1995: The year the future began
When the House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton, 20 years ago this week, I remember thinking the move — unpopular then — would look better in time.
And it does.
Twenty years on, it’s clear that impeachment was the right move, however drastic, especially as no unequivocal constitutional option existed for censuring Clinton for lies he told under oath and for attempted obstruction of justice.
He was impeached December 19, 1998, on two counts, one of perjury, one of obstruction of justice — charges that stemmed from a sex-and-lies affair with Monica Lewinsky, who was a 22-year-old unpaid intern when they began their liaison during a partial shutdown of the federal government in November 1995.
Asserting that impeaching Clinton was the right move 20 years ago is not intended to justify or reconcile arguments to impeach President Donald Trump, as some House Democrats appear eager to do. I recognize the divisive legacy of the Clinton impeachment, which I noted in my book, 1995: The Year the Future Began.
Even though the U.S. Senate acquitted Clinton in February 1999, as was anticipated, his impeachment stands as a powerful admonition that lies told under oath by the country’s chief executive ought not be countenanced, taken lightly, or excused for reasons of political expediency.
Clinton lied under oath, and sought to impede justice in a sexual harassment lawsuit in which he was the defendant. The lawsuit was brought by Paula Jones, a former employee of the state of Arkansas who said that Clinton, while he was the state’s governor, crudely propositioned her at a hotel room in Little Rock.
During his deposition in the Jones lawsuit, Clinton was asked about Lewinsky. He denied having had sexual relations with her; he denied having been alone with her. Presiding at Clinton’s deposition, taken in January 1998, was a federal judge, Susan Webber Wright.
She was there at Clinton’s request, and she later found that Clinton had given “intentionally false” testimony at the “tainted deposition” and that his “false, misleading and evasive answers … were designed to obstruct the judicial process.”
Simply put, 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 judge’s ruling deserves to be read more often than it has. It is an impressive statement of condemnation tempered by judicial restraint.
The penalty Webber imposed was unprecedented, though faintly remembered now. She found Clinton in contempt and ordered him to pay $90,000 to cover legal fees and other expenses that Jones’s lawyers had incurred as a result of falsehoods he told under oath.
In entering and pursuing his intermittent affair with Lewinsky, Clinton undeniably took advantage of a consenting, star-struck young woman. He was 27 years her senior, and the power imbalance of their relationship was acutely lop-sided, in his favor.
After their relationship became known in January 1998, Clinton serially lied to the American public in denying an affair with Lewinsky. He persisted in telling those lies for months, and recruited aides and cabinet officers to echo his brazen denials.
The inappropriateness of a sex-based, president-intern liaison — their trysts took place in a private study, a windowless hallway, or a bathroom near the Oval Office — was slow to gather public condemnation. Even Lewinsky has conceded that she only belatedly recognized the significance of the relationship’s imbalance.
“I’m beginning (just beginning) to consider the implications of the power differentials that were so vast between a president and a White House intern,” she wrote in an essay early this year for Vanity Fair. “I’m beginning to entertain the notion that in such a circumstance the idea of consent might well be rendered moot.”
Their relationship looks quite different 20 years on, especially through the lens of the #MeToo movement which has swiftly condemned the sexual harassment and predation of women by powerful men. Well before his affair with Lewinsky, Clinton had been credibly accused of sexual misconduct.
For Clinton, the reckoning remains incomplete. As Joshua Kendall wrote last month in the Los Angeles Times, “Clinton may no longer be president, but the #MeToo movement has taught us that we should have no tolerance for unrepentant predators in positions of power in media or politics.”
Clinton has said he considers his impeachment a “badge of honor,” a claim made in 2004 while promoting his overstuffed memoir, My Life (in which he devoted passing attention to the affair with Lewinsky). But even then, “badge of honor” sounded forced and contrived.
Of course impeachment is no badge of honor. And Clinton was the first elected U.S. president to have been so charged.
What’s more, impeachment infused Clinton’s presidency with a timelessness. It meant that his legacy would remain open, and contested, for decades. Impeachment guaranteed that it would be endlessly revisited and reassessed.
Impeachment will always mark and in a way define the Clinton presidency. As well it should.
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