There’s not a whole lot that our generation really knows about Bill Clinton — most of us were born during his presidency, but were probably too young to really be into politics.
What we know, we often hear from our parents, most of whom describe the former President as a pretty affable guy and an all-around decent leader. Of course, over the years, peoples’ opinions about Clinton have taken a downward turn, with more of us learning about the negative repercussions of his welfare and criminal reforms, economic liberalization and foreign policy.
But one thing really stands out, I suspect.
Almost all of us know who Monica Lewinsky is. So, in honor of it having been 18 years since President Clinton admitted to having an “improper relationship” with Lewinsky, it might be time for a reminder as to the importance of the Lewinsky scandal that shook the ’90s, and its ultimate significance in American politics.
The Clintons were no strangers to scandals in their lengthy political careers. From allegations of murder to the Whitewater scandal to a stunning variety of scandals while in the White House, Bill Clinton often found himself in the midst of various investigations and the like. It could certainly be argued that many of these “scandals” were not exactly scandalous and were generally overblown by the right-wing media and the likes of Newt Gingrich and his “Republican Revolution.” I’d generally be inclined to agree with those assessments.
However, the Lewinsky scandal was of another caliber. Presidents throughout the ages had hardly been strictly monogamous, but this was the first time in modern history that a President’s sex life became such a large-scale affair, both in the media and in political circles. So how did it all begin?
Well, Bill Clinton had accumulated a reputation — deserved or not — of being something of a womanizer throughout the years. At first, it did not seem that Lewinsky’s allegations of having had “sexual encounters” with Clinton seemed entirely credible, but she started to gather evidence, confiding in notorious lawyer Kenneth Star—who had then been involved in various investigations into Clinton’s various scandals—and civil servant Linda Tripp.
The story broke on “The Drudge Report” at first on January 17, 1998, before moving onto the mainstream press via “The Washington Post.” Clinton immediately denied it, and even dedicated a press conference to deal with the issue, where he uttered a sentence that, I suspect, shall be remembered for years to come: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” He categorically denied any affair and denied having lied to the Amerian people about it for several months after that fateful utterance.
But, of course, Lewinsky had plenty of evidence, including her infamous blue dress which had been, uh, contaminated with DNA. On the evening of August 17th, Bill Clinton was forced to admit that he had, in fact, had an “improper physical relationship” with Lewinsky that was “not appropriate.”
So that would be that, right? Throughout the rest of the world, leaders have been infamous for their extramarital affairs, from Nehru to Princess Diana to Francois Hollande.
They often suffered a loss of public trust as a result of those actions, but there was very little political action that could be taken against them — after all, at the end of the day, their love-lives had nothing to do with their policy-making, which was the metric that leaders are really meant to be graded on. And in that regard, at least at the time, Bill Clinton was pretty highly regarded. In fact, even with his legacy being called into question today, most historians regard him as one of the best Presidents of all time.
But the matter didn’t end there. The Republican Party, having held majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives, saw an opening: President Clinton had denied having “sexual relations” with Lewinsky in a deposition, and could thus be charged for having committed perjury, an impeachable offense. And so it began: The House voted to issue the Articles of Impeachment, and the Senate entered a 21-day trial.
Clinton, in regular lawyer fashion, argued that he had not committed perjury — he argued the term “sexual relations” did not include receiving oral sex. That’s a pretty ridiculous argument, akin to the sort of thing you’d hear from eavesdropping on a group of teenagers after prom night. And let me be clear: I personally believe that Clinton’s affair with Lewinksy was clearly inappropriate and unbecoming for a world leader, especially when you think about the pretty gross power-dynamics that go along with a young intern being involved with the most powerful leader in the world. And, frankly, the way Lewinsky was treated by the media was pretty disgusting.
But at the end of the day, the President’s perjury was not deemed to be an impeachable offense, regardless of the Republican majority in the Senate. That is because, I suspect, the entire matter seemed to be less about upholding the law and more about trying to win political points against a fairly popular Democratic President.
Moreover, it became clear very early on that though the American public was disappointed with Clinton’s behavior, they did not see it as an impeachable offense. In fact, they saw it as little more than a moral crusade on the part of the House Republicans, particularly since their Speaker, Newt Gingrich, was not exactly scandal free himself. Hell, Clinton’s approval soared as high as 60 percent after the scandal.
But why does any of this matter today? Well, the Clinton Presidency was notable for a variety of landmark bills and politicking, but perhaps one legacy of his that becomes very clear today is just how much more partisan the American political climate became.
It had been building up throughout his presidency, but the impeachment trial was a watershed moment for partisanship. George W. Bush, in his campaign to become President in 2000, painted himself as the anti-Clinton; religious, morally upright and more respectful of the stature of the Presidency.
We all knew how that turned out.
Moreover, Democrats felt betrayed by their colleagues on the other side of the aisle for using their majority in the legislature for what they saw as an underhanded blow. None of these signs — the increasingly hateful rhetoric that politicians and their supporters started to use against each other—augured well for a healthy political atmosphere.
And today, we are bearing the fruits of it all.
Congressional gridlock has become the law of the land, and though it seems like Hillary Clinton will become the next President of the United States, she is almost certainly bound to be blocked and attacked by a hostile House of Representatives, the same House that conducted its own witch-trial over her supposed failure at Benghazi.
It seems that the Lewinsky scandal was a warning that few people truly heeded: Once we start attaching the character flaws of candidates as opposed to their ideals and policies, the political environment was sure to become more virulent.
Let’s hope we don’t get a second hyper-partisan impeachment trial of a Clinton President, eh?