Twenty years later Bill Clinton’s impeachment in historical perspective
By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS
On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives votes to impeach President Bill Clinton on two counts of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for “lying under oath and obstructing justice” over his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Clinton’s impeachment ended what historian Gil Troy called the “Lost Year of 1998,” while Lewinsky referred to it as a “living hell.” The Republican controlled House mostly voted on party lines approving two articles of impeachment while voting down two others. After the vote, Clinton speaking on the South Lawn of the White House surrounded by Congressional Democrats vowed to keep “working” “to do what’s best for our country… It’s what I’ve tried to do for 6 years; it’s what I intend to do for 2 more, until the last hour of the last day of my term.”
With the House’s vote, Clinton became only the second president in history to be impeached after Andrew Johnson in 1868 and the only elected president to face impeachment. Historians Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, Peter Baker, and Jeffrey A. Engel in their 2018 book Impeachment: An American Historynote, Clinton “thus avoided joining Nixon as only the second president to be driven from office by scandal. He could not, however, evade the dubious distinction of joining Johnson as one of the only two presidents ever impeached.” (Meacham, 7)
On January 7, 1999, the Senate convened to commence the first impeachment trial in 130 years, after a five week-trial the Senate voted to acquit Clinton ending a constitutional crisis brought on because the president wanted to hide his inappropriate personal behavior. Meacham, Naftali, Baker, and Engel believe, Clinton “ultimately won this third presidential campaign of his two terms when the required supermajority of senators declined to convict him of perjury and obstruction of justice.” (Meacham, 7)
After a thirteen-hour debate on the House floor, which began on Friday, December 18, on Saturday, December 19, the House of the 105th Congress mostly voted down party lines, with the exception of some Republicans voting with the Democrats in opposition to the articles of impeachment, and some Democrats voting for impeachment with the Republicans. The impeachment or House Resolution 611 vote was delayed because of Clinton’s order to bomb Iraq. The House passed the first article of impeachment 228 to 206 at 1:22 p.m. for Clinton perjuring himself during his August 17, 1998, grand jury testimony, where he denied having any relations with Lewinsky.
Article I stated, “The president provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony to the grand jury regarding the Paula Jones case and his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.” Five Republicans and five Democrats crossed party lines in their votes. The second article of impeachment passed article III, for obstruction of justice by a slimmer margin, the article accused Clinton of inducing others to commit perjury at his bequest. The article passed with a vote of 221 to 212, with 12 Republicans voting against the article and two Democrats voting in favor. Article III stated, “The president obstructed justice in an effort to delay, impede, cover up and conceal the existence of evidence related to the Jones case.”
The House defeated two of the four articles of impeachment, Article II accusing Clinton of perjury during the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit failed with a vote 229 to 205, with 28 Republicans voting against the article. The last article, Article IV accusing Clinton of abuse of power in his responses to the House Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly failed in a vote of 285 to 148, where 81 Republicans opposed the article and just one Democrat voted in favor. The vote set up Clinton to be only the second president ever to go through a Senate impeachment trial. At the time, the American public opposed the impeachment proceedings. As the New York Times reported, “a CBS News Poll of 548 people showed only 38 percent wanted their representative to vote for impeachment; 58 percent wanted a no vote.”
The year 1998 began with the Drudge Report scooping, Newsweek’s Michael Isikoff’s story on President Clinton’s affair with a former intern on January 17 launching the media frenzy over whether the president had or not with Clinton’s vehement denials. On January 21, the mainstream media including the Washington Post, Newsweek, and ABC News reported on the possible affair. Clinton went into full denial mode appearing on PBS’s Jim Lehrer,“There is no improper relationship.” Lewinsky recently recounted for the new A&E documentary “The Clinton Affair,” “With that, the demonization of Monica Lewinsky began. As it so often does, power throws a protective cape around the shoulders of the man, and he dictates the spin by denigrating the less powerful woman.” From the news media to the late night shows, comedians and everything in between shamed Lewinsky, mocking her and attacking her as a stalker and slut, bullying she could not escape even after Clinton’s resolved his legal issues.
The accusation led Clinton famously to declare at a press conference on January 26, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time — never.” Following up, First Lady Hillary Clinton decried the accusation on January 27, at a Today Show appearance as a “vast right wing conspiracy” by the Republican House of Representatives. The then dubbed Lewinsky Scandal dominated the news, the American public and the Clinton presidency throughout 1998. The news media and public questioned every action Clinton did as president as a diversion from the scandal that dominated.
The story actually started two and half years earlier in July 1995, when 21-year-old Monica Lewinsky became a White House intern. After intense flirting, they began a sexual relationship during the November 1995 government shutdown where interns worked as White House support staff. Lewinsky recalled how it started, “I blurted out, ‘You know, I have a crush on you,’ And he laughed and smiled and then asked me if I wanted to go to the back office. And I did.” Over the next year and a half, Clinton would have nine encounters of oral sex in the confines of the Oval Office and phone sex continuing until March 1997. In April 1996, Deputy White House Chief of Staff Evelyn Lieberman concerned that Lewinsky was getting too close to the president, transferred Lewinsky to work as the assistant to Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon. Lieberman officially said the reason was Lewinsky’s “inappropriate and immature behavior.” The personal relationship and gift giving continued as the sexual relationship ended and Lewinsky began pressuring Clinton for a job after he failed to keep his promise and bring her back to the White House after the 1996 presidential election.
In July 1996, Lewinsky frustrated began confiding in her Pentagon colleague Linda Tripp, who betrayed Lewinsky’s trust and told book agent Lucienne Goldberg about Lewinsky’s affair with the president, a blue semen stained dress as proof and the mutual gifts. Goldberg convinced Tripp to record Lewinsky, and beginning in August 1997, Tripp recorded her conversations with Lewinsky. Tripp also took her story to the news contacting Isikoff. In an October meeting with Goldberg, Isikoff and Jonah Goldberg offered to play a recording of her conversation with Lewinsky but Isikoff later recounts, “I had gotten what I wanted to get, which was the name.” In November 1997, Tripp tips off Paula Jones’ lawyers and leads to them to Lewinsky and her involvement with the president and she is subpoenaed to testify in the case. In 1994, Jones filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton accusing him of exposing himself to her in an Arkansas hotel room in 1991.
Throughout the fall of 1997, Lewinsky pressured Clinton to help her find a job, Clinton’s personal secretary Betty Currie helped in enlisting the Vernon Jordon with the job search. After interviews with the United Nations and Ambassador Bill Richardson, MacAndrews & Forbes Burson-Marsteller, and Revlon in New York, Lewinsky settled on public relations at Revlon, and left the Pentagon on December 26, 1997, after the scandal broke Revlon revoked their offer. The Jones case haunted Clinton throughout his presidency and with the tip; Jones’ lawyers placed Tripp and Lewinsky on their witness list. On December 5, Clinton’s lawyers received the witness list with Lewinsky’s name included and ten days letter a subpoena. Clinton asked Lewinsky to give all the gifts he had given her to Currie to, who hide them in her home. Tripp already notified Lewinsky she would be on the Jones’s witness list, but early on December 17, Clinton phoned her about being a witness, claiming it “broke his heart.” Two days later on December 19, Lewinsky receives her subpoena.
The year 1998 would begin with the actions that would to Clinton’s impeachment eleven months later. On January 7, Lewinsky signed an affidavit for the Jones case saying, she “never had a sexual relationship with the president.” Lewinsky’s lawyer only submits the affidavit on January 12. Jones lawyers outlined in 92 words their “Definition of Sexual Relations,” Clinton would later argue that he was telling the truth based on the definition provided, a loophole in his lie. Robert Bennett recently recounted to The Atlantic, “the president took full advantage of in answering.” On January 17, Clinton responded in his deposition that Lewinsky’s response was “absolutely true.” Clinton also denied he had been alone with Lewinsky, a blatant lie. Lewinsky recounted they used Clinton’s personal secretary as a cover, she would go into the Oval Office with them but then leave and stay in the adjoining dining room, while Lewinsky and Clinton would be alone in the study.
Meanwhile, On January 12, Tripp contacted Kenneth Starr’s Office of the Independent Counsel (OIC) telling them about Lewinsky’s involvement with the president, offering and then providing them with 20 hours of taped conversations between Lewinsky and Tripp. Starr asked Tripp to wear a wire at her next meeting with Lewinsky, and on January 13, she did recording their conversation at a lunch. On January 15, Starr requests from the Department f Justice permission to expand the scope of his investigation into President Clinton. On January 16, after a three-judge panel and Reno gave Starr permission to expand his investigation, the OIC set up to entrap Lewinsky in what resembled a hostage situation and an “ambush.” Tripp set up a meeting with Lewinsky at the Pentagon Mall and then the FBI swooped in and held Lewinsky at a room in the Ritz-Carlton for 12 hours, preventing her even from having a lawyer present. Just minutes before, Currie gave Lewinsky the heads up about the press finding out about the affair and two FBI agents arrived forcing Lewinsky to come with them, as Tripp looked on. The OIC’s operation was defining moment in the scandal and Lewinsky’s involvement, both Lewinsky and Ken Starr have different recollections of the events from what Lewinsky wore to from where she was taken.
Starr wrote in his memoir Contempt: A Memoir of the Clinton Investigationpublished in 2018 for the twentieth anniversary, “Our team dubbed the operation ‘Prom Night.” Lewinsky was facing “facing federal charges of perjury and subornation of perjury.” Starr recounted, “For an hour, Monica screamed, she cried, she pouted, and complained bitterly about her scheming, no-good, so-called friend. After a while, she calmed down and began asking questions. The meeting turned into a marathon.” In her authorized biography Monica’s Story by Andrew Morton published in 1999, Morton recounts, “She was in shock and she was panicking, but most of all she was in deep, deep trouble. As the lift took Monica, her treacherous friend and the two cold-eyed FBI men to the Ritz-Carlton’s Room 1012, she found herself thinking, “How did I get here?”
Lewinsky recounted in her March 2018, Vanity Fair article, “Emerging from the ‘House of Gaslight’ in the age of #metoo” Starr’s staff “had hustled me into a hotel room near the Pentagon and informed me that unless I cooperated with them I could face 27 years in prison.” Starr and his lawyers “[threatened] to prosecute my mom (if she didn’t disclose the private confidences I had shared with her), [hinted] that they would investigate my dad’s medical practice, and even [deposed] my aunt, with whom I was eating dinner that night. And all because [Starr], standing in front of me, had decided that a frightened young woman could be useful in his larger case against the president of the United States.”
Recently, in the new A&E documentary “The Clinton Affair” Lewinsky retold how she felt during the questioning, “The ground completely crumbled in that moment. I felt so much guilt. And I felt terrified.” Visibly upset Lewinsky, she recounted, “There was a point for me somewhere within these first several hours where I would be hysterically crying and then I would just shut down… And in the shut down period I just remember looking out the window and thinking the only way to fix this is to kill myself…. I just felt terrible … and I was scared … and I was mortified.”
In March 2018, Lewinsky recounted meeting Starr for the first time since the investigation on Christmas Eve 2017, and seeing him “as a human being.” She was “paving the way” for Starr to apologize, telling him, “Though I wish I had made different choices back then. I wish that you and your office had made different choices, too.” All Starr did was respond, “I know. It was unfortunate.” Recently, Starr said he would not apologize to Lewinsky for his actions. In a June 2018, interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Starr responded “no,” “Monica — and I wish her all the best — her life has been disrupted. But the evidence is the evidence, and she was part, as we saw it, of an effort to obstruct justice and to commit perjury.” In October 2014, the Washington Postuncovered a Special Counsel’s Report from December 2000, which counters Starr and determined that Starr and the OIC staff mistreated Lewinsky during the twelve-hour interrogation.
The OIC realize Lewinsky was the real deal when later on Lewinsky’s lawyer brought them the gifts Clinton gave to Lewinsky. Since the fall of 1997, Currie hid the gifts in her home to hide any evidence from Lewinsky that linked her to the president. Paul Rosenzweig, the lawyers at OIC, who first spoke to Tripp, remembers, “They’re real gifts. They’re not like something the president gives everybody…. So the connection between the president and Monica Lewinsky — we know it’s real.”
As Starr zeroed in on Lewinsky, Isikoff finished his story about President Clinton’s affair, when on January 17; Newsweek informed him they were holding the story until the next week. When Goldberg found out that Newsweek held the story she told Ann Coulter, who advised her to go to conservative leaning Matt Drudge, who operated a website, the Drudge Report, a no hold’s bar site that was not afraid of exposing Washington scandals. Drudge broke the story on January 17, opening the floodgates, under the headline “Newsweek Kills Story on White House Intern.” Goldberg recounted to the Atlantic, “I think it was Ann, or my lawyer, or Tripp’s lawyer. Drudge broke it within the hour.”
In 1998, again Clinton’s personal actions led to scandal this time leading to a constitutional crisis over his lying, possible perjury, obstruction of justice and abuse of power. Since his campaign in 1992, Clinton had been dogged by accusations of impropriety both personal and professional. From the start Clinton dealt with accusations of sexual affairs, while a 1978 land deal gone wrong, called Whitewater might have led to illegal campaign contributions. Accusations became legal issues for the president when former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the president and in April 1997, the Supreme Court ruled the harassment suit could proceed against a sitting president, Clinton main argument against the suit. On January 12, 1994, Clinton’s scandals invaded his presidency when Attorney General Janet Reno appointed a special prosecutor to investigate Whitewater. In his role, Kenneth Starr, a former Pepperdine University Law School professor, former federal judge and solicitor general expanded his investigations to the White House Travel Office, White House Counsel Vince Foster’s suspicion suicide and then Jones and Lewinsky.
As winter 1998 turned to spring, Clinton’s and the White House denials seemed to be working on the American public, and in turn, the Clinton White House turned the tables in their attacks. As Troy recounts in his book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, Clinton “and his aides argued that the accusations were not true, and besides, his accusers were worse, especially Monica Lewinsky, the emotional stalker, and Kenneth Starr, the legalistic stalker.” (Troy, 224) While, Historians Meacham, Naftali, Baker, and Engel in their 2018 book Impeachment: An American History recount, “Clinton refused to resign in shame, launching instead an orchestrated push to save his presidency by undermining his accusers’ credibility. (Meacham, 6)
Where there is smoke there is fire, however, and the news was circulating rumors of semen stained dress that would link Clinton to Lewinsky and prove he had been lying, but American public opinion did not seem to care, as Clinton’s approval ratings remained high. Clinton especially felt vindicated when on April 1, U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright dismissed the Jones case. All the while, however, Starr was conducting his investigation amassing the evidence linking Lewinsky to Clinton. Starr called a former East Wing intern, Nicole Maffeo Russo and Special Assistant to the President Sidney Blumenthal in front of a grand jury among his witnesses.
Starr, however, ramped up his investigation in July, when on July 27, he began interviewing Lewinsky. After threatening Lewinsky with prosecution, for nearly seven months her lawyers argued for immunity before she would speak to Starr. Starr blames Lewinsky for the time she took to tell the truth. Starr also interviewed for The Clinton Affair said, “The real shame is that, when you look back on it, if [Lewinsky] had said, ‘I was betrayed by Linda Tripp, there’s nothing else I can do, I’ve got to tell the truth.’ And you know what? The horror that the nation went through for eight months would have been essentially avoided. It would have been over very, very quickly.”
On July 28, after Lewinsky agreed to hand over the semen stained blue dress and other proof of the affair, Starr granted Lewinsky and her family transactional immunity. On August 6, Lewinsky gave her grand jury testimony, recounting her whole affair with the president and revealing about her blue Gap semen stained dress. On July 17, Starr subpoenaed the president and but on July 29, Clinton agreed to testify for Starr’s grand jury under conditions, “Clinton would appear via closed-circuit TV from the White House, his testimony would be limited to one day, and his lawyers could be present.” In a presidential first, on August 3, the White House physician drew blood from Clinton for DNA test to confirm a match with the dress.
On August 17, Clinton became the first sitting president subjected to giving testimony in front of a grand jury. After Lewinsky’s testimony and the physical evidence, Clinton was asked if “there is absolutely no sex of any kind” with Lewinsky, he responded, “It depends on what the meaning of the word is is.” After his testimony, in the evening Clinton went on television to speak to the nation. Clinton acknowledged his affair with Lewinsky after months of lying to the public. Clinton admitted, “As you know, in a deposition in January I was asked questions about my relationship with Monica Lewinsky. While my answers were legally accurate, I did not volunteer information. I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. Indeed, I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.”
One month later on September 9, Starr and the OIC transfer 36 boxes of evidence including their 445-page report recommending nine articles of impeachment to Congress. Starr never believed the report he and his writing staff, which included lawyers Brett Kavanaugh and Stephen Bates, would be made public. Their report relied heavily on Lewinsky graphic testimony to outline Lewinsky relationship with the president, however, the report left out some information. One of Clinton’s lawyers David Kendell, does not think the OIC wanted an accurate document because they never included a key Lewinsky grand jury statement, where she declared, “No one ever asked me to lie and I was never promised a job for my silence.” Kendell told The Atlantic, “Starr used the compelled testimony of Ms. Lewinsky to paint a detailed, lengthy, and graphic account of their relationship. To what end? To humiliate and demean both people.”
The same day, Clinton speaking in Florida expressed, “I let you down. I let my family down. I let this country down. But I’m trying to make it right. I determined to never let anything like that happen again.” On September 11, at the National Prayer Breakfast Clinton admitted, “I sinned.” Finally, Clinton publicly apologized. Clinton expressed in his speech, “I don’t think there’s a fancy way to say that I have sinned. It is important to me that everyone who has been hurt know that the sorrow I feel is genuine — first and most important, my family, my friends, my staff, my cabinet, Monica Lewinsky and her family, and the American people. I have asked all for their forgiveness.”
Republicans had different reasons for believing the report should be made able to the public and each side felt it would be beneficial to their cause. Republicans thought Democrats were not taking Clinton’s impeachable actions seriously, while Democrats thought there would be a backlash to the report’s pornographic elements. On September 11, the House voted 363–63 to release the report to the public on the internet. Fledgling publishing house PublicAffairs took advantage publishing the Starr Report, which became a best seller on the new bookseller Amazon.com. On September 21, 2,800 pages of evidence and video of Clinton’s grand jury testimony was made public, another “three volumes” of evidence was made public on October 1, including transcripts of Lewinsky’s conversations with Tripp.
By October, the House Republicans geared up to impeach Clinton. The House Judiciary Committee recommended an impeachment inquiry on October 5. The first vote with the full House on October 8, decided on an impeachment inquiry, the motion passed 258–176, Republicans along with 31 Democrats voted in favor. Republicans won in proceeding with the impeachment but they faced a backlash in the 1998 midterm election. The scandal benefited the Democrats, Clinton’s popularity only increased, after the scandal broke in January, according to Gallup, Clinton’s approval rating went up from 59 to 69 support throughout 1998 it remained in the sixties and when the House impeached Clinton it went to 73 percent. The Democrats won five seats, and the Republicans majority became 223-to-211 seats with one independent. Clinton felt vindicated, ‘’If you look at all the results, they are clear and unambiguous. The American people want their business, their concerns, their children, their families, their future addressed here. That’s what the message of the election was. ‘’
Speaker of the House Gingrich gambled with the House majority betting impeachment would increase their hold and he lost, and after the election announced he would step down. Bob Livingston of Louisiana was voted the new speaker but with the discovery of his past affairs, he resigned on December 19, the same day the House impeached Clinton and urged Clinton to follow his example. Livingston was a byproduct of Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt call offering a million dollars to anyone who had “an adulterous sexual encounter with a current member of the United States Congress or a high-ranking government official.” Other Republican casualties included “Dan Burton of Indiana, Helen Chenoweth of Idaho and Henry Hyde of Illinois,” the Chairman of Judiciary Committee who served as the chief House manager of Clinton’s Senate trial.
In November as the House Judiciary Committee moved forward on impeachment, they looked at the inquiry into President Richard Nixon and the Watergate cover up as their model. On December 8 and 9, Clinton’s lawyers presented their case, including witnesses, Watergate veterans, and historian Sean Wilentz, who warned the Republicans “History will track you down.” The Democrats tried to negotiate a censure with the House Republicans but they would not agree to anything less than impeachment. On December 11 and 12, the Judiciary Committee voted on three articles and then a fourth article of impeachment sending them to the House floor for hearings and a vote on them.
All four articles of impeachment related to perjury about his involvement with Lewinsky and influencing witnesses in the Paula Jones. According to the Atlantic, “The first article alleged that Clinton had committed perjury by lying to the grand jury in August about his relationship with Lewinsky, and in prior false statements. The second alleged that he had also perjured himself in his January deposition in the Jones case. The third accused him of obstructing justice — coaching Lewinsky and Betty Currie on their stories, concealing gifts he had received from Lewinsky, and attempting to find her a job. The fourth alleged that he had abused his office by attempting to stonewall the impeachment inquiry.”
On December 19, after the House voted to impeach Clinton, Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois who presided over the House impeachment process, recalls the reaction, “I think people were surprised by the fact that Clinton was impeached by the House but not on all four impeachment articles.” Rep. James Rogan of California remembers, “We had maybe half the Senate standing along the back rail of the House chamber watching the vote. There was just absolute, utter shock. I walked by a bunch of them, and they were apoplectic: ‘What’re we going to do now?’ I said, ‘Well, you’re going to have to try the case, that’s what you’re going to do now.’”
Before the Senate trial, the Senate convened behind closed in the Old Senate Chamber to work out the process. Thirteen members of the House Judiciary Committee served as prosecutors and trial managers, including Reps. James Rogan and Bob Barr and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, they worked with Republicans’ chief investigator, David Schippers negotiating the process with the Senate. Despite support among House Republicans for impeachment, Senate Republicans including Majority Leader Trent Lott were not excited to impeach President Clinton they were more concerned how impeachment would affect their reelection chances. House Republicans were limited in making their case; they could not call live witnesses and were limited to the evidence that was already made available to the public.
The Senate trial began on January 7, 1999, as the 106th Congress commenced. The trial was only the second time in American history a sitting president faced an impeachment trial that would determine if he remains in office. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist presided as the judge. On the first day, the trial consisted of formally presenting the charges of impeachment against Clinton and swearing the participants for both sides including the entire Senate which served as jurors. Attorney Cheryl Mills defended Clinton and had a staff of eight other lawyers. The trial lasted for five weeks, on January 8, they adopted the trials “rules and procedures,” both parties submitted briefs, the House on January 11, Clinton’s attorneys on January 13. The House managers presented their case on January 14 through 16, while the defense presented from January 19 to 21. January 22 and 23 were reserved for questions from the prosecution and defense, which were written down and read by Chief Justice Rehnquist.
Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia was the first to call for the case to be dismissed on January 25, and on January 26, Rep. Bryant of the House managers called for witnesses. The Senate voted on both motions on January 27, the motion to dismiss failed 56–44, while the motion to dispose witnesses passed 56–44. Between February 1 and 3, behind closed doors House managers deposed three witnesses Lewinsky, Jordan and Blumenthal. On February 4, the Senate agreed with a vote of 70 to 30 just to use the videotaped deposition as opposed to live witnesses. On February 6, the House Managers played 30 excerpts from Lewinsky’s deposition discussing her affidavit from the Jones case.
On February 8, both sides gave their closing argument, White House Counsel Charles Ruff argued for Clinton’s defense, “There is only one question before you, albeit a difficult one, one that is a question of fact and law and constitutional theory. Would it put at risk the liberties of the people to retain the President in office? Putting aside partisan animus, if you can honestly say that it would not, that those liberties are safe in his hands, then you must vote to acquit.” Chief House manager Rep. Henry Hyde counter-argued, “A failure to convict will make the statement that lying under oath, while unpleasant and to be avoided, is not all that serious. … We have reduced lying under oath to a breach of etiquette, but only if you are the president. … And now let us all take our place in history on the side of honor, and, oh, yes, let right be done.”
The Senate as jury began their closed-door deliberations on February 9, 1999. The House Republicans needed a two-thirds majority, 67 senators to convict Clinton. On February 12, 1999, the Senate voted to acquit Clinton on the two articles of impeachment and charges. The Senate voted not guilty 55 to 45 for Article I, the perjury charge, including 10 Republicans voting with the Democrats to acquit. The Senate split 50–50 for the obstruction of justice charge with five Republicans voting with the Democrats. There were five Republicans Senators that voted to acquit on both charges, John Chafee of Rhode Island, Susan Collins of Maine, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who voted “not proved,” the equivalent of not guilty. Afterward, a victorious Clinton expressed from the White House, “Now that the Senate has fulfilled its constitutional responsibility, bringing this process to a conclusion, I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events and the great burden they have imposed on the Congress and on the American people.”
Despite, the Senate impeachment trial in his favor, Clinton’s legal problems and their ramifications were not over. In November 1998, Clinton settled with Jones while she was appealing the court’s dismissal of the case, for $850,000 without admitting any wrongdoing. However, in April 1999, the same Federal District Judge Susan Webber Wright, who dismissed the Jones suit cited Clinton with civil contempt of court for his perjury and “willful failure” to obey her orders. Wright claimed, “Simply put, the president’s deposition testimony regarding whether he had ever been alone with Ms. (Monica) Lewinsky was intentionally false, and his statements regarding whether he had ever engaged in sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky likewise were intentionally false.”
Kenneth Starr left the independent counsel position in 1999 and Robert Ray served as his replacement. Although Clinton escaped impeachment, he still had the possibility of facing criminal charges. In December 2000, to end the independent counsel’s investigation, Clinton’s lawyer drew up an agreement with Ray. There would be no criminal charges, but Clinton would admit to “testifying falsely” in his deposition in the Jones case, he would pay a $25,000 fine, his Arkansas law license would be suspended for five years, and with that, the Supreme Court Bar suspended him.
Twenty years after the scandal broke and Clinton’s impeachment, the perspective is different. The tables have turned, as Republicans have a president who admitted to inappropriate behavior to women on video, and is facing an independent counsel’s investigation over Russian interference in the 2016 election that got him elected. The #MeToo movement, which began in 2017, gave greater sympathy to women who faced sexual assault, sexual harassment and were in relationships with a power imbalance. No longer is Clinton’s actions dismissed as they were in 1998. In the spring of 2018, when Clinton said in a televised interview on NBC TODAY SHOW he did not owe Lewinsky a personal apology he faced a backlash. When host Craig Melvin pushed the issue Clinton responded, “No. I do not — I have never talked to her. But I did say publicly on more than one occasion that I was sorry.” Before the #MeToo movement asking Clinton about the scandal and Lewinsky would have taboo, now even he has to be accountable. Instead, of the scandal recessing in the American mind, it has come to the forefront to Clinton’s detriment. The backlash pushed Clinton to the defensive and to clarify his original comment, “So first point is, I did. I meant it then, and I meant it now. I apologized to my family, to Monica Lewinsky and her family, and to the American people before a panel of ministers in the White House, which was widely reported. So I was… I did that. I meant it then, and I mean it today. I live with it all the time.”
Recently, Lewinsky wrote in Vanity Fair, “So, what feels more important to me than whether I am owed or deserving of a personal apology is my belief that Bill Clinton should want to apologize. I’m less disappointed by him, and more disappointed for him. He would be a better man for it… and we, in turn, a better society.” Lewinsky, however, would like to apologize personally to Hillary Clinton and daughter Chelsea Clinton, “My first public words after the scandal — uttered in an interview with Barbara Walters on March 3, 1999 — were an apology directly to Chelsea and Mrs. Clinton. And if I were to see Hillary in person today, I know that I would summon up whatever force I needed to again acknowledge to her — sincerely — how very sorry I am.” Continuing Lewinsky writes, “I know I would do this because I have done it in other difficult situations related to 1998. I have also written letters apologizing to others — including some who also wronged me gravely. I believe that when we are trapped by our inability to evolve, by our inability to empathize humbly and painfully with others, then we remain, victims, ourselves.”
Historian Taylor Branch in his book The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History in the White House sheds light why perhaps Clinton does not feel he owes Lewinsky an apology for his behavior, especially how he demonized her to the press after the scandal broke. Branch recounts, Clinton “pointed out that Starr had been threatening to jail Lewinsky all year over her sworn denial of the affair. If Clinton had come forward with anything at all about their relationship, he said Starr could have turned him into a witness against Lewinsky, betraying her discreet silence. Such subtleties, while original, struck me as tendentious. The president never claimed chivalry as the real motive for his steadfast denials, nor did he dispute the essential truth of Lewinsky’s account.” (Branch)
The Democrats behavior and blind support for Clinton in 1998 contrasts with the post- #MeToo era and in the context of times seems hypocritical. As Troy recounts in his 2000 book, Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons, “Democrats defended their president’s privacy while exposing Republicans’ affairs. The Democrats instinctively expansive reading of law narrowed into a strict construction of perjury standards and the Constitution’s impeachment clauses. The Democrats also decided that women did not always tell the truth about male predators, especially if the accused was a pro-choice president. Democrats who had skewered Nixon indulged Clinton…. All the while, reporters and citizens played both sides of the fence — as usual — condemning the spectacle while feeding it.” (Troy, 378)
Now twenty years later, history, the public and the characters involved are revising how they viewed the affair and scandal in light of the #MeToo movement, Clinton’s scandals are no longer “dismissed.” Historians Jon Meacham, Timothy Naftali, Peter Baker, and Jeffrey A. Engel in their 2018 book Impeachment: An American History note, “Twenty years later, though, the view of history has shifted a bit. Once dismissed as a national distraction while more serious such as international terrorism and Wall Street corruption went ignored, the Clinton scandal looks a little different in the age of the #MeToo movement… Today some of the key figures in the Clinton impeachment are reassessing.” (Meacham, 203) MSNBC one of the key Clinton defenders in 1998, now host Chris Hayes said, “Democrats and the center left are overdue for a real reckoning with the allegations against him.” (Meacham, 203)
In light of this, Lewinsky, who persistently claimed their relationship, was consensual and she was not a victim, is currently reconsidering whether it was consensual in light of the #MeToo movement. In her March 2018, Vanity Fair article, “Emerging from the ‘House of Gaslight’ in the age of #metoo Lewinsky wrote, “We now recognize that it constituted a gross abuse of power…. Now, at 44, 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.” “I now see how problematic it was that the two of us even got to a place where there was a question of consent. Instead, the road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege. (Full stop.)”
In November 2018, Lewinsky wrote of Clinton’s lopsided power, “As it so often does, power throws a protective cape around the shoulders of the man, and he dictates the spin by denigrating the less powerful woman… If you want to know what power looks like, watch a man safely, even smugly, do interviews for decades, without ever worrying whether he will be asked the questions he doesn’t want to answer.” Lewinsky is not the only one reconsidering the relationship and President Clinton’s actions, so is the media and even fellow Democrats. Democratic New York Senator and former Clinton ally Kirsten Gillibrand caused shock waves when in November 2017 when she told the New York Times she believed Clinton should have resigned during the scandal in 1998, telling the Times, “Yes, I think that is the appropriate response.” It was the first time a high-ranking Democrat, indicated Clinton should have resigned.
The woman that brought the whole affair to Starr’s attention, Linda Tripp still maintains that she always saw what Clinton did as an abuse of power. Tripp say s that was the reason she revealed what was going on. Tripp recently spoke to Slow Burn’s host, Leon Neyfakh telling him, “I mean, how it was presented to the country initially is how it continues to be referred to today, which is an affair, the Lewinsky affair. But by virtue of using that word, one assumes it was in some way an actual relationship of sorts — romantic, physical, whatever, it was a relationship — which couldn’t be farther from the truth. What it was was a series of encounters to address a physical need, a use of a young girl, and then the sort of cold, hard dismissal of her on any human level.”
The only two involved who do not believe Clinton abused his power, is he and former First Lady Hillary Clinton. Hillary Clinton appeared in October 2018 for an interview on CBS and she was was asked if Clinton’s actions were an abuse of power, to which she responded it was not because Lewinsky “was an adult.” Hillary Clinton also responded “absolutely not” when asked if the former president should have resigned over the affair.
For the twentieth anniversary of Clinton’s impeachment and the scandal, A&E made a new documentary, entitled, “The Clinton Affair.” The documentary produced by women gave a different perspective on the scandal, starting with the name giving the responsibility over to Clinton where it rightfully belonged, because he was the president and the one in control. Lewinsky has said she liked “that the perspective is being shaped by women.” In a recent Vanity Fair article “Who gets to live in victimville?: Why I participated in a new docuseries on the Clinton Affair” Lewinsky explains her decision to “relive the events of 1998.” Lewinsky explains, “Why did I choose to participate in this docuseries? One main reason: because I could. Throughout history, women have been traduced and silenced. Now, it’s our time to tell our own stories in our own words.” She also indicates the significance for the series to call it the Clinton Affair as opposed to the Lewinsky Scandal as its been dubbed from the onset another by-product of the #MeToo movement. Lewinsky writes, “Bye-bye, Lewinsky scandal. I think 20 years is enough time to carry that mantle.”
Early on, journalists or jurists, legal scholars wrote most of the books on Clinton’s impeachment, it takes time for a historical perspective. Jurist Richard Posner in his book, An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton published just after the legal issues of the scandal resolved in 1999, argued for writing a history so close to the contemporary events having occurred. Posner explains, “The judgments in it are informed by knowledge of how the story ends, although not by knowledge of how it will come eventually to be judged by history,” before “the danger that the history of it will pass rapidly into myth,” because “hindsight bias is a serious problem in historiography.”
In August 1998, after Clinton admitted to the affair with Lewinsky, historian Douglas Brinkley indicated, “In judging a president, there is a considerable world of difference between the long view of history and the volatility of the political moment.” At the time, historians believed Clinton’s legacy would be affected by the scandal. Famed historian Arthur J. Schlesinger Jr. also questioned Clinton’s legacy, saying, “It all depends on what he does, not what he says. Instead of going off to Martha’s Vineyard, he should be gaining control of his demoralized administration. He should be making decisions about Ireland and the Middle East. Obviously, what he said last night is going to tarnish his legacy. But he can overcome these things if he begins fighting for real social change and reform. That’s his very best hope.”
Some historians, however, believed that the scandal might define his presidency. Alan Brinkley believed, “While I don’t believe the Lewinsky matter will constitute the final judgment of him, the scandals and a limited agenda will be what people remember.” Historian Joyce Appleby thought Clinton made scandal more a fixture of the modern political landscape. Appleby stated, “When people look back at the Clinton years, I think they’ll see him as the epitome of a time when our nation became permanently scandalized.”
Historians found that Clinton’s scandal and impeachment was worst than Richard Nixon’s resignation over his impending impeachment over the Watergate Scandal because of Nixon’s presidential accomplishments and the supporting cast. Historian Joan Hoff the author of Nixon Reconsidered, finds that Nixon had more accomplishments as president and had ideological positions that he championed. Hoff remarked Nixon “took risks, he had some success. But what does Bill Clinton stand for? He has no strong inner compass, he wavers a lot, and that’s not much to build a legacy on.” While Troy in his book, Mr. and Mrs. President: From the Trumans to the Clintons, published in 2000 during Clinton’s last year in office compared Watergate to Clinton’s scandal. Troy points out, “The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was an ugly moment in American history. Unlike during Watergate, no heroes emerged, few ideals triumphed. Reputations shattered. Public language coarsened. Truth became pliable. Partisanship raged. Deathbed conversions predominated.” (Troy, 378)
In 2017, Clinton ranked a respectable number 15 in C-SPAN’s third Presidential Historians Survey, where a hundred historians and biographers ranked the presidents. They marked each president on ten qualities including, “public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision and setting an agenda, pursued equal justice for all, and performance within the context of his times.” Clinton’s overall reputation has improved with time, but his ranking on moral authority has remained dismal and at the bottom of the rankings. When he left office in 2000, historians ranked him twentieth overall but number 41, second to last on moral authority. In 2009, Clinton’s overall reputation improved to fifteenth but his moral authority remained low at number 37. In 2017, Clinton’s overall reputation with historians remained the same, his overall score improved, but his moral authority fell to number 38. The ranking was published months before the #MeToo movement burst onto the scene and months after the 2016 presidential election, where former First Lady Hillary Clinton was the Democratic nominee and the media drudged up Clinton’s scandals.
Pulitzer Prize historian Taylor Branch a friend of Clinton’s wrote the revealing The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History in the White House. Throughout Clinton’s presidency, Branch sat down with Clinton to discuss his impressions of his presidency, which were recorded on tape, retained by Clinton, Branch’s book was based on his personal notes, and give insights no other historian can have on Clinton’s thoughts including the scandal and impeachment. According to Branch, Clinton explained the reason he became involved with an intern within the confines of the White House, “I cracked; I just cracked.” Clinton felt “beleaguered, unappreciated, and open to a liaison with Lewinsky” after “the Democrats’ loss of Congress in the November 1994 elections, the death of his mother the previous January, and the ongoing Whitewater investigation.” Branch’s view of President Clinton attempts to reshape the narrative and softens Clinton’s intentions throughout the scandal but spends too little time to have lasting consequences for how history views Clinton, the scandal and his impeachment.
Historians writing in the context of nearly twenty years after scandal have argued the range of the scandal affected Clinton’s legacy and American history. Historian Russell L. Riley writing for the Miller Center at the University of Virginia indicates how Clinton affected his legacy with the scandal. Riley explains, “The damage done to Clinton’s place in history is far more pronounced and probably permanent. Future historians will likely evaluate not just what Clinton did, but also what he did not accomplish, because he was tied-up in a second-term struggle for political survival. It is this consideration of ‘what might have been’ that may be Clinton’s greatest obstacle to gaining historical stature.” Troy lamented the problems with writing about Clinton and having the rest of Clinton’s presidency taken seriously, writing, “The Monica Lewinsky sex scandal upstages,” Clinton’s “astute statements about family, work, community, responsibility, and freedom, but “modern readers must compartmentalize, just as the American people did. Ultimately, the majority of Americans accepted his argument to judge his presidency by his public record.” (Troy, 22–23)
Clinton’s scandal and impeachment affected not only his legacy but also the course of American history in the early twenty first century. Meacham, Naftali, Baker, and Engel argue, “Impeachment thus disrupts the American political landscape as few other events do, leaving scars for generations while dimming the political careers of all involved. Clinton was not only the second president impeached; he was also the first impeached after having been elected president, a stain his two-term vice president and would-be Democratic successor found impossible to wash away during his subsequent razor-tight campaign for the presidency in 2000…. Bill Clinton’s impeachment thus directly contributed to the election of the two subsequent Republican presidents in 2000 and 2016, respectively. But for his behavior, the twenty-first century might have unfolded completely differently.”
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Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in Judaic Studies at Concordia University. She is the author of “Silver Boom! The Rise and Decline of Leadville, Colorado as the United States Silver Capital, 1860–1896.” She is a journalist, librarian and historian and a former Features Editor at the History News Network and reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education and political journalism.