1995: The year the future began
His eyes were narrowed, his face flushed. He wagged an index finger for emphasis and he nearly spat the words as television cameras rolled:
“I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time. Never. These allegations are false.”
With that, President Bill Clinton, dramatically denied having had a sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky, an intermittent liaison, we later learned, that had begun in 1995 when Lewinsky was a 22-year-old White House intern.
The finger-wagging moment at the White House was 20 years ago. It was quite the denial, quite the lie. Especially so because his wife was standing near him. So was Vice President Al Gore. Both looked a bit rattled as the president finished his angry and apparently unscripted remarks.
The sex-and-lies scandal had broken just a few days before, amid news reports that Clinton was under investigation for suborning perjury in a case of sexual harassment brought by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee. She accused Clinton of lewdly propositioning her in a hotel room in Little Rock while he was Arkansas governor.
Clinton gave a deposition in the Jones case on January 17, 1998, and was asked numerous questions about Lewinsky and their clandestine affair at the White House, questions that seemed to take the president by surprise.
The finger-wagging denial was a few days later, and has become an infamous signature moment of Clinton’s presidency.
It is worth recalling not just because it was so brazen and tawdry. And so unpersuasive. It’s memorable because word of Clinton’s affair had electrified the capital unlike anything since the dramatic revelations of the Watergate scandal in 1973 and 1974. It’s memorable, too, because media speculation about the fate of Clinton’s presidency — that the unfolding scandal would surely bring about his resignation — was so bold and, in the end, so utterly off-target. Clinton rode out the scandal with denial and deception, and completed his second term.
The finger-wagging denial also is memorable because it offers a pointed reminder of how dramatically issues of sexual harassment have changed in 20 years. Clinton was 27 years Lewinsky’s junior, and the power imbalance of that workplace relationship wouldn’t be countenanced these days. Were he president today, Clinton almost surely would not survive the scandal, even though the relationship with Lewinsky was consensual.
As it was, the affair was under the scrutiny of an independent counsel, Kenneth Starr, whose inquiry led in December 1998 to the spectacle of Clinton’s impeachment on two counts of misconduct — perjury and obstruction of justice. Both charges stemmed from Clinton’s attempts to conceal the affair with Lewinsky. He was acquitted at a trial before the U.S. Senate in February 1999.
Well before then, Clinton had been forced to abandon his denials, changing his story to say he had had an “inappropriate” relationship with Lewinsky. What altered his narrative was forensic DNA evidence, retrieved by investigators from small semen stains on a blue dress that Lewinsky kept in a closet. The evidence offered indisputable testimony that the president had had a sexual relationship with the former intern.
As CNN said at the end of August 1998 in recalling the finger-wagging denial: “Clinton had apparently found it easier to lie to 269 million Americans with Hillary at his side than to sit her down and tell her the truth.”
At the time, the finger-wagging denial was a salvo in the prolonged partisan struggle that Clinton and his allies pursued in saving his presidency. In some ways, the bitter partisanship the characterizes national politics these days can be traced to the late 1990s.
“It would be a mistaken exaggeration of course to attribute [today’s] political polarization exclusively to the storm provoked by the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. But the impeachment battles of 1998-99 contributed mightily. … Clinton left office in January 2001 but the wounds opened by the scandal and his impeachment were not soon to close.”
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