The paradox of the Bill Clinton impeachment saga was that it made it easier for Donald Trump to become president and harder for his wife, Hillary. Twenty years after his acquittal, it’s clearer to see how that seismic event shaped American politics and culture today.
In a quarter century of covering US politics, I only have ever got round to framing two newspaper front pages. The first was when President Bill Clinton was impeached in December 1998. The second was when he was acquitted at the conclusion of his Senate trial the following February.
Washington in the late-1990s was my first foreign posting. The Monica Lewinsky scandal, as we inaccurately labelled it, was my first big American story. The picture framing was partly a vanity project to mark this personal milestone. But this also felt like a once-in-a-lifetime story.
Clinton was the first US president to be impeached since 1868, when Andrew Johnson also managed to avoid conviction in the Senate after being indicted by the House. Evidently, more seasoned Washington colleagues shared this view. As I came to discover over the following months, the same framed black and white newsprint, with the same banner headlines “Clinton Impeached” followed by “Clinton Acquitted”, also adorned their study and toilet walls.
Veterans of the impeachment saga soon found themselves reporting on an epic tumble of events. The 2000 presidential election, with its disputed Florida recount. The attacks of September 11th. The Iraq war and its troubled aftermath. The financial crash, and the Great Recession that followed. The election of America’s first black president, who handed over power to the country’s first reality TV star president. Once-in-a-lifetime stories seemed to come along every few years.
Two decades on, the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton nonetheless feels like a big bang moment in the American story.
Post-truth politics. The poisoning of the Washington hothouse. The delegitimisation of modern-day presidents. The corrosive impact of the internet. The rise of polarised news. The Jerry Springerisation of national life.
All were evident in that Clinton melodrama, which saw the Washington Post and New York Times ploughing the same furrows as the National Enquirer, and genre-busting news stories in which quotes from constitutional law experts interpreting what the Founding Fathers meant by high crimes and misdemeanours were interspersed with the most salacious and suggestive snippets of the sex scandal – the snap of Monica Lewinsky’s thong, the soiled blue dress, the gift from the president to his intern of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the same anthology of poetry he had once given to Hillary Clinton.
As well as being a constitutional showdown, this was a tabloid scandal for what Vanity Fair had aptly labelled the tabloid decade.
It provided a fitting coda to an era of sensationalism that had already brought us the OJ Simpson trial, Tonya Harding, the William Kennedy Smith trial, Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tapes, the arrest of Pee-Wee Herman, the first accusations against Michael Jackson, the Mike Tyson rape conviction, John Wayne Bobbitt and his penis-severing wife Lorena, and the divorce of Donald and Ivana Trump.
Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky brought this luridness to the nation’s capital, where scandal has always been the highest – and often the basest – form of entertainment.
Washington was at fever pitch. So much so that whenever I am asked today whether Donald Trump will survive until the end of his term in office, I find myself recalling the early days of the Bill Clinton scandal when it was by no means certain the president would last until the end of the week.
Events moved at such a hurtling pace, and information came at you with such dizzying speed, it was hard back then to step back and take in the panoramic picture. Hindsight offers some clarity.
The culture wars unleashed
Even before Bill Clinton had laid eyes on the 22-year-old White House intern, his Republican opponents questioned his legitimacy as president and looked for ways to drive him from office.
Not since Woodrow Wilson in 1912 had a candidate reached the White House with such a small share of the national vote, a measly 43%. Republicans also felt aggrieved that the eccentric third party candidacy of Ross Perot had stolen the election from President George Herbert Walker Bush, even though polling data suggests the Texan billionaire syphoned off just as many votes from the Democrats as the GOP.
For conservative cultural warriors, the Clintons personified the worst excesses of the Sixties. In Bill Clinton, they saw a philandering draft dodger. In Hillary Rodham Clinton, they saw a sneering feminist who looked down upon women who had not pursued careers of their own.
Political fear also stoked their antipathy. Before 1992, the Republicans had held the presidency for 20 of the previous 24 years. William Jefferson Clinton threatened to end that hegemony.
Here, after all, was an articulate young politician from the south, the region that had produced the last two Democratic presidents, who promised to fuse Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal with Ronald Reagan’s free market ideology.
Clinton sought to shatter the Nixon and Reagan coalitions that had enabled the Republicans to dominate presidential elections and was well placed to forge a new winning Democratic coalition, incorporating white working class voters who had become “Reagan Democrats”. Their fears were well placed. Since 1992, Democrats have won the popular vote in five out of six presidential elections.
So after the Whitewater investigation, the Troopergate affair and Travelgate scandal failed to produce evidence of potentially impeachable offences, Clinton’s enemies, abetted by the independent counsel Kenneth Starr, seized upon the affair with Monica Lewinsky as their gotcha moment.
Clinton’s recklessness, and his mendacious efforts to cover it up, handed his opponents a pretext to demonstrate his unworthiness to occupy the White House. Not even Richard Nixon, whose crimes and abuses of power were far more egregious, had been stalked so aggressively.
The pursuit of Bill Clinton marked a paradigm shift in presidential politics. Since then, it has become routine for every occupant of the White House to be assailed as illegitimate by zealous adversaries.
George W Bush for the assist he received from the conservative-leaning US Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 in his favour to end the Florida recount. Barack Obama, for the untruthful claim he was born in Kenya. Donald Trump for losing the popular vote by more than three million votes.
US politics has reached such a nadir that many Americans no longer accept the outcome of presidential elections, and thus deny the winners any electoral mandate. Not since the election of George Herbert Walker Bush thirty years ago has a president entered the Oval Office without his right of occupancy being brought into question.
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A corollary of the delegitimisation of modern-day presidents has been the legitimisation of the politics of no, an oppositional approach whereby constitutional checks and balances have come to be used as vetoes and blockades.
This again can be traced back to the Clinton years. Bob Dole, the Republican’s leader in the Senate, deployed the filibuster more frequently than his predecessors to stymie Bill Clinton’s legislative agenda. Newt Gingrich, the first Republican House speaker since the early-1950s, used government shutdowns as a political weapon.
Bill Clinton might never have spent time alone with Monica Lewinsky had it not been for the 1995 government shutdown, which meant this inexperienced intern was granted more West Wing access because of the absence of furloughed staff.
The Clinton scandal heightened political tensions by unleashing a cultural war in the heart of Washington. Here was another opportunity to litigate the Sixties, one that pitted the modern-day puritans of the right against the permissive peaceniks of the left.
For the religious right especially, whose grip on the Republican Party tightened under Ronald Reagan, here was the chance to mount a moral crusade and increase its hold on the GOP. More moderate Republicans, the sort of business-oriented pragmatists who had once dominated the party, were already becoming an endangered breed.
Certainly, the partisan mood in Washington in the late-Nineties was wholly different from the early-Seventies, when Congress started impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, albeit for more serious felonies.
Back then some of Nixon’s most dogged tormentors came from within his own party. It was Howard Baker, a Republican Senator from Tennessee, who posed that legendary Watergate question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
It was Republican elders, such as the party’s former presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, who journeyed from Capitol Hill to the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House to urge Nixon to resign. When the House decided to start an impeachment inquiry against the president, the vote in February 1974 received near unanimous bipartisan vote, with 410 in favour and just four against.
‘The lie saved me’
Post-truth politics also received a boost from the Clinton scandal. His early lies, including his finger-jabbing falsehood “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” worked to his advantage.
In the explosive first days of the scandal, when senior White House correspondents such as ABC’s legendary Sam Donaldson predicted he might be forced to resign “perhaps this week”, the lies bought Clinton time. They helped him weather the initial squall, shore up Democratic support and push back against his accusers.
“The lie saved me”, the president confided to a close friend, according to the journalist John Harris’s book The Survivor, the finest book on the Clinton presidency.
The Clintons also sought to alter the question at the heart of the national debate from “Who do you believe?” to “Whose side are you on?” Was that not the rationale behind Hillary Clinton’s famed interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show, in which she accused investigators of being part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”?
From early on, the White House framed this as a partisan battle rather than a moment of personal reckoning. “We just have to win,” Clinton told his political strategist Dick Morris, who cynically had conducted secret polling to test whether Clinton should lie or tell the truth.
As the journalist Susan Glasser told a Politico roundtable marking the 20th anniversary of the scandal: “It was political genius how he handled it by lying. Lying was proven to work in some way that has enabled further the cynical and divisive political culture of Washington.”
Not until the summer of 1998, when we learnt Monica Lewinsky had preserved the famed blue dress, did he grudgingly concede the truth.
After his lies were exposed, Clinton requested airtime from the networks for a televised confessional. “Indeed I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate”, he admitted. But then he carpet-bombed his accusers for mounting a “politically-inspired” investigation led by Kenneth Starr: “This has gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people.”
This time, the strategy backfired, with senior Democrats such as Senator Dianne Feinstein expressing dismay. Senator Joe Lieberman, an orthodox Jew who had long seen himself as a moral elder, condemned him on the floor of the Senate. Many were appalled by Clinton’s behaviour.
In the House, 31 Democrats voted to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. Yet no senior Democrat publicly called for the president to resign, partly because they did not want to hand victory to the Republicans. Even Lieberman, Clinton’s most prominent Democratic critic, said impeachment would be “unjust and unwise”.
So strong was party loyalty that in the immediate aftermath of being impeached by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Bill Clinton even held a pep rally on the South Lawn of the White House, with Democratic lawmakers ranked behind him. That partisan tableau featured on the front page of the Washington Post hanging on my wall.
Hillary, the long-term loser
Partly because Clinton was so adept at portraying his Republican opponents as over-reaching zealots, and partly because they did not regard his sins as impeachable, Democratic voters also remained loyal. After his acquittal in 1999, his approval rating amongst Democrats hit 92 per cent. When he left office, he enjoyed the highest approval among all voters of any departing president.
Clinton had outsmarted his opponents, and the only politicians to lose their jobs during the impeachment crisis were Republicans.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the first casualty. Clinton’s Baby Boomer nemesis resigned after the GOP lost seats in the 1998 congressional mid-terms, which Gingrich had turned into a national referendum on the president’s behaviour.
His successor Bob Livingstone also had to fall on his sword. On the very morning of Clinton’s impeachment, the Louisianan was forced to resign after Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine exposed his own extramarital affair. (A ghastly irony is that the Speakership passed to Dennis Hastert, a former teacher and wrestling coach, who was then seen as an irreproachable figure. In 2016, Hastert was sentenced to 15 months in prison following a hush money case that revealed he had been accused of abusing young boys during his years as a teacher).
Though Clinton suffered the ignominy of becoming only the second president to be impeached, by far the biggest Democratic casualty was his wife, Hillary, because of its collateral impact on her presidential run in 2016.
When the email imbroglio broke, voters questioned whether they wanted to live through another scandal-prone presidency, fuelling Clinton fatigue. The lies from that era embroidered the narrative the Clintons were evasive and untrustworthy.
Hillary Clinton’s attacks on Donald Trump’s misogyny, and her ability to capitalise on the notorious Access Hollywood tape, were also compromised by her husband’s affairs.
She was accused of enabling his behaviour and of showing little sympathy towards his female accusers. Tellingly, one of Donald Trump’s first lines of defence was to claim he had heard Bill Clinton say worse things about women on the golf course, an accusation which, even if not true, seemed plausible.
The billionaire even paraded some of Clinton’s accusers, including Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick ahead of the first presidential debate, a stunt that many commentators considered exploitative but for others raised entirely legitimate questions about her husband’s sexual history.
Hillary Clinton, in her 2017 campaign memoir What Happened?, slammed Donald Trump’s pre-debate press conference. “He was just using them,” she wrote. But those women were accusing her husband of far worse. Juanita Broaddrick claimed Clinton had raped her in 1978, an allegation he has long denied. Trump ended up winning a higher share of white female voters than Hillary Clinton, a key factor in her defeat.
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In performing this act of political jujitsu, the billionaire adopted the Clinton playbook. Like Bill Clinton, he turned his grudging televised confessional after the Access Hollywood tape emerged into a partisan rallying cry: “Whose side are you on?” As with Clinton, it won him time, mobilised his base and preserved his political viability.
Here, Trump also benefited from another part of Bill Clinton’s legacy: the redefinition of what behaviour was disqualifying for presidential candidates.
In 1988, the Democratic frontrunner Gary Hart was forced from the race after the Miami Herald published details about his affair with Donna Rice. Four years later Clinton survived the Gennifer Flowers scandal, and also allegations of draft dodging – two accusations, among scores of others, that Donald Trump survived. Clinton normalised errant behaviour and helped desensitise the electorate to philandering politicians.
The paradox of the Clinton impeachment saga, then, was that it made it easier for Donald Trump to become president and harder for his wife. Hillary Clinton became a repeat victim of his infidelities.
The first internet moment
Though those framed front pages, now slightly yellowed with age, captured the historical moment, they hardly depicted the media zeitgeist.
For the Clinton scandal completely changed the metabolism of news, speeding the shift from print to digital, and fuelling the growth of talk radio and cable news channels. Public reality, which traditionally had been shaped by the major TV networks and prominent newspapers, now was also being moulded by new media start-ups. The internet started to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of information.
This was the all-caps headline in the fledgling Drudge Report on January 17th, 1998, an obscure website relatively few people had heard of in what the BBC called at the time “the wilds of cyberspace.”
Matt Drudge, its iconoclastic founder, became the first journalist to publish the name Monica Lewinsky, after catching wind that Newsweek, which had explosive details of her affair with the president, had hesitated before publishing.
Hurrying to play catch up, respected White House reporters, such as Peter Baker who was then with the Washington Post, raced to put out the first online stories, even though many of their newsroom colleagues did not at the time have permission to access the internet. Newsweek posted a piece by its investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, the author of the suppressed scope, on its America Online site, rather than wait for its next magazine issue to hit the newsstands.
When the Starr Report was published on the fateful date of September 11th 1998, it became America’s first internet moment.
Downloads of its lurid details that day accounted for a quarter of all America’s internet traffic. With CNN getting 300,000 clicks a minute, which in those days seemed unimaginable, it became a ‘clickbait’ sensation. Not only was the digital version easier to obtain than printed copies, but the 445-page report doubled as porn. It mentioned oral sex 85 times.
The story was endlessly riveting. So perhaps we should look upon the Clinton saga as the gateway drug to our modern-day real-time information addiction, and the outbreak of the screen-time epidemic for news junkies especially. It was just that the delivery systems back then were not particularly efficient – dial-up internet, PCs and bulky laptops – and the most powerful stimulants, Twitter and Facebook, were not yet on the market.
Just as the early online news sites experienced a surge in traffic, cable news channels enjoyed a ratings bonanza.
Before the Clinton scandal, Fox News, which launched two years earlier, was something of a niche broadcaster available in just 10 million homes. By 2000, partly because of its blanket coverage of the impeachment saga, that figure had mushroomed to 56 million homes. MSNBC, which also launched in 1996, also became a significant player, not least as a progressive counterpoint to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.
To sustain their 24/7 blanket coverage of the scandal, continuous news channels smudged the lines between reporting on events and commenting on them. Partisan pundits trading in shrill sound-bites helped fill airtime, and quickly realised the more outspoken their comments, the more they would be invited back. The disagreement culture of modern-day cable news, which tended to generate more heat than light, was born.
Talk radio relied on a more one-sided formula: polemical monologues delivered by presenters whose views were usually affirmed and amplified by listeners calling in.
The repeal during the Reagan years of the Fairness Doctrine, a regulation enforced by the Federal Communications Commission demanding the airing of both sides of an argument, had already fuelled the rise of right-wing talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh. The impeachment drama elevated their status as tribunes of the right, and underscored how local radio stations especially came to be a conservative echo chamber.
This had a circular effect on politics, and heightened the doctrinaire streak among Republicans especially. Polls suggested the push for impeachment was damaging the GOP. The 1998 mid-term elections offered incontrovertible proof of this self-sabotage. Yet despite various exit ramps being available to Republican leaders, they kept on pressing on down the road even though it was unlikely to end in Clinton’s dethronement.
Impeachment was not just a transformational moment. For contemporary politicians it has become a teachable one.
What the Senate trial of Bill Clinton underscored was the difficulty in removing a sitting president. Procedurally speaking, impeachment itself is relatively straightforward – a simple majority of the House of Representatives is required to approve an article of impeachment, which serves in effect as an indictment.
Achieving a guilty verdict in the upper chamber, by contrast, is challenging. Deliberately, the framers of the Constitution set the bar high, requiring two-thirds of the Senate to vote for removal. Today, that would require 67 Senators, a fiendishly difficult number to attain.
Back in 1998, not even all 55 Republican Senators delivered guilty verdicts at the end of the trial presided over the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist. Nor did a single Democrat break ranks. In the present Senate, 22 Republican Senators would have to turn on Donald Trump to remove him from office, assuming all the Democrats voted guilty.
Aside from giving us a tutorial in constitutional mechanics, the impeachment saga offered a political lesson: that the pursuit of a president, through this seldom-used process, comes with enormous risks. Certainly it boomeranged for Newt Gingrich.
That’s why the new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is doing her damnedest to tamp down talk of impeachment now that the Democrats once again command a majority in the lower chamber. Understandably, she fears a voter backlash, and also handing Donald Trump the kind of martyrdom that would help him win a second term.
So here is the double paradox of the Bill Clinton scandal and the impeachment proceedings it set in motion. Not only did it end up easing Donald Trump’s path to the White House, it diminishes the chances of Congress trying to remove him from office.
Follow Nick at @NickBryantNY
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