1995: The year the future began
HLN’s two-hour look-back last night at the President Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal was notable for what it left out. And for its peculiar timing.
Consider first the timing: Given the recent cascade of sexual harassment allegations that has brought down prominent figures in Hollywood and the media, the program seemed to sidestep a critical point — that Bill Clinton’s goatish misconduct with a number of women not his wife was reprehensible, deserving of condemnation.
Not the least of those encounters was Clinton’s prolonged and furtive dalliance with Lewinsky, a former White House intern 27 years Clinton’s junior. Their affair exploded in early 1998 in a scandal of sex and lies.
The acute power imbalance of that relationship, carried on intermittently at the White House from mid-November 1995 to March 1997, was hardly emphasized during last night’s show, an installment in HLN’s “How It Really Happened” series.
(The show did feature observations and reminiscences of a variety of figures subsidiary to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, including the journalist Michael Isikoff, the literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, the former Clinton adviser Dick Morris, and the prosecutor Solomon L. Wisenberg. It also incorporated several videotape excerpts of Lewinsky’s interview in 2000 on CNN’s “Larry King Live” program.)
Still, because those allegations are so current and stunning, it seemed odd that none of the experts HLN interviewed argued that the impropriety of an affair with a naive former intern should have forced Clinton to quit the presidency. It may be a measure of how swiftly perspectives can change, because that point has been pressed recently by, among others, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, the Democrat who holds the U.S. Senate seat once occupied by Clinton’s wife, Hillary.
Perhaps an even greater problem was what HLN left out.
A retrospective program, even one about the recent past, faces a pretty significant “so what?” hurdle. As in: “So what is new here?” HLN hewed closely to well-known contours of the late 1990s scandal; it offered little or no fresh interpretation.
As such, the program failed to clear the “so what” hurdle. And one may well ask: If there’s nothing new, then why should viewers devote time to revisiting the scandal? Or, if the program isn’t even remotely contextualized within contemporary reports of sexual misconduct by prominent men, then why bother?
Also ignored was Clinton’s unsavory attempt to discredit Lewinsky, to besmirch her as a stalker, as a predatory instigator. Such smears were floated at the White House soon after the scandal broke in January 1998.
According to Sidney Blumenthal, an assistant to the president, Clinton said Lewinsky “came at me and made a sexual demand on me.”
Similarly, the HLN program failed to include any reference to the unprecedented penalties Clinton paid beyond being impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice.
Clinton was acquitted of those charges at a trial in the U.S. Senate that ended in February 1999.
Two months later, Clinton was found in contempt of court by Susan Webber Wright, the federal judge who presided at Clinton’s deposition in 1998 in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones. She was an Arkansas state employee when Clinton was the state’s governor, and claimed that in 1991, he had crudely propositioned her at a hotel room in Little Rock.
During the deposition, lawyers for Jones asked Clinton about his affair with Lewinsky, questions that seemed to take him by surprise.
In her finding of contempt, Judge Wright wrote that the “record demonstrates by clear and convincing evidence” that during the deposition, Clinton gave “false, misleading and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process.”
The judge further wrote that “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 ….”
Wright ordered the president to pay nearly $90,000 to cover legal fees and other expenses that Jones’s lawyers had incurred as a result of falsehoods he told under oath.
Similarly, the program ignored that on the last full day of his presidency in 2001, Clinton acknowledged giving false testimony at the deposition in the Jones case 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.
Acknowledging false testimony and surrendering the law license were central to Clinton’s agreement with Robert W. Ray, the independent counsel who wrapped up legal matters that remained after the impeachment trial.
The agreement meant that Clinton would not face criminal prosecution out of office for misconduct arising from the sex-and-lies scandal with Lewinsky, even though Ray asserted in his final report in 2002 “that sufficient evidence existed to prosecute President Clinton” for perjury and obstruction of justice.
But about that, HLN offered not a word.
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