Scandals and politics go together like peanut butter and jelly, and we like to sink our teeth into them just as much as the sandwiches. The ’90s, specifically the Clinton administration, had its share of scandals, but one stands above all the rest: The Lewinsky Affair.
Bill Clinton, depending on who you talk to, was a fairly successful president who navigated his way through troubled waters for 8 years. At his peak he had a 73% approval rating, and left office with 65% of Americans saying he had done a good job, higher than any other president since Harry Truman. Even so, stories of his sexual misadventures dogged him throughout his presidency, and long after.
Allegations of sexual assault and harassment should be enough to sink any political candidate, but Clinton actually thrived under them. He was charming, relatable and the economy was beginning to take a nose dive. All those things combined led to a Clinton victory over George H.W. Bush, a rare defeat of an incumbent president.
Ironically enough, it wasn’t Clinton’s sexual history that would get him in to trouble, it was his loose connection with the truth. Hard to believe that a politician might almost lose his job, and go to jail, because of a lie rather than sexual assault – but that’s the world we live in.
We probably wouldn’t know about any of the allegations if it wasn’t for a woman named Paula Jones. She was the first woman to accuse then President Clinton of improper behavior, although the encounter she described happened while he was Governor of Arkansas.
In 1991 Jones worked for the state and was present at a conference that Governor Clinton attended. She alleges that at a certain point a state police officer approached her, and informed her that Clinton wished to speak with her. She was escorted to a hotel room where she met Clinton. After the door closed he removed his pants and exposed himself, propositioning Jones for sex.
“I’m not that kind of girl,” she claims to have responded before leaving the room. She says Clinton advised her to “keep it between themselves” before she left.
She did not.
In 1994 Jones went public with the allegations and launched a lawsuit against now President Clinton. The case slowly made its way through the courts, and was eventually settled in 1998. Clinton was forced to testify under oath about the incident, and was asked several questions about his sexual history. He denied any wrongdoing and the case was eventually dismissed. By that point however, the damage had been done.
One of the questions related to a 22-year-old White House intern named Monica Lewinsky, a name the world was about to hear a lot of.
Lewinsky worked closely with Clinton until being relocated to the Pentagon. There she met a woman named Linda Tripp, who would be come a close friend of the young Lewinsky. It was Tripp that Lewinsky confided in, spilling all sorts of details about her affair with the president. She wouldn’t have known it at the time, but Tripp was recording the conversations.
During one stage of the Jones case Lewinsky was asked about her relationship with Clinton. She denied any inappropriate behavior and urged Tripp to do the same. Instead, Tripp released her recorded tapes to Independant Investigator Kenneth Star.
Star was investigating the Clinton administration over yet another scandal, but, with proof of a White House Intern perjuring herself, quickly changed the focus of his investigation.
In January of 1998 the story about the Lewinsky tapes broke, but in bizarre fashion. The initial story was that Newsweek was sitting on a report about the president’s affair. This appears to be true, since their investigative reporter was contacted by one of Tripp’s agents. The Washington Post eventually printed a story dictating the sordid details of Lewinsky and Clinton. The adminstration quickly responded, denying any and all allegations.
Still the rumors swirled, and Clinton was forced to make a public statement along side his wife Hillary Clinton. It’s one of the most enduring moments of his presidency, and one he probably wants back.
“I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” he said to the press.
Hillary herself took to the airwaves in support of her husband. Claiming a “vast right-wing conspiracy” was trying to pull her husband down.
The story persisted for months, with talk show hosts and radio personalities arguing “if he did it” and if his lie actually broke any laws. Lewinsky herself refused to comment about it and would not testify about the affair.
In July of 1998 everything changed.
Devil In A Blue Dress
Lewinsky received immunity from the Starr investigation in exchange for testimony concerning her relationship with the president. She also agreed to handover a semen-stained blue dress that Tripp had convinced her to keep.
With hard evidence in hand, Clinton had no choice but to confess.
In August of 1998, he offered taped testimony to a grand jury where he engaged in an “improper physical relationship” with Lewinsky. Later that night he gave a televised statement to the nation admitting the same thing.
During the Jones case Clinton had denied having a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, but the blue dress clearly proved otherwise. Starr decided that his past statement was perjury and thus an impeachable offense.
In the late ’90s Clinton’s Democratic party was the minority in both Senate and the House of Representatives. After Starr recommended impeachment the opposing Republican party quickly passed legislation to impeach the president. Clinton became just the second president ever impeached, with Andrew Jackson being the first, 130 years earlier.
What followed was a 21-day Senate trial where Clinton was eventually acquitted, and allowed to remain president. All Democrats and 10 Republicans voted to acquit on charges of perjury. He was also acquitted on obstruction of justice charges.
At the center of the case became the definition of the word “sex” which also led to another memorable claim by Clinton: “That depends on what your definition of the word ‘is’ is.”
Ultimately, since Clinton only received oral sex, and the law, as written, stated that sexual intercourse involved the touching of genitals, breasts, thighs or anus, Clinton didn’t in fact have sex, and thus, didn’t lie.
Two months after the Senate failed to convict him, Clinton was held in civil contempt of court and ordered to pay $90,000 to the court. He was also banned from practicing law in Arkansas for 5 years.
Even so, he finished his term with most people approving of the job he did. Over time opinion seems to have soured on Clinton, and the scandal played a large role in his wife’s eventual campaign for president.