[Excerpted from James Rogan's book, Catching Our Flag: Behind the Scenes of a Presidential Impeachment]
Twenty years ago today, Jan. 21, 1998, I was a freshman congressman sitting at my kitchen table pouring a cup of coffee and preparing to leave for the airport. An article on the front page of the Washington Post caught my eye: "Clinton Accused of Urging Aide to Lie." It wasn't until I got to the bottom of the lead paragraph that I learned the supposed lie involved a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky with whom the president might have had an affair.
I shrugged off the revelation. During Clinton's presidential campaign, cabaret singer Gennifer Flowers disclosed her 12-year affair with him. After he denied it vehemently, she produced audiotapes of their phone conversations confirming the relationship. In later years other women came forward with claims against him ranging from adulterous liaisons to sexual assault. These stories were a small part of the Clinton scandal mosaic that disrupted his administration almost from his first day in office: Whitewater, cattle futures and the unending "gates" – Chinagate, Travelgate, Filegate, Pardongate, Troopergate, Donorgate, Hubbellgate and so forth.
"No big deal," I thought when I read of this new allegation. If America didn't care about Clinton's private life before they twice elected him president, why would one more girlfriend matter? Thinking this story rated no special notice, I finished my coffee and headed out the door without bothering to read the article.
I was wrong. Over the next year, as the layers peeled back slowly from this newest indignity, it did rate – and its significance changed more than a presidency. It changed our culture.
Why did Clinton's affair with an intern mutate into a constitutional confrontation?
Early in Clinton's presidency, several of his former state trooper bodyguards revealed that he used them to procure women when he was Arkansas' governor. After a trooper outed Paula Jones as one of these women, she filed a lawsuit against Clinton. Jones, a low-level Arkansas state clerk, was at Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel during one of Gov. Clinton's appearances there. A member of his security detail approached and told her that the governor wanted to see her privately. The bodyguard escorted her to Clinton's hotel suite, where she claimed that Clinton touched her and tried to kiss her, and then he propositioned her while exposing himself. When Jones rebuffed his advances he reminded her that her employer was his buddy, and then he added, "You're smart. Let's keep this between ourselves." In May 1994, when Jones went public and filed her lawsuit, and as Clinton issued a stern denial, his political operatives hit the airwaves and depicted her as lying trailer park trash.
A year after Jones filed her claim, Clinton's White House chief of staff hired 21-year-old Monica Lewinsky as an intern. Five months later, after Clinton espied her, they began a two-year sexual relationship. During this time Lewinsky transferred to the Pentagon where a coworker, Linda Tripp, befriended her. As the two women grew closer, Lewinsky shared with Tripp the intimate details of her continuing extracurricular romps with Clinton.
Meanwhile, on the Jones front, Clinton fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to keep the case from proceeding. When the Court ruled against Clinton, he knew that his sexual behavior would be subjected to heightened scrutiny, so he dumped Lewinsky. Lewinsky bemoaned to Tripp that Clinton had jilted her, and she continued sharing details of her relationship with the president, unaware that Tripp was now taping their conversations.
While preparing for trial, Jones' lawyers learned about Lewinsky through Tripp. This improved Jones' chances substantially: Before this discovery, their case revolved around the uncorroborated word of a nobody against that of the president of the United States. The Lewinsky factor gave Jones evidentiary corroboration of Clinton chumming for sexual favors with female subordinate employees. Jones' lawyers subpoenaed Lewinsky as well as all gifts exchanged between her and Clinton.
Undermining a court order to turn over those gifts, Clinton directed his White House secretary, Betty Currie, to go to Lewinsky's home and collect them. Currie drove to her home, fetched the gifts and then hid them under her own bed. Currie then called Vernon Jordan, a well-connected lawyer and Clinton intimate, and relayed that Clinton wanted him to find Lewinsky an out-of-town job. Jordan landed the inexperienced intern a well-paying position in New York with a corporation upon whose board of directors he sat.
Lewinsky discussed her upcoming testimony in the Jones case at least twice with Clinton. He coached her to lie when answering questions under oath. With Clinton's direct guidance, on Jan. 5, 1998, Lewinsky testified in the Jones case and declared under penalty of perjury that she never had a sexual relationship with him.
One week later Linda Tripp turned over to law enforcement the tapes she made of her conversations with Lewinsky, which revealed not only detailed accounts of the affair, but also how both Clinton and Vernon Jordan told her to lie under oath about it. On Jan. 16, Clinton's own attorney general ordered investigators assigned under the direction of former federal Judge Kenneth W. Starr to determine if Clinton used Lewinsky to suborn perjury and obstruct justice in the Jones lawsuit. Judge Starr's investigators intercepted and questioned Lewinsky, and then gave her immunity from perjury prosecution in exchange for her cooperation.
Clinton remained unaware that his Lewinsky scheme was now undone, so he went ahead with his plan to lie about their relationship during his own deposition testimony in the Jones case. Clinton understood that losing to Jones exposed him to more than personal and political humiliation – he might have to pay her millions of dollars in damages and legal fees out of his own pocket. Still, a financial hit was not his biggest risk. Public denials, if later proven untrue, might cost him popular support. If he lied under oath during his deposition testimony, he faced impeachment, felony criminal charges and potential imprisonment. Nobody had to explain this to the Yale-trained lawyer, constitutional law professor, former state attorney general and governor, and as president the only federal official charged by the U.S. Constitution to "take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed."
The table stakes for Clinton were high, but with Lewinsky's under-oath denial already on record, with Vernon Jordan having shuffled her out of town safely, and unaware that Linda Tripp had turned over the damning tapes, Clinton assumed he held the winning hand.
On Jan. 17, 1998, after taking an oath to tell the truth, Clinton pushed in all of his chips and called the dealer when he testified in the Jones case:
Q. Did you have an extramarital sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky?
Q. If she told someone that she had a sexual affair with you beginning in November of 1995, would that be a lie?
A. It's certainly not the truth. It would not be the truth.
Q. I think I used the term "sexual affair." And so the record is completely clear, have you ever had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky?
A. I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I've never had an affair with her. …
Q. At any time were you and Monica Lewinsky alone together in the Oval Office?
A. I don't recall. … It seems to me she brought things to me once or twice on the weekends. In that case, whatever time she would be there, [she'd] drop it off, exchange a few words and go.
Q. So your testimony is that it was possible that you were alone with her, but you have no specific recollection of that ever happening?
A. Yes, that is correct. It's possible that while she was working there, she brought something to me and that at the time she was the only person there. That's possible. …
Q. Have you ever met with Monica Lewinsky in the White House between the hours of midnight and 6 a.m.?
A. I certainly don't think so. Now, let me just say, when she was working there, there may have been a time when we were all working late. On any given night, when the Congress is in session, there are always several people around until late in the night, but I don't have any memory of that. I just can't say that there could have been a time when that occurred. I don't remember it.
Q. Certainly if it happened, nothing remarkable would have occurred?
A. No, nothing remarkable. I don't remember it. …
Clinton's cluelessness about his now-compromised Lewinsky perjury strategy was short-lived. On Jan. 19, after Newsweek magazine spiked their investigative reporter Michael Isikoff's story about the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship (Tripp had tipped off Isikoff previously), internet news maverick Matt Drudge broke it first. His scoop received almost no mainstream media attention for two days. Then, on Jan. 21, the story exploded across America's front pages.
The White House revved into uber-damage control mode. Clinton gave multiple interviews over the next few days in which he denied flatly any sexual relationship with Lewinsky. First lady Hillary Clinton rushed before television cameras and branded the Lewinsky story a lie concocted by a "vast right-wing conspiracy." In a now-iconic video clip, the president wagged his finger at America and intoned solemnly, "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. And I need to go back to work for the American people."
While the president and first lady worked the media, their political hatchet men planted stories with friendly reporters that Lewinsky had a White House reputation as an imbalanced stalker who kept throwing herself at the beleaguered president. As New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd later wrote, "Even some veteran Clinton henchmen felt a little nauseated about the debate inside the White House on a slander strategy for Lewinsky: Should they paint her as a friendly fantasist or a malicious stalker?" Incidentally, the ability to shred Lewinsky as a nut-job ended abruptly once Clinton learned that investigators possessed her blue dress stained by his telltale DNA.
Clinton's operation of lies and press manipulation worked: Americans believed their president. His poll numbers at first held steady, and then increased to a whopping 67 percent approval rating, allowing much-relieved congressional Democrats to defend him not just through the yearlong scandal and his later impeachment trial, but through the remainder of his term of office – and for years thereafter.
Did the Lewinsky story matter?
Was it, as congressional Democrats and the mainstream media sang in unison back then, "just about sex," and "a private indiscretion" that shouldn't count because, after all, "everybody lies about sex"? Or did it have a greater meaning?
It had a greater meaning. It wasn't about sex – it was about the rule of law.
By late 1998, Judge Starr's meticulous investigation proved beyond a doubt that Clinton committed serial acts of perjury, subornation of perjury and obstruction of justice to crush Paula Jones and her federal civil rights action against him – and most people yawned as they ignored the evidence. Clinton completed his term of office with a high approval rating he still enjoys today. Those people also didn't care (or care to know) that he avoided a post-presidency felony indictment for his criminal behavior by signing a plea bargain with prosecutors on his last day in office. In exchange for admitting that he lied under oath in the Jones case, surrendering his United States Supreme Court and Arkansas Supreme Court law licenses to avoid disbarment, paying the Arkansas court a $25,000 fine and agreeing to a five-year suspension of his state court law license, federal prosecutors agreed not to indict him. Earlier, Clinton also paid Paula Jones $850,000 to settle her lawsuit – without conceding her allegations.
Today, 20 years after sipping coffee while skimming that Washington Post article, I still wonder why people back then didn't care, but this confusion is not directed to my former congressional colleagues. Their behavior was predicated on indulging the polls, protecting Clinton's presidency and warding off collateral political damage caused by impeachment's overwhelming unpopularity.
No, my question isn't to them. It is to the 67 percent of you who, 20 years ago, tolerated, enabled and rewarded this repeated assault on the Constitution and the rule of law:
Why didn't you care?