The Second Term - The year of unintended consequences

The story had actually begun in 1994, when Paula Corbin Jones, a former clerical worker for the state of Arkansas, filed a sexual harassment suit in federal district court in Arkansas. She alleged that in 1991, then-governor Clinton, catching sight of her at a public function, had sent a state trooper to invite her to a room at the Excelsior Hotel in Little Rock. Jones claimed Clinton exposed himself to her and suggested that she perform oral sex on him. Though Jones was not threatened with any reprisals when she refused, she nonetheless sued for recompense for her humiliation, pain, and fear of future reprisals. Clinton's lawyers appealed for the dismissal or postponement of the suit as an infringement on the attention and time of the president, from which the national interest might suffer, especially in a time of crisis. The counterargument was that a president could be in office for up to eight years. A reasonable plaintiff's case could be seriously damaged by such a delay—witnesses might die, recollections might fade, materials could be lost. The president was not blessed with "sovereign immunity" and was a citizen like any other.

The president, however, had a pragmatic argument on his side. Lawsuits against future presidents could become a potent political weapon. If well-heeled opponents could finance one frivolous suit after another, they could destroy a president's public reputation and his effectiveness. And in fact, in her legal battle against Clinton, Jones was receiving financial support from several wealthy backers including Richard Scaife, who was outspoken in his dislike of the president on both personal and political terms.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1997 decided that the Jones lawsuit could go forward, and so opened the gate into a steadily widening labyrinth. Jones's lawyers were now entitled to attempt to establish a "pattern of conduct" in Clinton's past that would lend credibility to her accusation. They began to collect and probe every rumor of Clinton's past sexual dalliances, and in the process encountered the name of a young woman named Monica Lewinsky, who had been a White House intern in 1995 and 1996. Lewinsky had confided in telephone conversations to a coworker and presumed friend, Linda Tripp, that she had what she thought of as a love affair with the president, including clandestine sexual encounters in the White House and exchanges of gifts. Unknown to Lewinsky, Tripp taped the calls, and the tapes eventually found their way into the hands of Kenneth Starr, the Whitewater special prosecutor, and also, possibly improperly, into those of Jones's attorneys.

The Jones legal team now compelled Clinton to answer questions about Lewinsky. In his deposition in 1998, he denied having had sexual relations with her, which she confirmed by affidavit. Starr's office, with proof in hand that the denials were false, now had a powerful weapon to deploy. Illicit presidential sex was shameful but not a crime deserving special prosecution. But if a chief executive sworn to uphold the law lied under oath, it was an assault on the judicial system itself. Starr now sought permission from the attorney general to add the alleged perjury to the list of charges under his scrutiny. Reno, already under fire for refusing to launch a new special investigation into White House fund-raising, had little choice but to acquiesce.

The trap began to close. Starr summoned witnesses from the White House personnel rosters, including Lewinsky, who at first refused to testify on grounds of self-incrimination. Clinton himself had been busy at the time of the Jones deposition, discussing with Lewinsky what she might say to explain their meetings, trying to arrange a corporate job for her through his political friend Vernon Jordan, and involving his secretary Betty Currie, both in cover stories and in helping to conceal gifts he had given Lewinsky. These actions could be seen as attempts to obstruct justice.

While the legal machinery whirred and clanked, Clinton had to deal with the public relations and political firestorm ignited when the story hit the media. The president informed his advisers and cabinet, and then went on television to tell the nation—wagging his finger for emphasis—that he "did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." Through the spring, the rumors swarmed and suppurated, overshadowing all else. A break seemed to fall the president's way in April 1998 when the Jones suit was dismissed in a lower court as unwarranted, since no harm to the plaintiff was proven. But it was too late to save him from two shattering revelations in July and August. On 28 July, under a grant of immunity by Starr's office, Lewinsky agreed to testify. In an appearance before a federal grand jury convened by Starr, she reversed her original denial and confirmed a relationship with Clinton in abundant detail. To clinch matters, she produced a dress she had worn at one of the trysts, never cleaned and still carrying a smear of dried semen. Under court order, the president of the United States on 30 August provided a sample of his DNA from scrapings inside his cheek. The laboratory report brought the devastating and cold truth. DNA matches showed the semen to be Bill Clinton's.

Now Clinton was called on to testify. After long negotiations it was agreed that he could be deposed in the White House on videotape that was carried on a closed circuit to the grand jury. In four hours of grilling by Starr's staff, Clinton split hairs and haggled over words to prove that he had not actually lied in the Jones case, since he had never really "had sex" with Lewinsky as he understood the term. (His understanding seemed to be limited to conventional intercourse.)

But the legalistic bobbing and weaving, designed to avert a criminal prosecution, did not get to the heart of Clinton's personal behavior. He had lied to his closest associates, who innocently repeated his lies to others. He had lied to his wife. And he had lied to the country.

Questions buzzed in Washington's muggy mid-August air. What would Clinton do? What would the people think? What was the duty of Congress? What direction would both political parties take? Were these impeachable offenses? If not, could they merely be overlooked, without appalling consequences to faith in law and leadership? No one had firm answers; strategies were evolved on the fly, and events seemed to unfold without any sense of direction.

The situation was unprecedented. For the third time in twenty-four years the country was facing the possible ouster of an elected president. But Watergate (1974) and Iran-Contra (1987) had been resolved short of an actual Senate trial. Nixon resigned on the advice of senior Republican senators, and in 1987 Democrats had tacitly agreed to make Reagan's subordinates, not the president himself, the target.

But at least three elements made 1998 different. The first was Clinton's determination to fight it out. He remains something of a riddle—the protean personality who could be a Rhodes scholar and "policy wonk," yet have irresistible popular appeal on the campaign trail. The practical politician with an unusual ability to focus on the issues he thought of as central, but who had a violent temper, a streak of gluttony, and a reckless compulsion to sexual adventure. In a strange way, he resembled Richard Nixon. Inner demons (of different kinds) seemed to drive both these men of calculating intelligence into self-destructive behavior better explained by psychiatry than political science. Yet both their stories carried a clear political message: Because of the power of the modern presidency, the office and the nation can be significantly at risk when the conduct of the chief magistrate is unbecoming, let alone unethical or illegal.

A second new element was the information revolution. Clinton was no more goatish, according to fairly well-established evidence, than John F. Kennedy. And surely there were presidents in the past guilty of sexual indiscretions during their tenure. But earlier journalistic codes kept a bright line between the personal and public doings of officeholders. Alcoholics, homosexuals, and philanderers remained "in the closet" even when insiders knew the truth. It was not entirely a matter of ethics. Major newspapers and media outlets were themselves institutions with a built-in interest in good relations with government and the stability of the system of contacts and access. But by the 1990s there was a general frankness about sexual matters that loosened previous inhibitions on reporting subjects once considered "not fit to print." Television talk shows and "celebrity" magazines had democratized gossip and even made disdain for it appear somewhat "elitist."

And then there was the Internet. Any rumor could be posted either in an officially recognized Web magazine or by an independent operator un-afraid of libel suits. What should the editors of establishment newspapers, newsmagazines, and news networks do when made aware of such stories? They could, of course, ignore them. But if competitors broke the story, the righteous self-deniers could lose audiences to their rivals, and that was a fearsome prospect. The media themselves had become gigantic business enterprises, often absorbed into mega-corporations with interests in many diverse operations. With large amounts of capital invested in "information packaging," risks could not be taken with the bottom line. So, the "respectable" press, when confronted with the latest "dirt," could not, or at least did not, turn up a fastidious nose. It followed the story, and by that very act elevated it to news-worthiness. By the spring of 1998, the daily output of "Monica" speculation was legitimate news, devouring time and space that might have gone to covering other aspects of the presidency.

Finally, politics in the 1990s had become darker. It was, after all, only four years since the so-called Republican revolution, and Gingrich had risen to the top by utilizing aggressive personal attacks on the Democrats and their electoral base. He had engineered the removal of longtime Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright in 1989 over ethics violations, a feat that he and other Republicans regarded as a pay-back for Watergate. The new Republican majority in Congress also contained a number of ardent social and religious conservatives, convinced that Clinton and the Democrats were destroying the America of patriotism, piety, and "family values" that they cherished. Democrats responded with their own resentments. There was poison in the air.

And so the lines were drawn and passions prevailed. And each irreversible step contrived to shift a simple, distasteful sex scandal into a major constitutional confrontation.

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