1995: The year the future began
Counterfactual history can be little more than trivial nonsense.
Take, for example, the Washington Post’s frivolous, “let’s pretend” story last week ruminating about what if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency.
But in light of the recent torrent of allegations and disclosures about sexual misconduct by prominent politicians, journalists, and actors, a what-if question about Bill Clinton’s past is worth considering:
In the climate now prevailing, would he have remained president amid the disclosures that rocked his presidency in 1998 — disclosures of a clandestine sexual dalliance begun in 1995 with a 22-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky?
It is difficult to see how he could remain in office, given the glaring asymmetry of his relationship with Lewinsky, given his false denials, given the goatish way he justified his conduct, and given his self-serving effort to smear Lewinsky as a stalker.
In reality, of course, Clinton clung to the presidency and served out his second term. He vehemently denied a relationship with Lewinsky until his DNA — collected from a semen-stained dress Lewinsky had kept — proved his mendacity. With the unbroken support of fellow Democrats in the U.S. Senate, he was acquitted in February 1999 of impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.
But even by the standards of the late 1990s, Clinton’s conduct with Lewinsky, a smitten, unpaid intern 27 years his junior, was reprehensible. She was savvy, sexually experienced, and a willing participant. But the power dynamic was grossly distorted in Clinton’s favor.
She naively thought that a relationship with Clinton was possible, that after his presidency he would leave Hillary Clinton. For his part, Clinton said he entered the relationship with Lewinsky “for the worst possible reason, just because I could.”
Their affair began 22 years ago this week, during a partial shutdown of the federal government. The closure sent home most paid staff at the White House and into the breach stepped unpaid interns.
Among them was Lewinsky. She was assigned to the office of the White House chief of staff, where she answered phones and ran errands. She also was a short walk from the Oval Office.
The first of their intermittent sexual assignations — all 10 of which took place at the White House from November 1995 to March 1997 — was, as I wrote in my book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, “the upshot of happenstance, guile, and a measure of mutual desire.”
I also noted in 1995:
“It was remarkable how much time the president devoted to Lewinsky, in person and on the phone. Lewinsky estimated that, in all, she and Clinton spoke by phone about fifty times, usually late at night and early in the morning,” their calls often becoming interludes of steamy phone sex.
The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke in January 1998, when word leaked that Kenneth Starr, the special counsel who had been looking into suspected misconduct by the Clintons, was investigating the president for perjury and obstruction of justice in an affair with Lewinsky.
Sam Donaldson, a veteran White House reporter for ABC News, was among the pundits who speculated Clinton would surely quit. “If he’s not telling the truth, I think his presidency is numbered in days,” he declared on a talk show in late January 1998.
But Clinton was having none of that. He publicly and privately denied an affair with Lewinsky and sought to smear the young woman as an unreliable stalker. According to Sidney Blumenthal, an assistant to the president, Clinton said Lewinsky “came on to me and made a sexual demand on me.”
Blumenthal spread the story of Lewinsky as stalker.
“It helps that the President is attracted to women with big-cut hair and low-cut dresses,” Maureen Dowd, a columnist for the New York Times, wrote during the frenzied days of late January 1998. “It makes it easier to slander them later.”
Dowd further wrote: “Hillary Clinton knows her husband is a hound dog. She knew it before she married him. But they have their deal. … So if the Presidency hinges on ‘he said, she said,’ the First Lady won’t hesitate to supervise the vivisection of the former intern.”
Hillary Clinton privately referred to Lewinsky as a “narcissistic loony toon” and publicly mischaracterized Starr’s investigation as part of a “vast, right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.”
In August 1998, Starr submitted a voluminous report to Congress, identifying 11 grounds on which the president could face impeachment. All of them stemmed from his affair with Lewinsky. The two most serious allegations were that Clinton had lied about his affair with the intern during a deposition taken in January 1998 in a sexual harassment case brought by a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones, and that he had tried to conceal evidence of the dalliance with Lewinsky.
In December 1998, the House of Representatives impeached him on two counts, of perjury in the deposition (taken in the presence of a federal judge) and obstruction of justice.
Clinton was the first elected U.S. president ever impeached. But as was widely expected, he was acquitted at trial before the Senate. Neither impeachment count received a majority vote.
Clinton’s troubles didn’t end there, though. He was punished beyond impeachment.
Two months after his acquittal by the Senate, Clinton was found in contempt of court by Susan Webber Wright, the judge who presided at the deposition in the Jones case.
The judge wrote 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, the judge 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 ….”
No sitting president had ever been found in contempt, and Wright ordered Clinton to pay a $90,000 fine to cover fees and expenses that Jones’ lawyers had incurred as a result of Clinton’s falsehoods. In November 1998, Clinton paid $850,000 to settle the Jones lawsuit, but made no acknowledgement of guilt. (The New York Times reported that a portion of the settlement money came from “a blind trust in the name of Mrs. Clinton.”)
On the last full day of his presidency in 2001, Clinton acknowledged having given false testimony at the Jones deposition and agreed to surrender 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.
“Acknowledging false testimony and surrendering the law license were key elements of a deal struck with Robert W. Ray, who succeeded Starr as independent counsel,” I noted in 1995. “The agreement also removed the prospect of criminal prosecution after his presidency: Clinton out of office would not face indictment for misconduct arising from the sex-and-lies scandal.”
But amid the fallout of sexual harassment complaints against the likes of Harvey Weinstein, U.S. Senator Al Franken, actor Kevin Spacey, and other men, pointed questions about Clinton’s conduct with women not his wife have resurfaced with striking intensity.
Before his death six years ago, the writer Alexander Hitchens wrote in Vanity Fair that Clinton had promoted “a culture of lies that I believe will one day be remembered with whistles and groans of shame.”
“Groans of shame”: They may be finally breaking upon us.
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