1995: The year the future began
Call it the long reach of the 1990s. Or of 1995.
It has been fascinating, and even a bit astonishing, that Bill Clinton’s sexual transgressions, which dogged and nearly destroyed his presidency in the late 1990s, have returned with such vigor of late, intruding on and threatening to disrupt his wife’s presidential campaign.
The scandalous past of Bill Clinton reemerged with vehemence late last month, after Hillary Clinton accused Republican candidate Donald Trump of a “penchant for sexism.” That’s all Trump needed to say Hillary Clinton was playing the “women’s card” — and to assail Bill Clinton’s “terrible record of women abuse.”
Clinton in 1998 was impeached on counts of perjury and obstruction of justice in attempting to conceal a furtive sexual dalliance with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, an intermittent affair that began during the partial shutdown of the federal government in November 1995. Clinton was acquitted in February 1999 at trial before the U.S. Senate.
His scandalous past has resonated over the past few weeks not because of fresh insights into Clinton’s unsavory conduct but because of society’s diminished tolerance for workplace sexual harassment — and for what it says about Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Maureen Dowd addressed that point succinctly and well, pointing out in her New York Times column that Trump had wielded “his knife on her most sensitive pressure point: her hypocrisy in running [for president] as a feminist icon when she was part of political operations that smeared women who told the truth about Bill’s transgressions.
“Hillary told friends that Monica was a ‘troubled young person’ getting ministered to by Bill and a ‘narcissistic loony toon.’ Hillary’s henchman Sidney Blumenthal spread around the story that Monica was a stalker and Charlie Rangel publicly slandered the intern as a fantasist who wasn’t playing with ‘a full deck.'”
Despite the prominence given recently to Bill Clinton’s past, important details related to his impeachment battles of the late 1990s have mostly been overlooked, or dismissed.
Scant discussion has been devoted to the unprecedented penalties and fines he was assessed, even though he remained in office. (The New York Times “First Draft” blog notably soft-peddled Clinton’s past troubles, stating in a post in late December that he “admitted to having an affair with an intern while he was president, and rumors that there were other instances of infidelity have swirled around him for years. His political opponents tried unsuccessfully to have him removed from office, and the issue has largely receded in the ensuing decades.”)
As I discuss in my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, Bill Clinton “succeeded in beating back the impeachment charges, but his mendacity did not go unpunished.”
Two months after his acquittal by the Senate, the president was found in contempt of court by Susan Webber Wright, the federal judge who presided at a deposition Clinton gave in January 1998 in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, who was an Arkansas state employee when Clinton was the state’s governor. She claimed Clinton propositioned her at a hotel room in Little Rock in 1991. At the deposition, lawyers for Jones asked Clinton about his intimate affair with Lewinsky, questions that seemed to surprise him.
In her finding of contempt of court, Judge Wright issued a scalding opinion saying the “record demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence” that Clinton at the deposition gave “false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process.”
Simply stated, Wright wrote, “the President’s deposition testimony regarding whether he had ever been alone with Ms. Lewinsky was intentionally false, and his statements regarding whether he had ever engaged in sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky likewise were intentionally false ….”
The penalty the judge imposed was unprecedented: No court had held a sitting president in contempt, as I note in 1995, adding that Wright also ordered the president to pay nearly $90,000 to cover legal fees and other expenses that Jones’s lawyers incurred as a result of the falsehoods he told under oath.” The lawyers had sought nearly $500,000.
Wright had dismissed the Jones lawsuit in April 1998, saying the evidentiary record failed to reach the threshold of sexual harassment under federal law. But Jones’s lawyers appealed and in November 1998 — as the House of Representatives was preparing to consider articles of impeachment — Clinton agreed to pay $850,000 to settle the case out of court. The settlement was accompanied by neither Clinton’s apology to Jones nor acknowledgement of any wrongdoing. (He had offered in 1994 to settle the Jones lawsuit.)
On the last full day of his presidency in 2001, Clinton acknowledged having given false testimony at the deposition in 1998 and surrendered for five years his license to practice law in Arkansas, his home state.
Clinton also agreed to pay a $25,000 fine to the Arkansas Bar Association.
Conceding to having falsely testified, and surrendering the law license, were key elements of a deal struck with Robert W. Ray, the independent counsel who wrapped up legal matters that remained after Clinton’s impeachment.
The agreement with Ray removed the prospect of criminal prosecution after his presidency: Out of office, Clinton would not face indictment for misconduct arising from the sex-and-lies scandal.
The New York Times described the agreement “a stunning end to the long melodrama and pitched legal battles over President Clinton’s relationship with a White House intern.”
But such significance was decidedly absent in Clinton’s acknowledgement that he had given false testimony under oath. Clinton said in a statement that was read aloud in the White House briefing room by his press secretary, Jake Siewert:
“I tried to walk a line between acting lawfully and testifying falsely, but I now recognize that I did not fully accomplish this goal and that certain of my responses to questions about Ms. Lewinsky were false.”
To the end, Clinton was hedging and dodging.
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