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Amateur Porn: The End of Secrecy in the 1990s

By Taylor García.

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The late 1990s were the beginning of the end of everything clandestine. There were no tweets back then. No snaps, or apps. Likes and pokes were a twinkle in 14-year-old Mark Zuckerberg’s eyes. In just a few short years, however, smoky back room deals would never be again, and everything would go on display for all to see, all the time. 1998 was the dawning of the age of transparency.

If you were an intern in Washington, D.C. that year, your boss could simply put your name on a list with the White House Press Secretary, letting you waltz into the morning press gaggle to sit alongside famed reporters like Sam Donaldson, Helen Thomas, and oh, wait—younger readers will have no frame of reference for those ancient journalists. Let’s just say CNN and Wolf Blitzer were there, as was Fox News, every print magazine and newspaper, and the fledgling on-line news outlets like the Drudge Report, all working overtime, doing their best to help the situation unfold. All laying the foundation for the 24-hour news cycle.

The Lewinsky Scandal, involving former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton, had broke in January that year, and was on the verge of climax in the sultry, sunken months of late summer. The federal grand jury had taken testimony from a number of actors in the infamous politico-sex drama by that time, including Linda Tripp, Lewinsky’s former friend and taper of their conversations about the affair. News of an un-dry-cleaned navy blue dress stained with the President’s semen had come to light. In early August, Monica herself would appear before the grand jury, and shortly after, Bill Clinton would be the first sitting president to do so.

I was newly twenty-one years old at the time, and interning for The Talk Radio News Service, an independent radio bureau spearheaded by veteran D.C. media maven, Ellen Ratner. From her two-story house in east Georgetown, Ellen taught us the other dying art of radio broadcasting.

Downstairs at the dining table, we made our calls to think tanks, legislative offices, celebrity spokespeople, and other news outlets, our bull pen sandwiched between a shoebox-sized recording studio and a galley kitchen, where we boiled our daily pots of spaghetti.

Upstairs, adjacent to Ellen’s bedroom, we listened to other radio broadcasts and transcribed them in a makeshift computer lab, to eventually go on the news bureau’s webpage. In exchange for a free lunch, we were Ellen’s no-cost labor force, reporting on Beltway news to the far reaches of rural America.
Ellen had us all over D.C. covering government and political stories, but the white-hot scandal involving a girl in our very own cohort had sucked all the oxygen out of the city. Monica had what all interns in Washington, D.C. had back then: too-close-for-comfort proximity to the first-world central government, a tenacious press corps, and a free pass to run wild in the Capital. The difference with Monica, however, was that she had crossed into the danger zone of hard-ball playing adults via a sexual relationship with the most powerful man in the world, and there was no way to walk it backward.

What made this scandal so juicy was that it was fed to us only in bits. Though my intern camp was at the epicenter of the action, we received just as much of the story as the average consumer, reading the same stories, watching the same clips. The Lewinsky Scandal was for us, like it probably was for everyone else: akin to finding that forbidden erotic novel on your aunt’s top shelf, leafing through the pages, desperately looking for the sex scenes.

Had “Interngate” happened today, we know what the social media aftermath would have been. The blue dress would have gone up on someone’s Facebook page. Close ups of the stains would go viral on Instagram. Bill and Monica’s trysts would have been captured by insiders, then YouTubed, Vined, and Periscoped within minutes. The hashtags themselves might have broken the internet. #TheLewinsky #Internporn #SlickWilly #OralOffice #thatwoman

As an amateur news correspondent in 1998, I wasn’t walking around with a smart phone, able to report the story, and at the same time be the story. The intelligence I collected was as good as a phone call away (when I could find one), or taking what I had written by hand on my note pad, or recorded on the DAT, then transported in my head or otherwise, back through the Metro, out at Dupont Circle, and back up to the studio. News still took time to break. Leaks weren’t wiki back then.

Suppose for a moment that President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky were just a man and woman wanting to have a little fun. Let their inhibitions loose. I won’t tell if you won’t. If their alleged relationship was indeed consensual as Monica says it was, what if the two of them were living off the thrill of it, relishing a world where you could still keep dangerous liaisons on the down low? So what. Let’s just do it.
If that were the case, the months leading up to the outing of their affair were perhaps the last moment in time that anyone in the United States of America would have have any modicum of privacy ever again. Not that the President should have been fooling around with a young girl—that’s not the point. The way in which the story unfolded, and how we consumed it, was what set the framework for publicizing every future swirling vortex of sex, scandal, and everything else.

Both the President and Monica were shamed for life, yet the aftermath for these two individuals is, well, quite different. We know that Bill Clinton somehow managed to still come out as a champ, and even as he bucks for First Gentleman—his stand-by-your-man wife, Hillary, quite possibly a presidential contender—Bill’s popularity game is still strong.

Monica, of course, retreated from the public eye entirely, and has spent the last 18 years trying to reinvent herself. She took the biggest fall, wearing the badge of shame then, and up to this day. You have to feel some sorrow for her, whether you’re a Clinton disciple or not. She was just a child back then, living most of her life in the open, but now, as a full-grown adult, she’s still in the shadows. She hasn’t been able to triumph over her actions the way he has. Though Monica has owned up to that time in history, has written about it in Vanity Fair, given TED talks about bullying, etc., it may take another 20 years for her to raise her shroud.

One might think it’s the media that would dictate such timing, however it’s no longer my former professional peer group that calls the shots in this world. It’s the amateur press corps—the everyday pornographers and the tools we so perilously wield. We the people who thrive on the instant.

We don’t grant people much latitude these days for just about anything. Our Twitter feed will keep us in the loop about spats between recording artists and reality stars and their children and their transgender parents and their help and their lovers and their gay brother and on and on. And if we don’t learn about it through our own social media du jour, we’ll hear about it on the nightly news or on TMZ or on—you get the idea. We won’t be able to escape it, and we won’t be able to help ourselves from adding a comment or two, throwing something—anything—out there to the digital universe we’ve made much larger than our own humanity.
If anything, Monica is the winner here. She’s the only person in this story that’s quietly ducked out, trying everything she can to maintain the dignity she has left. By staying out of the public eye, denying selfies, limiting her media appearances, and wisely choosing who she associates with and what she stands up for, she just may phoenix herself out of her ash heap better than any Kardashian on their best day.

As I start at the last tee box of the back nine of my 30’s, the life of a reporter long behind me (I gave it up a year after I graduated college in 1999), the newspaper age gone with the wind, I realize that nothing lasts forever. The Monica Lewinsky story is fabled history now. And though interns still intern in Washington, D.C., they’re under a much different set of social mores, tempered by idealist millennial views, yet still learning how to play with the technical toys they were born with. It’s as though the tracks made by today’s youth—my children included—will be even more difficult to cover up.

As the rings on the internet’s tree grows year over year, onward into forever, never again will there be a time when privacy reigns. Especially now that the Federal Bureau of Investigation wants to break smartphones. You know all that stuff that we used to keep in safes and under the mattress? We now voluntarily put it on our phones, and they want access to it.

Right now feels a little bit like the way Monica and Bill must have felt when they knew the jig was up. Playtime is over. Those things we posted—yes, even our delicious dinners—won’t come down. It’s there for all to see. We’re all in on the action now, each move tracked, recorded, and dashboarded. We may not be able to hide ever again—keep something secret—not as long as there’s a camera on our phone and a phone in our pockets. It’s just too sexy a device not to use.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR.
Taylor García‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Chagrin River Review, Driftwood Press, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Hawaii Pacific Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Caveat Lector, and Writing Disorder. I also write the weekly column, “Father Time” at the Good Men Project.
He lives in San Diego with his wife and two young sons.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 12th, 2016.