The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

Clinton-Lewinsky affair hovers over presidential campaign 21 years later

I was asked at the launch last year of my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, whether the Clinton-Lewinsky sex-and-lies scandal would resurface during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“You know, it might,” I replied. “It might.”

Clinton, Lewinsky in mid-November 1995

Clinton and Lewinsky, November 1995

But of course I had no idea that the scandal stemming from President Bill Clinton’s sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky — a White House intern 27 years his junior — would hover over the 2016 presidential campaign as it has from time to time, including a reemergence this week.

The Clinton-Lewinsky affair began furtively in November 1995, during a partial shutdown of the federal government, a turn of events that allowed the unpaid intern exceptional access to the president.

Donald Trump, the blustering Republican candidate for president, has referred to the scandal mostly as a vague or implied threat against his Democratic foe and the former First Lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Hillary Clinton has accused Trump of mistreating and belittling women; in response, Trump’s campaign has developed talking points that seek to link Bill Clinton’s extramarital sexual liaisons and Hillary Clinton’s purported background role in discrediting the women.

It’s messy business that could backfire on the thrice-married Trump. After all, Bill Clinton’s favorability ratings did not collapse when the electrifying news of his affair with Lewinsky broke in January 1998, when he acknowledged having publicly lied about the relationship in August 1998, when he was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice in December 1998, or when he went on trial before the U.S. Senate in January 1999.Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 10.43.38 AM

Then again, by pursuing the tactic Trump might clarify Hillary’s role in responding to her husband’s scandalous conduct in the Lewinsky and other affairs. Was she, as Trump’s campaign suggests, eager to smear and denigrate Bill Clinton’s paramours?

According to Diane Blair, who recorded the private comment in her journal, Hillary Clinton referred to Lewinsky at the height to the sex-and-lies scandal as “a narcissistic loony toon.”

Blair’s journal entry was disclosed in 2014. As if in response, Lewinsky wrote in a lengthy article published in 2014 in Vanity Fair that she bristled upon reading of Hillary Clinton’s “narcissistic loony toon” characterization.

Yes, Lewinsky wrote, “I get it. Hillary Clinton wanted it on record that she was lashing out at her husband’s mistress. She may have faulted her husband for being inappropriate, but I find her impulse to blame the Woman . . . troubling. And all too familiar: with every marital indiscretion that finds its way into the public sphere—many of which involve male politicians—it always seems like the woman conveniently takes the fall.”

Maureen Dowd, the prickly New York Times columnist, recalled early this year that as the sex-and-lies scandal emerged, “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.'”

She added: “Trump can be a bully. But Hillary was a bully, too, in the way she dealt with her husband’s paramours.”

Dowd also noted in her column that “Bill hid behind the skirts of feminists — including his wife and esteemed women in his cabinet — when he got caught playing around. And feminists, eager to protect his progressive agenda on women, allowed the women swirling around Bill to become collateral damage, torched as trailer trash or erotomaniacs.”

Lewinsky similarly addressed that theme, writing in her Vanity Fair article:

“I sorely wished for some sign of understanding from the feminist camp [after the sex-and-lies scandal broke]. Some good, old-fashioned, girl-on-girl support was much in need. None came. Given the issues at play — gender politics, sex in the workplace — you’d think they would have spoken up. They didn’t.”

Carl Bernstein, he of Watergate fame, described Hillary Clinton as invariably vigorous in attempting to shield her husband from the fallout of his illicit affairs. Bernstein wrote in A Woman in Charge, his biography of Hillary Clinton:

“There could be no question that Hillary was Bill’s biggest defender in preventing his other women from causing trouble. Always. It was if she, much more than he, better understood the danger — to him, to her, to Bill’s future, and to their dreams [of political success]. She never doubted if the women, and the enemies who used them, succeeded or became too visible and credible, the whole edifice could come down, including their marriage.”

Bernstein’s biography also said that during the 1992 presidential election, Hillary Clinton pushed to publicize allegations that her husband’s Republican opponent, President George H.W. Bush, “had also had a history of affairs during his marriage.” Bernstein further wrote: “Several of Bill’s aides took it upon themselves to calm Hillary on the subject and convince her that, if such information were traced back to the campaign, it would be disastrous.”

So there are questions about Hillary Clinton’s conduct toward other women that merit scrutiny and clarity. As reported by CNN, the Trump campaign talking points include this guidance to Trump supporters:

“Mr. Trump has never treated women the way Hillary Clinton and her husband did when they actively worked to destroy Bill Clinton’s accusers.”

But will it resonate?

It might.


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