The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

Part Two: Interview takes up scandal, and ’90s ‘zeitgeist’

My interview with Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of and Reason TV, took up the affair between President Bill Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky — a furtive and improbable dalliance that began during the partial government shutdown of November 1995.

The relationship led to the spectacle of Clinton’s impeachment in December 1998 and his acquittal in February 1999.


In the summer of ’95: He was 49, she was 22

If not for the government shutdown of mid-November 1995, I noted in the interview, “Clinton and Lewinsky would have never had an opportunity to get close. She was a nominal White House intern at the time, and because of the shutdown, most White House staffers, as well as most federal employees, were sent home or stayed home. They were furloughed.

“And into this breach [at the White House] entered the cadre of interns, who filled the jobs of answering the phones and doing whatever had to be done to keep the place functioning.”

Among them was Lewinsky, a recent college graduate then 22-years-old.

Her assignment during the shutdown was answering the phone in the White House chief of staff’s office, which was down the corridor from the Oval Office. The assignment allowed her, and Clinton, to strike up a sexual relationship. They typically met in hideaways near the Oval Office and pursued their affair intermittently until March 1997.

Clinton turned 49-years-old in the summer of 1995.

I said in the interview, which focused on my new book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, that a legacy of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal “is that we know it’s very difficult to impeach a president and we’re not going to be doing this again, [not] for the kind of misconduct that Clinton was guilty of.”

Clinton lied under oath at a deposition in January 1998 in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought against him by Paula Jones, a former state employee in Arkansas. During the deposition, at which a federal judge presided, Clinton was asked about a sexual relationship with Lewinsky.

He denied it.

The president also lied under oath about Lewinsky in testifying to a federal grand jury in August 1998.

A few months later, he was impeached by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives on articles accusing him of perjury and obstruction of justice.

But Clinton’s misconduct, I noted, fell well short of the crimes of President Richard Nixon, who obstructed justice in the Watergate scandal and resigned in 1974 before he could be impeached.

Nixon’s crimes were “an order of magnitude more serious than what Clinton did,” I said.

The interview — the transcript of which is available here — also turned to what defined the zeitgeist, or the essence or spirit of the 1990s. (This writeup is the second of a two-part series drawn from the interview.)

“What,” Gillespie asked, “makes a decade be seen through rosy-colored glasses or through very dark glasses?”

“The zeitgeist of the ’90s is still being written,” I replied, adding:the90s_5

“[T]he zeitgeist of the ’50s was this placid time when everyone was sort of at peace and prosperity reigned—you have sort of that too with the second half [of the 1990s]. The country’s largely at peace, the economy’s booming, there’s this new fascinating technology that everyone’s getting into” — a reference to the mainstreaming of the Internet and the World Wide Web.

I noted that the ’90s have been called “a holiday from history,” notably by the conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, who has invoked the phrase “to excoriate Clinton and his policy on terrorism.”

But “holiday from history” is a misleading and simplistic characterization, I said, adding that attempts to define a decade in a few words tend to be that way.

I said I doubted that the zeitgeist of the ’90s has been definitely written, “it’s certainly not ‘a holiday from history.'”

It couldn’t have been — not with the unprecedented spectacle of impeaching an elected U.S. president, not with the rise of the Web, not with the emergence of the United States as the world’s sole superpower. And that’s not to mention the genocide in Rwanda, the massacre at Srebrenica , the failed U.S. military intervention in Somalia, and the Gulf War of 1990-91 in which a U.S.-led coalition expelled Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army from Kuwait.

No, I said, the ’90s certainly were “not the time in which nothing much happened.”


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