoying at times.)
15. The multiverse is real.
16. We thought that the tabloidization of our news coverage could not get more tawdry or destructive after the trial of O.J. Simpson (1995), the paparazzi mob that pursued Princess Diana to her death (1997), or the press scrum surrounding the whole Clinton saga (1998 to 2000), which happened to supercharge a new television network, Fox News. Were we ever wrong. Due, in large part, to the menacing aspects of social media, the 24/7 scandal cycle has turned out to be even more devastating over time—to lives, careers, reputations, public discourse, and the American psyche.
17. One thing everyone has in common is that we have all made mistakes. It’s inevitable. Get comfortable with the Art of the Mistake.
18. You cannot run away from your narrative. Perhaps the most challenging idea I had to come to accept was that there is no shedding or unshackling of the self that sprang from 1998 (and that made the behavioral decisions that landed me there). You can only try to integrate your previous selves with as much compassion as you can muster.
19. The power of one kind word is extraordinary. In the deepest, darkest moments of the soul, a simple act of human kindness is a powerful thing.
20. The “heroin-chic” emaciation of the late ’90s and early aughts finally went out of fashion. So much so that we now have store mannequins of myriad body shapes and sizes. I often imagine how such body-positive messaging would have impacted my own self-esteem growing up—and wonder if it might have ameliorated the fat-shaming that other young women of the time experienced.
21. Paul Rudd looks the same. How can that be?
22. Choose your friends carefully. Twenty-five years ago I had one of the world’s worst friends: Linda “Judas, hold my beer” Tripp. While I have since let go of the resentment and bitterness that surrounded her and her betrayal, it’s not lost on me how very fortunate I am to have been able to trust new people. My most emotionally intimate relationships are with my incredible friends. These are the investments most worth nurturing.
23. Ipso facto, in 2014, the night before my first-person essay was published in Vanity Fair, one of my best friends introduced me to this Anaïs Nin quote: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Take the risk to blossom. Each day.
24. Post-traumatic stress—a relatively new diagnosis in the 1990s—now affects about 6% of the US adult population at some point in life, or roughly 12 million people per year—not counting the legions of minors who suffer from the disorder. I think “coping with modern trauma” will be the “mindfulness” of the next 25 years.
25. Lastly, I don’t know how to say this other than to be direct and insufferably corny: You can survive the unimaginable. (Not for nothing did I name my film and TV production company Alt Ending.)