Monica Lewinsky: What We All Can Learn from My Disinvitation Debacle

On Wednesday morning, President Bill Clinton delivered the opening remarks at the fifth annual Town & Country Philanthropy Summit, held at the Hearst Tower in New York City.

That afternoon, I sent out the following tweet:

That evening and into Thursday, the Twitterverse and the press turned the tweet into a minor news story, recounting the details of the disinvitation—and my reaction to the snub—along with comments from spokespeople representing Town & Country and Clinton.

On the spectrum of world injustices, I recognize fully, the act of receiving an invitation to a philanthropy summit and then having it revoked doesn’t even rate. However, in a time when society is struggling to address issues of power and inclusion, maybe it is worth examining. For a minute or two.

It was all simple, until it wasn’t.

Last month, I received an electronic invitation to attend the event and the luncheon that followed. Intrigued by the focus on good works and social change—and given how vital philanthropy is to the organizations I work with to help curb bullying behavior—I R.S.V.P.’d “yes.”

And then, last Friday, an hour before I was due to give a talk at a women’s conference (hello, irony!), I received a call that there was a problem. Bill Clinton would now be making the opening remarks, and then he would leave the premises.

“Let me guess—have I been uninvited?” I asked the woman who works with me on press communication, feeling that old, familiar pang in my gut. (I had been to this rodeo many times before—disinvited to professional and social events “to avoid any awkwardness” or “to not anger certain people,” after an organizer or a host had looked over the guest list and reconsidered my potential presence.)

“No, no,” she had been reassured.

Let me be clear: given the fact that Bill Clinton was going to be on hand, I had no interest in watching his opening remarks. (I imagine the feeling was mutual.) Nor did I want to disrupt an event about promoting good works and social change by insisting on forcing an unwanted confrontation (not that we would have even encountered each other).

Moreover, for anyone who has ever been excluded from such opportunities, it felt like a privilege to have been invited this year. I secretly and gratefully recognized it as a modest marker of How Much My Life Has Changed.

And yet, I’m sometimes reminded, like I was last Friday, of ways that it hasn’t—ways I’m still stuck in the cocoon of 1998.

I proposed an easy solution: I would arrive a half hour after his remarks, at the conclusion of the first panel (as disappointing as it would be to miss hearing the inspirational student activists from Parkland, Florida). But hours later, I was informed that that wouldn’t work. It was suggested—as a compromise—that I just attend the lunch. For me, the summit was about hearing from the likes of Emma González and some of the other Parkland kids; Nicole Hockley of Sandy Hook Promise; Lin-Manuel Miranda, Wes Moore, and Sean Parker about the ways they’re fundamentally changing the world for the better. It was not about lunch.

I was told, through an intermediary, that my presence, now that the president would be in attendance, would deflect the message of the summit and that the main takeaway would be: Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky . . . in the same room. Even though, we wouldn’t be. (It was also conveyed to me that the planners had worked for a year to get Clinton to introduce the Parkland kids. Interesting, given that the Parkland tragedy happened this past February.)

Former President of the United States Bill Clinton speaks onstage during the Fifth Annual Town & Country Philanthropy Summit on May 9, 2018 at Hearst Tower in New York.

By Bryan Bedder/Getty Images.

It was lunch, or nothing. (“Your invitation to come to the museum’s new art exhibit is being revoked, dear, but we’ll grant you entry into the gift shop.”) There was also a consolation prize: an offer to write an article for Town & Country. The whole social gracelessness of the back-and-forth evoked, for me, the dynamic that had played out in The Handmaid’s Tale, in which the wives are relegated to the social fringes of important gatherings.

It was quite clear. My hosts wanted to put me in a position that made the event so unappealing that I would decline—and their social problem would be solved. (Editor’s note: T&C apologized and expressed regret over its handling of the incident in a tweet on Thursday.)

And a year ago, that is exactly what would have happened. Just like the 19 years before it, I would have allowed myself to be R.S.V.P.-shamed into not attending. And, equally important, by some unspoken but tacit agreement, I would not say anything publicly.

This time, I decided, screw it. It’s 2018, people. I stood up and called B.S. publicly.

O.K., so it was a minor social dis. But underneath it all, there were some interesting lessons in outmoded power structures, in outdated ways of thinking and modeling behavior, in the evolving definitions of inclusion—and in the ramifications that come when you deliberately choose to exclude. What happened to me happens daily to millions of people in myriad ways—especially women. And, especially women who have been marginalized in society. Sometimes it’s just an innocent (though no less rude) faux pas, but it’s often a reflection of the more implicit pragmatics of control and politeness—that is, the implicit messages (in the pauses and silences and things unsaid) that people in power send about how they should be treated by those of different status.

Take for example, the statement put out Wednesday by Angel Unreña, one of Clinton’s spokespeople: “President Clinton was invited to address the Town & Country Philanthropy Summit. He gladly accepted. Neither he nor his staff knew anything about the invitation or it being rescinded.” I believe that neither he nor his office were responsible for my being bounced. But in a nutshell, the statement amounted to: “He was grateful to be invited. Don’t blame us; we didn’t know.”

However, the statement was important because of what wasn’t said. Though the situation was awkward, admittedly, by not addressing that the behavior itself was wrong and unacceptable, it sent a tacit message of approval. Not only as it relates to me personally, but more importantly, to what it says about these situations for anyone—any woman, minority, or person on the less powerful side of the equation who could be sidelined. Wasn’t this, then, a lost opportunity to move this very important conversation forward?

There has been a generational shift in how society looks at power and influence and merit: who has it, and who deserves it. Particularly now, in the era of #MeToo and Time’s Up, members of the Establishment are being held to more accountable standards. But at this moment in time, the notion that I would be so casually discarded seems backwards and patently absurd.

A younger generation is now finding it more meaningful to see Tarana Burke on the dais accepting an award or giving a keynote than someone who may have been revered in previous generations. The new Establishment is re-distributing power and influence, adjudicating merit and taste, and giving a voice to those who have been previously silenced or ignored. They’re living in the present and looking to the future.

I’m pretty sure we’re all invited to join them.

Monica Lewinsky, a Vanity Fair contributing editor, is a public speaker and anti-bullying advocate.

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