Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky
It was the most infamous sex scandal in American history, and it nearly toppled an American president from power. Bill Clinton, 42nd president of the United States, engaged in a sexual relationship with a much younger woman, Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. After initially denying the relationship, the president was forced to admit that he had had sex with the young woman. American presidents had cheated on their wives either before or during their time in office—Warren G. Harding, John F. Kennedy, and Donald J. Trump are the most famous examples—but Clinton’s dalliance became grounds for an impeachment inquiry after he lied about the affair under oath.
I discuss this well-known episode in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History.
President Clinton’s behavior with Lewinsky was reckless beyond belief. Throughout his public life, he had been accused of extramarital episodes, some consensual and others not. When he entered the presidency in 1993, his life came under intense scrutiny unlike anything he had ever had before. To think that he would pursue a sexual relationship inside the White House and the affair would go undetected was simply unfathomable. Yet he did so, and as a result, he almost ruined his marriage and his political career.
The affair began in 1995. President Clinton and congressional Republicans had been fighting over provisions in the federal budget. The two sides forced a government shutdown, which necessitated most of the White House staff leaving the premises until the impasse was resolved. One of the few workers who remained was a 22-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Had the government shutdown not occurred, it is unlikely that she would have been able to approach President Clinton as she did in November 1995. A regular White House staffer probably would have blocked her access to the president.
One evening, Lewinsky brought a sheaf of papers to the Oval Office, where she found the president alone. According to Lewinsky, the two “made eye contact.” The following evening, she appeared again, and they exchanged glances. She smiled at him and made conversation. In a moment of candid flirtation, she lifted her skirt to show the president her thong underwear.
This was the pivotal moment. Clinton might have admonished her that she was in the White House and she must behave appropriately. Rebuffed, perhaps humiliated, she probably would have stayed away from Clinton. Alternatively, he could have said nothing, and simply ignored the gesture. Instead, he was intrigued, and he responded to her overtures. The married president guided the young intern to a secluded doorway, and they kissed. Before the encounter ended, Lewinsky performed oral sex on him.
For the next year and a half, Lewinsky visited the president in the White House on 9 or 10 occasions. It was important to keep the illicit relationship secret, and so the couple arranged the trysts late at night and on weekends when few people were around. Lewinsky later recalled performing oral sex on Clinton while the president spoke on the phone with a congressional leader. On another memorable occasion, he ate take-out pizza while she performed oral sex.
The relationship remained secret for many months, undoubtedly longer than it would have under normal circumstances. The government shutdown allowed Lewinsky and Clinton to steal away for furtive encounters during the early weeks, but soon the White House staff returned. It became much more difficult for Clinton and Lewinsky to find time alone. By April, several staffers expressed concern that the flirtatious Lewinsky was spending entirely too much time in the White House. Clinton’s more cynical advisers worried that their man was too easily subject to “bimbo eruptions,” that is, a willingness to seek sex from women he encountered.
In April 1996, staffers transferred Lewinsky to another government job. Someone asked United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson to interview her for a position on his staff. It was unusual for a lowly White House intern to meet with an ambassador, but Richardson agreed to the interview. He later offered Lewinsky a job, which she turned down. She eventually landed at the Pentagon, supposedly a well-deserved promotion. Lewinsky did not see it that way, of course. She correctly believed that the White House staff had banished her to the hinterlands in hopes of limiting her time with the president. She even complained to him about her situation.
Had Clinton and Lewinsky broken off the relationship when she landed at the Pentagon and told no one of the episodes, the matter might have concluded with no one else the wiser. Lewinsky was not easily dissuaded, however. She felt overcome by her feelings toward the handsome leader of the free world. She confided in her mother and as many as 10 friends about her trysts with Clinton. It was one friend, however, who betrayed that confidence.
Linda Tripp was a long-time government employee, almost a quarter century older than Monica Lewinsky. They met at the Pentagon not long after Lewinsky started working at her new job, sometime during the summer of 1996. Tripp had worked in the White House during both the George H. W. Bush administration as well as the Clinton administration, but, like Lewinsky, she had been banished to the Pentagon. Although the move resulted in a salary increase, Tripp missed her time near the center of power. She and Monica Lewinsky shared their resentment of moving out of the White House and across the river to the Defense Department.
Aside from talking at work, Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky talked on the phone. Typically, Lewinsky provided a running narrative with occasional prompts from Tripp. Unbeknownst to Lewinsky, Tripp began tape-recording the conversations. The older woman captured more than 20 hours of their sometimes-rambling exchanges. In moments of hurt and anger, Monica Lewinsky lashed out at Bill Clinton, referring to the man that jilted her as “the big creep.” Whether this was self-awareness that the president had abused her by taking advantage of a much younger, lovesick woman or merely expressions of temporary pique were open to debate. What was clear, however, was Lewinsky’s almost total recall of the episodes with Clinton.
Linda Tripp’s motives for tape-recording the call came under much subsequent scrutiny. She claimed that the recordings provided her with an insurance policy. Even in the early days of her relationship with Lewinsky, Tripp thought it was highly probable that the two women might have to testify about the Clinton affair. Linda Tripp had no first-hand knowledge of the affair; she had not witnessed the president and the intern in an uncompromising position. She would be testifying about what her young friend told her. The testimony would be based on hearsay. It would be easy to discredit her by insisting that she was mistaken or lying. With tape recordings in her possession, Tripp could corroborate any testimony with audio of Monica Lewinsky’s words.
Tripp’s explanation sounds opportunistic, but it might have been plausible were it not for her other actions after she spoke with Lewinsky. Tripp had met a politically conservative literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg, in the early 1990s. The two women became friends. Goldberg was a self-styled activist and, like many conservatives, fiercely critical of Bill Clinton’s administration as well as his personal life. After Lewinsky confided in her, Tripp discussed the admissions with Goldberg. Clinton’s penchant for sexual escapades was well known, but Lewinsky’s allegations were explosive because they had occurred while Clinton was president. The other episodes dated from the time before Clinton had moved to the White House.
The Lewinsky-Tripp conversations occurred while Clinton’s life and career were being investigated on multiple fronts. One high-profile case involved a young Arkansas woman, Paula Corbin Jones, who was suing Clinton for allegedly sexually harassing and assaulting her in a Little Rock hotel room in 1991. Her case had been hanging over his head for years. It might have disappeared, but for a group of zealous, politically conservative lawyers who seized on her allegations to score points against a president they despised. Clinton’s defense team argued that a sitting president could not be sued while serving in office, but the United States Supreme Court disagreed. The suit proceeded.
Jones’ legal team wanted to show a pattern of sexual abuse by Bill Clinton, especially when he was in a position of power over government employees. To demonstrate the pattern, they subpoenaed women they suspected Clinton had either harassed or had affairs with. Thanks to Linda Tripp and Lucianne Goldberg, Monica Lewinsky was on the list. On January 7, 1998, Lewinsky filed an affidavit with Jones’ lawyers insisting that she had never had sexual relations with Bill Clinton. Ten days later, Clinton provided a deposition that corroborated the information in her affidavit.
Jones’ lawyers tried to pin down the president during the deposition. One questioner asked, “Have you ever had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as that term is defined in Deposition Exhibit 1, as modified by the Court?” The definition read, “a person engages in sexual relations when the person knowingly engages in or causes contact with the genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks of any person with an intent to arouse or gratify the sexual desire of any person.” Using that definition, the president said that he had not had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. With both alleged participants presenting similar stories, in most cases the matter would have been concluded.
Yet a wrinkle developed in the case. Even before the Jones lawsuit advanced through the courts, a special three-judge division of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, acting on authorization provided by U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, appointed Kenneth Starr, a former solicitor general of the United States as well as former federal appellate court judge, to investigate the Whitewater affair, a failed real estate deal involving the Clintons in Arkansas. Independent Counsel Starr and his investigative team had spent three years digging through Whitewater and associated matters. They had found a complex, unseemly web of activities that demonstrated the propensity of elected officials to enjoy perquisites unavailable to average people, but they had uncovered no hard-and-fast evidence of criminality. Several ancillary matters, such as the Clintons’ decision to fire members of the White House Travel Office and the apparent suicide of the Clintons’ close friend Vince Foster, had convinced right-wing ideologues that the president and his wife were involved in massive conspiracies, but Starr could offer no support.
His investigation might have sputtered to an abrupt conclusion but for a telephone call that his office received on January 12, 1998. Linda Tripp called to tell the independent counsel that she possessed tapes of her conversations with a young woman who said she had engaged in a sexual affair with the president. This new information, if true, would breathe new life into a dying investigation. Within two hours of the call, six members of the independent counsel’s office, accompanied by a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent, arrived at Linda Tripp’s house to nail down what she knew and the evidence she had.
Investigators gleaned from Tripp’s tapes that Clinton and Lewinsky had had sexual relations, but they needed more information. Evidence of an affair between the president of the United States and a woman half his age in the White House would be politically explosive, but an affair by itself was not criminal conduct. Starr’s people needed more information, especially about whether the president had instructed anyone to lie under oath about the affair. Perjury was a criminal offense, and it was possible that the president was guilty of such a crime.
At the request of the Independent Counsel’s Office, Tripp arranged to meet with Monica Lewinsky at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel bar in Pentagon City, Virginia. To Lewinsky, it appeared to be an ordinary meeting between two friends. During their conversation, as they had discussed many times in the past, they spoke of the Lewinsky-Clinton affair. This time, however, Linda Tripp wore a wire that allowed the Office of Independent Counsel and the FBI to record the conversation. Their discussion that day confirmed what Tripp had told Starr: Monica Lewinsky had engaged in a sexual affair with the president of the United States—or at least she claimed to have done so.
Events moved quickly. Based on what he had learned from Tripp and the Lewinsky tapes, Starr contacted U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to request authorization to expand his probe. Presidents are reluctant to submit to independent investigations for exactly this reason. A probe that is initiated for one purpose—in this case, to chase down the details surrounding the Whitewater land deal—can expand to cover innumerable issues far beyond the original scope. Because the independent counsel had good reason to believe that subornation of perjury and obstruction of justice had occurred, Reno had little option but to submit the request to the three-judge panel of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. The judges authorized the expanded purview.
With legal authorization in hand, Starr and his team urged Linda Tripp to arrange a second meeting with Monica Lewinsky. They set it up for January 16, 1998. Once again, the two friends met at the Ritz-Carlton. This time, however, they did not trade gossip about “the big creep.” Instead, FBI agents and U.S. attorneys confronted Lewinsky. With no advance warning, they whisked her away to a nearby hotel room for a 12-hour interrogation.
Accounts differ as to what happened in the hotel room. The agents and attorneys claimed that they asked the questions they would ask any material witness in a federal investigation. Lewinsky screamed, cried, and threw a temper tantrum, they said. Monica Lewinsky claimed that she was badgered and forced to endure all manner of humiliation. When she asked to contact her mother, Lewinsky said that the agents belittled her, questioning why a woman her age would need to speak to her mother. Eventually, the agents relented, and Lewinsky placed the call.
Marcia Lewis was savvy enough to know that her daughter needed a lawyer to represent her. Before taking a train to Washington, D.C., to meet Lewinsky, Lewis contacted her ex-husband, Bernard Lewinsky, Monica’s father, and asked for his assistance. Dr. Lewinsky, a physician, was friends with William H. Ginsburg, a lawyer who specialized in medical malpractice cases. The doctor reached out to his friend, who agreed to represent Monica Lewinsky.
Back in the hotel room, the FBI and the U.S. Attorneys continued pressuring Monica Lewinsky to cooperate. They offered to grant her immunity if she would wear a wire and tape record President Clinton. It was a tempting offer. If he asked her to lie in a deposition or court proceeding, investigators would have compelling evidence of an impeachable offense. The plan went awry when William Ginsburg called to tell the authorities that he represented Ms. Lewinsky, and he insisted that the interview end until he could confer with his client.
Following Ginsburg’s appearance in the case, Starr’s office moved away from a full grant of immunity. The increasingly contentious negotiations dragged on for more than six months until the two sides reached a deal late in July 1998. Lewinsky would receive immunity in exchange for her grand jury testimony.
Even as the legal maneuvering stretched across the months, news that the president had engaged in an affair with a White House intern leaked out and, predictably, generated numerous headlines. Journalists besieged the Clinton White House asking for the president’s response. On January 26, 1998, in a soon-to-be-infamous on-camera statement, Clinton appeared at the podium and wagged his finger at the press. “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” he righteously proclaimed as his wife, Hillary, looked on. Recognizing that an admission at this point might jeopardize his presidency, Clinton had resolved to issue a blanket denial and hope he could withstand the coming onslaught.
It was certainly an onslaught. Clinton dragged his feet for months, but he could not avoid testifying under oath about his relationship with Lewinsky. His lawyers worked out a compromise where the president would be questioned in the White House rather than the grand jury room inside the federal courthouse. Moreover, the testimony could not last more than four hours. The president was a busy man, as everyone knew.
On Saturday, August 15, 1998, Clinton told his wife, Hillary, that he had lied about his relationship with Lewinsky, and he would have to admit it when he testified before the grand jury, lest he commit perjury. “She looked at me as if I had punched her in the gut,” Clinton wrote in his autobiography, My Life. The first lady was “almost as angry at me for lying to her in January as for what I had done.” He would have to admit his deception to his daughter, Chelsea, his staff, and cabinet, and to the American people as well. The president had few options but to act contrite and seek forgiveness for his transgressions.
He first had to get through his grand jury testimony. Two days after he confessed the affair to Hillary, President Clinton met interrogators in the Map Room of the White House while jurors watched the proceedings live on closed-circuit television. The Office of the Independent Counsel videotaped the testimony as well. Clinton kept his sometimes-volcanic temper in check, but he was uncomfortable with the explicit nature of the questions. In the president’s view, “Starr and his interrogators did their best to turn the videotape into a pornographic home movie, asking me questions designed to humiliate me and to so disgust the Congress and the American people that they would demand my resignation, after which he might be able to indict me.”
It was a predictably combative session as Clinton bobbed and weaved. Hoping to avoid a perjury charge, he repeatedly said he could not recall key facts. He acknowledged that his relationship with Lewinsky was improper, but he vehemently denied counseling anyone to lie. When pressed to explain why he concealed his relationship, he was blunt. “I did what people do when they do the wrong thing. I tried to do it when nobody else was looking.”
That night, Clinton addressed the American public to prepare them for the news that he had misled the country. “This afternoon in this room, from this chair, I testified before the Office of Independent Counsel and the grand jury,” he said at the outset of his four-and-a-half-minute speech. “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. 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.”
Having acknowledged his misconduct, the president insisted that he had never suborned perjury. “But I told the grand jury today and I say to you now that at no time did I ask anyone to lie, to hide or destroy evidence or to take any other unlawful action. I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that.”
The goal was to appear contrite and accept full responsibility for placing himself, his friends and family, and the American people in a terrible position, but Clinton could not leave it at that. He expressed his opinion that Kenneth Starr and his investigators were out of control. “The independent counsel investigation moved on to my staff and friends, then into my private life. And now the investigation itself is under investigation,” he said. “This has gone on too long, cost too much and hurt too many innocent people.”
The speech received mixed reviews. Even worse for Clinton, it did not stop the relentless interest in his situation. In the meantime, less than three weeks later, Kenneth Starr delivered his 445-page report to Congress. The original area of inquiry, the Whitewater land deal, was barely mentioned. Instead, the independent counsel focused on Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky, citing 11 possible grounds for impeachment involving perjury, obstruction of justice, witness tampering, and abuse of power.
The report became the subject of intense partisan debate. The president’s critics cited the lengthy summary of his behavior as evidence that he had engaged in impeachable conduct and cheapened the presidency. Clinton’s supporters argued that Starr included unnecessary details aimed at humiliating the president. By going far beyond the scope of his initial inquiry, the independent counsel had engaged in a fishing expedition to assist the Republican Party in its political vendetta against a Democratic president.
If Republicans hoped that the Starr report would assist them at the ballot box, they were in for a rude awakening. The Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich of Georgia, had predicted that his party would capture at least 30 House seats in the November 1998 midyear elections owing to voter outrage over Clinton’s conduct. It was a safe bet; the party that does not control the White House typically picks up seats in Congress in off-year elections. To the surprise of many, Republicans lost five House seats in 1998. A chastened Gingrich, who was widely regarded as the source of much anti-Republican feeling, resigned his congressional seat in response to the disappointing election results. Many Republicans who had been especially vehement in investigating Clinton soon found their own marital infidelities exposed and exploited in the tabloid press. It was a season of ultra-political hypocrisy in Washington, D.C.
Despite his party’s encouraging results at the ballot box, Bill Clinton was under no illusions. Republicans controlled the U.S. House of Representatives, and many Republicans detested him. The Starr report gave them the cover to institute impeachments proceedings, and that is exactly what they did, returning two articles of impeachment in December 1998. A simple majority of the House, 218 votes, was required to submit articles of impeachment to the United States for adjudication.
On December 11, 1998, the House Judiciary Committee voted three articles of impeachment against Clinton—one for perjury in the grand jury proceedings, a second for perjury in the Paula Jones lawsuit deposition, and a third for obstruction of justice. The next day, the committee added an article of impeachment for abuse of power.
The full House voted down two articles. By a vote of 229-205, House members rejected the charge that Clinton had committed perjury in the deposition he gave in the Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit. The full House also rejected the abuse of power article, this one by a 248-148 vote, with 81 Republicans crossing the aisle. That left two articles of impeachment to transfer to the Senate for trial.
Article One found that “On August 17, 1998, William Jefferson Clinton swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth before a federal grand jury of the United States. Contrary to that oath, William Jefferson Clinton willfully provided perjurious, false and misleading testimony to the grand jury….” It passed by a 228-206 vote, with five Democrats joining 223 Republicans in the final tally.
The second article alleged that Clinton had obstructed justice by making false statements under oath and by allowing his attorney to make false statements without correcting the record. The charge outlined seven instances when the president provided an affidavit, provided false or misleading testimony during a deposition, or lied in his grand jury testimony. His efforts and the efforts of his colleagues “to secure job assistance to a witness [i.e., Monica Lewinsky] in a Federal civil rights action brought against him in order to corruptly prevent the truthful testimony of that witness in that proceeding at a time when the truthful testimony of that witness would have been harmful to him” also figured into the obstruction of justice article.
Republicans controlled the Senate 55-45 when it took up the two articles of impeachment in January 1999. The United States Constitution requires a two-thirds vote to convict a high-ranking federal official of an impeachable offense, which meant that 67 or more senators would have to convict Clinton before he could be removed from office. The Founders deliberately made the bar high so that unpopular officials would not be chased from office for purely political reasons. Under this standard, it appeared unlikely that Clinton would be convicted and forced to leave the presidency. Nonetheless, his legal team left nothing to chance.
The impeachment managers, a dedicated group of Republican House members who had long opposed the president’s personal conduct as well as his public policies, argued that Clinton should be removed from office owing to “willful, premeditated, deliberate corruption of the nation's system of justice through perjury and obstruction of justice.” They carefully sifted through the misleading statements and inconsistencies in Clinton’s public pronouncements about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. Congressman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina offered perhaps the broadest view of impeachment. “You don’t even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role,” he said. “Impeachment is not about punishment. Impeachment is about cleansing the office. Impeachment is about restoring honor and integrity to the office.”
Clinton’s defenders contended that the grand jury testimony was replete with inconsistencies that muddied the waters, making a perjury case indefensible. The partisan wrangling had been so divisive that the case had been inalterably tainted. Accordingly, the impeachment managers had presented “an unsubstantiated, circumstantial case that does not meet the constitutional standard to remove the President from office.” Article II, Section 4 of the United States Constitution states that “The President, Vice President and all civil officers of the United States, shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” Although treason and bribery are not the only actions that constitute “high crimes and misdemeanors”—the text includes the word “other” to modify high crimes and misdemeanors—the implication is that the president’s behavior must rise to a high level of malfeasance. In short, his misconduct must imperil the health and vitality of the republic. Even if President Clinton lied under oath about a sexual relationship with a young woman less than half his age, such action is not akin to treason or bribery.
On February 8, 1999, each side presented closing arguments. White House counsel Charles Ruff stressed the seriousness of removing a duly elected president from office based on anything other than a clear-cut case of malfeasance that threatened the health of the country. Speaking for the House impeachment managers, Congressman Henry Hyde emphasized that lying under oath is a serious offense. “We have reduced lying under oath to a breach of etiquette, but only if you are the President,” he said. “And now let us all take our place in history on the side of honor, and, oh, yes, let right be done.”
The following day, the Senate sat in closed-door deliberations. The senators announced the final verdict on February 12, with the tally on the perjury charge 45 votes for conviction and 55 against. On obstruction of justice, the vote was 50 to 50. President Bill Clinton would not be removed from office.
Two hours after the verdict announcement, the president walked into the Rose Garden and issued a short statement. He said he was “profoundly sorry” for his conduct. “Now I ask all Americans, and I hope all Americans here in Washington and throughout our land, will rededicate ourselves to the work of serving our nation and building our future together. This can be and this must be a time of reconciliation and renewal for America.”
He took only one question: “In your heart, sir, can you forgive and forget?”
Evincing the contrition that sometimes caused skeptics to mock him with the wry comment “I feel your pain,” Clinton responded that “I believe any person who asks for forgiveness has to be prepared to give it.” He was ready to get back to work for the American people, he said. Following his acquittal, the 42nd president enjoyed some of the highest public approval ratings of his time in office.
Decades after its culmination, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair remains the most infamous sex scandal in American history. Presidents had cheated on their wives in the past, but Clinton lied about the affair under oath, adding another layer to the scandal. In addition, the times they were a-changin.’ So many presidents of the past had survived their peccadilloes because the press did not print stories about their escapades even when they were well known.
By the 1990s, the nature of the presidency—and the unwillingness of the press to turn a blind eye to presidential misbehavior—had changed. Whether the change is a positive or a negative feature of politics is open to debate. On one hand, if presidential character counts in the public’s approval or disapproval of a president, knowing about the chief magistrate’s extracurricular activities is vitally important. A man who recklessly cheats on his wife and hides other secrets may not be fit to hold high office. On the other hand, a person, even a president, should enjoy a measure of privacy. If he or she is not engaged in treason, bribery, or public malfeasance, the person ought not to be answerable for private conduct. Perhaps the person should answer to a spouse or to God, but not to the public. Holding presidents to an impossibly high standard only ensures that the American people will be continually disappointed in the performance of presidents who are all too human.