“Soooo sensual…. I mean, he’s just so sensual!”
— Monica Lewinsky to Barbara Walters on her relationship with Bill Clinton
It was this time 18 years ago, September 1998, that a media circus erupted over the release of the Starr Report disclosing President Bill Clinton’s scandalous escapades with a White House intern who served as his personal plaything in the Oval Office.
“Monica Lewinsky began her White House employment as an intern in the Chief of Staff’s office in July 1995,” recorded the Starr Report. “At White House functions in the following months, she made eye contact with the President. During the November 1995 government shutdown, the President invited her to his private study, where they kissed. Later that evening, they had a more intimate sexual encounter. They had another sexual encounter two days later, and a third one on New Year’s Eve.”
More details came quickly, as the media followed up with some digging of its own. A September 14, 1998 piece in the New York Times reported: “The first sexual encounter took place late in a day in which Mr. Clinton signed a ‘Family Week’ proclamation…. He saw Ms. Lewinsky working alone in an aide’s office, invited her into the Oval Office and began with a kiss.”
Family Week at the Clinton White House
The actual scandal had broken much earlier, at the start of the year. In January 1998, word first broke that the 42nd president was guilty of a physical relationship w ith no less than a White House intern, a California girl. The affair had allegedly gone on for quite some time, and amid ever-present suspicions of other Clinton sexual improprieties — first revealed at length by the groundbreaking investigative reporting of The American Spectator in late 1993. All along, one Hillary Rodham Clinton would defend her husband, chalking up the allegations to a nefarious conservative cabal that included our good friends here at this august publication.
Of course, the cabal was, in fact, accurately reporting the reality that Hillary’s husband had a serious problem keeping his clothes on around attractive women. The cabal also duly noted that Mrs. Clinton had an unseemly habit of looking the other way if not ridiculing and contributing to the ruin of his female accusers.
This latest allegation, however, was especially alarming. It had occurred on-the-job for Bill, and was about to be confirmed, and to explode, eventually all the way to a grand jury.
Naturally, Bill initially figured he could dodge this one as well. The story had been blown open by Matt Drudge and other sources on January 7, 1998, as Hillary was happily announcing with her husband a new day-care initiative of which she was proud. She had taken on few such initiatives since her national-healthcare debacle in 1993-94. The Hillary-care fiasco had sent her into hiding, kept largely away from White House policy for nearly five years. But now, she was ready to seize the initiative. It was her time.
Well, almost. Bad boy Bill had screwed up things once again.
On January 21, 1998, the intern story mushroomed, as the exceptionally fair Jim Lehrer of PBS’s The NewsHour intrepidly asked the fearless president about the Lewinsky matter. In that interview, Bill Clinton insisted, “There is no improper relationship…. There is not a sexual relationship.” But the issue intensified on websites and talk-radio before coming to a head on January 26, 1998, when Bill stood before the press, conjured up a stern look of earnestness, shook his finger, and said almost believably, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
I will never forget that visual. I remember immediately telling my wife that I intuitively felt bad for Clinton, given that he seemed like he really was telling the truth. I say seemed, because rational observers knew better — certainly those associates of The American Spectator.
The president’s performance was impressive, calling to mind the memorable assessment by fellow Democrat, Senator Bob Kerrey (D-Nebraska), who once remarked: “Clinton’s an unusually good liar. Unusually good. Do you realize that?”
Yes, we did realize it. And this denial, too, was well done. But it was a lie, a zinger of a falsehood that even his wife had seemed to have perhaps bought, and at least aided and abetted. Did she ever. The next day, January 27, Hillary Rodham Clinton uttered those unforgettable words, claiming there was a “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to get her husband.
“I do believe that this is a battle,” she stoically told NBC’s Matt Lauer, as she donned her political combat gear. “I mean, look at the very people who are involved in this — they have popped up in other settings. This is — the great story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it — is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.”
The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy — Poor Bill, Poor Hillary
Bill’s little lady had been furious when the Arkansas state troopers who had protected the governor in the 1980s spilled the beans on his tawdry behavior (and hers, too, allegedly) to The American Spectator early in the Clinton presidency. Now, however, according to a piece by Jonathan Alter in Newsweek, she had “honestly believed” that her husband had changed his ways once they arrived in Washington — as did tens of millions of other gullible liberals who voted for the man. Thus, reported Alter, when the Lewinsky story appeared, Hillary told friends that it was false — a product of the same conservative pipeline of “conspiracy” as before.
This time, however, Bill’s bluff was called. There was evidence for this malfeasance, it turned out. Bill himself had provided it. A sensational disclosure followed: Bill had deposited his semen on Monica’s clothing, and the feds had the dress. In July, the FBI began doing tests on semen stains on a blue dress worn by the college girl during one of her sessions with the president in the Oval Office. The evidence reportedly confirmed the presidential sexual act.
Bill Clinton could not fib his way out of that one. DNA was DNA. Bill had literally been caught with his pants down.
The next bombshell in the Clinton soap opera hit on August 17, 1998, with Bill giving a public admission in a primetime speech on national television.
The speech was hardly a tell-all. Bill Clinton was the master of the parsed word. The way he phrased his confession, conceding merely a “lapse in judgment,” could have allowed for only a single sexual act. That was all he needed to admit, since there was — after all — only one set of stains. Moreover, he used the speech to take the offensive against Kenneth Starr, the official independent counsel demanded by Congress and authorized by the Clinton Justice Department to investigate whether Clinton had committed perjury.
Yep, Ken Starr…. Yes, dear liberals, now there was a reprobate! With Alinsky-like zeal, the Clintons and the left found their target, isolated it, and demonized it: the man most guilty in all of this — or at least most deserving of scorn, most repulsive, most inappropriate — was the odious Ken Starr. All liberal eyes and knives were to be pointed in his direction.
The left now had someone whose ethics and morality they could heartily condemn. In Kenneth Starr, liberals had their dirtiest villain since Joe McCarthy. Indeed, liberals began inventing lovely new terms, accusing Starr and his league of Republican bandits of a “sexual McCarthyism.” Could there be a more heinous sin?
Bill Clinton was one of the stone-casters. He was damned angry — not at himself and his behavior, it seemed, but at Ken Starr. What a bad man this Ken Starr was. What a disgrace. His very name was now a national pejorative in the liberal lexicon, pronounced slowly and grimly for emphasis: Ken Staaarrr.
Of course, Bill’s speech that evening was the real disgrace. Presidential historian Michael Beschloss said that he “hated to admit it,” but the speech sounded like Richard Nixon in the middle of Watergate, in denial and not taking full responsibility, blaming others. Chris Matthews opined that Bill Clinton “didn’t decide to tell the truth, he got caught.”
Even former close Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos agreed, stating that the president did not satisfy nor end the questions, quite the contrary. That was quite a concession. It was Stephanopoulos, recall, who had been at the Clintons’ side during the 1992 campaign when Hillary stood by her man during their 60 Minutes ruse — one of their first stellar public denials of Bill’s chronic problem; that is, his inability to control his clothing in the presence of certain women.
To be sure, President Clinton in that August 1998 speech did say that he was “solely and completely responsible,” though that seemingly stand-up statement fell by the wayside as he tore into the villainous Starr, the now-infamous “independent counsel.” He did admit, “I misled people, including my wife. I deeply regret that.”
Hillary reportedly first learned the truth from the lawyers, not her husband. Surely, Bill did not want to be within a 100 yards of a flying frying pan when Hillary heard the truth about this whopper. She then began absorbing the treacherous details as they were published widely in the press, namely:
There had been 18 months of gifts and at least a half-dozen sexual encounters between Bill and Monica, one while POTUS was on the phone with a member of Congress conducting the business of the state. Another chilling incident occurred with Bill using a favorite cigar as a sexual instrument. They transpired between November 15, 1995 and March 29, 1997, including the peak of Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign. (Talk about brazen, eh?)
Yes, the first sexual encounter had indeed taken place on the same day that Clinton signed a “Family Week” proclamation. On November 15, Lewinsky, walking through the hall on her way to the ladies’ room, spotted the president of the United States and greeted him by lifting her jacket to show him the straps of her thong underwear — what the girl later winsomely described as a “little smile.” This was a curiously primal means of Clinton-Oval Office communication with the interns. Hillary’s husband was intrigued, and invited the intern back to his office. That was where it all began.
The public joined Hillary in learning the details of the spectacle, as the Starr Report became public in September 1998. Among the most shocking encounters reported: Easter Sunday, April 7, 1996.
Commerce Secretary Ron Brown had died in a plane crash mere days before. Clinton was reportedly grieving the loss. And yet, the Ron Brown issue became a scandal in many ways, including when Rush Limbaugh obtained footage of Bill grinning and chuckling outside Brown’s funeral, only to instantly put on a saddened, austere look of feigned, forced solemnity the moment he noticed that a camera was recording his expressions. At the time, Limbaugh had a syndicated television show in addition to his radio show, allowing him to air the footage on national television (click here to watch).
That Easter Sunday, Bill was in the Oval Office all afternoon, from 2:21 to 7:48 PM. He telephoned Monica at her home, clearly in need — of something. He told her to come to the White House. When she got there, she told the secret service officer that she needed to deliver papers to the president. The officer admitted her to the Oval Office. It was 4:56 PM.
The intern and the president proceeded to the private study. They spoke briefly, and then went into the hallway, where they had, as the Starr Report called it, a “sexual encounter,” which the report described vividly. But they did not finish. An unidentified “someone” hollered from the Oval Office to the president, telling Hillary’s husband that he had a phone call. He took Monica back to the office with him, and asked her to continue giving him oral sex while he spoke on the phone, which she did. Lewinsky told Starr’s investigators that she thought the caller might have been Dick Morris. When the investigators checked the phone logs, they found that Clinton had in fact spoken to “Richard Morris” from 5:11 to 5:20 PM that day. All of the details offered by Lewinsky checked out. More action followed, including during another subsequent phone call.
Monica was finished by 5:28 PM — Easter Sunday.
A few million Americans read that excerpted section from the Starr Report in their weekly copy of Time magazine. A few million more read the lengthy account in the September 14, 1998 New York Times. Another million or so read about in their morning Washington Post, or weekly U.S. News & World Report, or Newsweek, or wherever. It was everywhere.
Still more and more information followed, including reports of the many occasions of “phone sex,” which the young Monica was excited to share with Barbara Walters in an exclusive and widely watched interview on ABC:
Barbara: “Monica, phone sex?”
Monica: “It’s fun!”
A beaming Monica told Barbara about how the president was “soooo sensual…. I mean, he’s just so sensual!” Barbara asked Monica if what she did for Hillary’s husband was technically considered “sex,” an important legal question, since many feared that the master of the parsed word would claim he had not committed perjury when he denied a “sexual” relationship with the intern. Monica said no. “Then what is it?” yelled an incredulous Walters. Said Monica: “Oh, that’s just fooling around!”
Just when some people might have considered this a perverse form of comic relief, even as it gravely belittled the stature of the Oval Office, Monica then said something that only a young, naïve girl would have said, and which then turned smirks into frowns at the utter sadness of it all: She told Barbara that her presidential boyfriend had confided in her that he “might be alone in three years,” referring to the prospects of Hillary dumping him. Yes, Hillary divorcing him.
That, of course, never happened.
And what was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s reaction to all of this?
It is hard to say. Her aides and surrogates told the press that she was deeply embarrassed, devastated. Yes, she probably was — but was she surprised? And was she embarrassed that her husband had done this to her, or merely that these facts became public knowledge?
Unquestionably, the face of feminism — of which she was supposedly the embodiment — was a laughing stock, humiliated by a man, by Hillary’s spouse, by Monica’s bad boy. Hillary had become, said columnist Gail Sheehy, the world’s most publicly degraded wife.
Yet, as Jonathan Alter and others noted, Hillary’s “disappointment” in Bill seemed as much political as personal. Wrote Alter: “She is said to believe that her husband betrayed not just her and Chelsea, but much of what they have worked together to build.”
That was certainly true. Bill had violated what they had worked together to build — a political edifice. To this day, the phrase that best describes the Clintons was the one coined by biographer Roger Morris over 20 years ago: they are “partners in power.”
Each one has tolerated and used the other as a ticket to power. Their marriage has always been a political partnership that transcends the marital relationship.
Now, in September 2016, the Clintons once again eye up the Oval Office, preparing for more family weeks in the White House. This time, the roles would be reversed, with First Lady Hillary Clinton as President Clinton and with former President Bill Clinton as First Man — and with Bill truly having more free rein than ever before. The interns would need to be under constant surveillance.
This time, Bill campaigns for Hillary. At the Democratic convention in Philadelphia he gave a sappy statement about his idyllic relationship with Hillary, a typically slimy Clintonian piece of incredulous political propaganda that only a liberal could swallow. This past week, Bill has started to hit hard the swing states that Hillary needs to carry in November against The Donald.
The Clintons are back, and poised to once again be unleashed upon America’s first house. Are Americans willing to live this spectacle again?
This article is adapted from Mr. Kengor’s 2007 book God and Hillary Clinton (HarperCollins).