The Impeachment of Bill Clinton — 20 Years Later
It was 20 years ago this month that the House of Representatives impeached President Bill Clinton. The vote took place December 19, 1998, with two of four articles approved by the House, the first on grounds that Clinton had lied to a grand jury (228-206), and the second on grounds that Clinton had obstructed justice (221-212). He became only the second president (the other in 1868) to be impeached.
At the start of the year, January 17, 1998, Clinton had given a sworn deposition flatly denying a “sexual relationship,” “sexual affair,” or “sexual relations” with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. The deposition took six hours, producing a transcript of 215 pages. Among the curiosities was the president’s striking amnesia over seven women listed as various Jane Does. All were women that William Jefferson Clinton, retroactive official Father of the MeToo Movement, employed as sexual receptacles — on company time, and usually with the assistance of the state and its workers. The deposition included sundry, complex discourses over what the master of the parsed word considered to be “sexual relations,” particularly in regard to the soon-to-be-famous “Ms. Jane Doe 6.”
“I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky,” Clinton told Judge Susan Webber Wright, in a rehearsal of what was soon to be said to a much larger audience. It was impeccably, effortlessly Clintonian. Judge Wright surely blushed a hundred times during this whopper of a conversation. “I’ve never had an affair with her,” the former Arkansas governor assured the judge, while continuing to wax philosophical on the definition of sexual relations.
Held in private, Americans missed out on this spectacle. But they would be treated to the full Clinton nine days later.
So it came to pass that, on January 26, speaking in the Roosevelt Room at the White House, Bill Clinton doubled down, this time for all the world to see. It would be the signature moment of a perverse presidency. When we think of Ronald Reagan, we think of “Tear down this wall.” When we think of John F. Kennedy, we think of “Ask not what.” When we think of Bill Clinton, it was his notorious words on this day that remain seared in our collective memory of the Man from Hope.
Speaking at 10:37 a.m., Bill was, in a stroke of supreme irony, flanked by Al Gore to his left and Hillary to his right. (Who says the devil doesn’t have a sense of humor?) Clinton began the occasion with glee. “Thank you very much,” were his opening words to a room of supporters gathered to celebrate his and Hillary’s and Gore’s new after-school initiative for America’s children. “Let me thank all of you who are here,” said the grateful president. “Many of us have been working together now for 20 years on a lot of these issues, and this is a very happy day for us.” He proceeded to “thank the First Lady” and then Al Gore and Tipper Gore for their work for America’s families.
Clinton smiled throughout the performance before wrapping up on a stern note. After about a dozen references to keeping America’s youth “healthy and happy and safe,” the president turned serious. He pivoted to a sober statement about some woman — “that woman.”
News of that woman had been the subject of intense rumors in the press. Standing at the presidential dais and wedged between his wife and vice president, Clinton glared:
Now, I have to go back to work on my State of the Union speech. And I worked on it until pretty late last night. But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me…. 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.
With that, the 42nd president stomped away, a smiling, satisfied Hillary marching behind him, an inspired, satisfied Al Gore walking aside him. The president’s performance was impressive, calling to mind a trenchant assessment of him by fellow Democrat, Nebraska Senator Bob Kerry: “Clinton’s an unusually good liar. Unusually good.”
He almost looked like he was telling the truth. I remember it like yesterday. Staring at the television, I said to my wife, “I actually sort of feel bad for him. He really looked sincere.”
But I knew better. I knew better because I had read The American Spectator. And like thousands, no, surely more like millions, I had read the TAS bombshell reports on the Clintons published in 1994. Not only had those jaw-dropping articles described precisely this sort of Bill Clinton, but they effectively presaged the blow-ups of 1998.
It was in those pieces in The American Spectator that the process leading to impeachment began.
“We lied for him and helped him cheat on his wife”
The impeachment of Bill Clinton began not with that woman Monica but with another woman named Paula; actually, with a wider flock of Monicas and Paulas scattered throughout Arkansas. The formal process that would lead to Clinton’s impeachment started with Paula Jones as the plaintiff in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas Western Division, with Monica Lewinsky’s name appearing on Jones’ witness list on December 5, 1997.
The faces and names from the past of Boy Clinton, as R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. forever christened him, were finally coming back to haunt him. Monica’s name in Paula’s suit was the tawdry consummation of Bill Clinton’s behavior eventually catching up with him.
The behavior had been revealed years earlier.
The breakthrough reporting that exposed such conduct, exposing a man with an almost pathological tendency to expose himself, began in The American Spectator. The reporting in TAS throughout the 1990s was consistently unlike anything one could learn elsewhere about the Clintons and the surreal world that was Arkansas. It was a state where, as TAS editor Tyrrell would report (quoting an FBI agent on the ground), “not more than 1,000 people count in Arkansas, and in that number only 100 or so really count.”
And none counted like the Boy-King and his partner in power, or, as TAS labeled her in an August 1992 piece, “The Lady Macbeth of Little Rock.”
Recounting all of those articles here would be too much, but two in particular stood out in the day and over time: the first was David Brock’s “Living With the Clintons” (January 1994), followed by Daniel Wattenberg’s “Love and Hate in Arkansas” (April/May 1994).
They remain remarkable pieces of investigative journalism, with so many lines downright prescient in forecasting what Clinton would do with Monica and how he would obstruct justice and get himself impeached. I remembered much of the content, but to go back and reread them is a voyage back to a cheap, distasteful, Arkansas-ugly political Twilight Zone I had wanted to never return to again.
The Brock piece was a tour de force, soon discussed everywhere inside the Beltway and across the nation. To this day it makes for riveting reading, titillating while fascinating, sensational yet informational, and utterly predictive of the self-destructive events that would unfold over the next four years in the Bush-Reagan home converted into the Clinton crazy house at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
The details of the articles are too many and too rich to requote here, though I urge every reader to later click the hyperlinks and read from start to finish. What they show about Bill Clinton is bad enough, and what they likewise tell about Hillary is also shocking, from her horribly foul mouth to the longstanding allegations — based on eyewitness, on-the-record testimony by the state troopers — that she and Vince Foster had a running affair.
“I remember one time when Bill had been quoted in the morning paper saying something she didn’t like,” said one of the troopers, Larry Patterson. “I came into the mansion and he was standing at the top of the stairs and she was standing at the bottom screaming. She has a garbage mouth on her, and she was calling him motherf—er, c—sucker, and everything else. I went into the kitchen, and the cook, Miss Emma, turned to me and said, ‘The devil’s in that woman.’”
This account of Hillary is far from atypical.
Brock spent over 30 hours interviewing four state troopers, two of which, Larry Patterson and Roger Perry, courageously went on the record with breathtaking candor. It is crucial to understand that these Arkansas troopers — in both the Brock and Wattenberg articles — were not a bunch of bumpkins who had just rolled off the turnip truck. They were the cream of the crop, among the highest ranking in the state, with decades of veteran experience.
“We lied for him and helped him cheat on his wife,” said Patterson of Bill Clinton, “and he treated us like dogs.”
He treated them worse than that. Does your dog pimp for you?
“The troopers said their ‘official’ duties included facilitating Clinton’s cheating on his wife,” wrote Brock. “This meant that, on the state payroll and using state time, vehicles, and resources, they were instructed by Clinton on a regular basis to approach women and to solicit their telephone numbers for the governor; to drive him in state vehicles to rendezvous points and guard him during sexual encounters; to secure hotel rooms and other meeting places for sex; to lend Clinton their state cars so he could slip away and visit women unnoticed; to deliver gifts from Clinton to various women (some of whom, like [Gennifer] Flowers, had state jobs); and to help Clinton cover up his activities by keeping tabs on Hillary’s whereabouts and lying to Hillary about her husband’s whereabouts.”
The Brock article gave multiple examples in graphic detail, as did the Wattenberg article, which vividly told the story of trooper L.D. Brown, who was tight with Bill and Hillary, and was president of the Arkansas troopers’ association. (Larry Patterson was his vice president.)
Brown had probably more eyewitness stories than Patterson and Perry. He would say of one Clinton woman whose name he was asked to recall, “I don’t remember [her] name. But, my God, it was so many times. I mean, good grief!”
In the Wattenberg piece on Brown, there is this prophetic assessment, forecasting Clinton’s politically suicidal behavior with Monica a decade later: “In Brown’s retelling, Clinton emerges as a kind of yuppie Willie Stark, simultaneously aspiring to the dizzying heights of political office and fatally compromised by his personal conduct.”
Similarly, there was a particularly prescient passage in the Brock piece, where Larry Patterson recalled what would soon become a classic in Clinton lore. Clinton had just finished fulfilling himself with one of his women. He justified it to Patterson: “he told me that he had researched the subject in the Bible and oral sex isn’t considered adultery.”
Patterson, sharing that whopper with David Brock in late 1993, could not have imagined that Clinton would shovel that same bilge to the public during the Monica outburst in 1998. It would depend on what the definition of is is, or what oral sex is, or, well, whatever. Quintessential Clinton.
But for the purposes of this retrospective on the Clinton impeachment, the crucial item from the two articles appeared on page 26 of the Brock piece:
One of the troopers told the story of how Clinton had eyed a woman at a reception at the Excelsior Hotel in downtown Little Rock. According to the trooper, who told the story to both Patterson and Perry as well, Clinton asked him to approach the woman, whom the trooper remembered only as Paula, to tell her how attractive the governor thought she was, and take her to a room in the hotel where Clinton would be waiting. As the troopers explained it, the standard procedure in a case like this was for one of them to inform the hotel that the governor needed a room for a short time because he was expecting an important call from the White House. (Not a terribly plausible story during the Reagan and Bush years, but it seemed to work like a charm with hotel clerks in Arkansas.) On this particular evening, after her encounter with Clinton, which lasted no more than an hour as the trooper stood by in the hall, the trooper said Paula told him she was available to be Clinton’s regular girlfriend if he so desired.
The unnamed trooper in this section was Danny Ferguson. The partly named “Paula” was Paula Jones. From that one paragraph, sparks would fly that would eventually ignite the impeachment of a president.
“A devastating piece”
Before picking up with the Jones-Ferguson focus, consider the overall impact of the Brock and Wattenberg pieces.
Brock’s revelations lit a firestorm. Even liberals had to figure that if merely half the material on Bill was true, then Americans had elected themselves a president not only morally messed up, but emotionally, perhaps psychologically, and legally. Clinton’s serial mistreatment of women was scandalous.
“It was a devastating piece,” remembers Wlady Pleszczynski, longtime managing editor of The American Spectator. He recalls how Brock and TAS had been able to scoop the Los Angeles Times, which likewise was pursuing the Clintons’ Arkansas shenanigans in an investigative effort by star reporters Bill Rempel and Douglas Frantz, until the Times’ editors pulled the plug at the last minute. This allowed the mighty West Coast newspaper with a circulation of several million to get beat by a conservative magazine with a sliver of its subscribers.
As for David Brock, says Pleszczynski, “he did a terrific job with the piece. It was beautifully written. He was a real pro.” Pleszczynski notes the Brock not only did his homework journalistically but historically. He consulted historian Richard Reeves’ biography of John F. Kennedy, which had recently laid out how JFK (an idol of Bill Clinton) had used his secret service agents to procure women and watch out for Mrs. Kennedy. But there was more to the parallel, as Brock insightfully noted:
This past September , President Clinton summoned journalist Richard Reeves, the author of the recent biography President Kennedy, to the White House to discuss his book. Reeves writes of how Kennedy and his handlers worked hard to keep stories of the president’s womanizing out of the papers, much as the Clinton campaign would do some thirty years later.
Bingo. It was a remarkable resemblance to Boy Clinton’s modus operandi. Clinton ruminated not only on JFK’s women but on how JFK and his protectors and enablers concealed those women and hoodwinked their press pals.
Pleszczynski observed firsthand the journalistic integrity of Brock, not to mention the TAS editors, contrary to how the liberal media would portray Brock and the magazine. “Brock had seven or eight women identified by name,” says Pleszczynski. “But we weren’t going to name names.”
The piece did, however, include Paula’s first name. Merely using her first name ought to have kept her protected. Who would know? It turned out that Arkansas was a smaller state than anyone in Washington realized.
Pleszczynski remembers a “crazy week” when the article hit newsstands in December prior to the January 1994 publication date. He fed a constant stream of pages from the long article into a fax machine to respond to media requests.
As for TAS’s founder and editor-in-chief, R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. was smack in the middle of the controversy. He would be the subject of articles by various professional scandal sheets, such as the New York Times. One Times journalist, Dinitia Smith, joined up with Tyrrell as a tag-along and did a colorful piece titled, “Spectator Sport,” framing Tyrrell as fun and funny but overly concerned with militant homosexuals, among other items of hysterical obsession by the Times. Speaking of which, America’s worst columnist, the Gray Lady’s Frank Rich, uncorked some of the most unhinged screeds of the era, particularly his alleged and suspected outing of David Brock. So nasty was the reaction toward Brock by liberals that one wonders if the poor guy later defected to the ruthless enemy simply out of mercy.
In the major reminiscences of the Clinton impeachment today, 20 years later, including an intriguing piece in the Atlantic and a six-part series on A&E television network, The American Spectator is unavoidably mentioned, and the likes of Brock are interviewed, but somehow no one bothered to give a ring to Tyrrell or to Pleszczynski.
For those desiring more, one of Tyrrell’s most rollicking revisits of this political circus was his 2007 masterpiece, The Clinton Crack-Up: The Boy President’s Life After the White House. There, Tyrrell recounted paying homage to the Arkansas legend by dropping in on the fabled Clinton Library shortly after its erection. At the fabulous library, TAS’s intrepid editor happened upon The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy wing, replete with a special “Arkansas Project” that ought to be doubly dedicated to two great men of the 1990s: Tyrrell and Dick Scaife. And yet, the exhibit offered only this snarky summation of historical reality: “In the 1990s, it became common right-wing practice not just to attack Democrats’ ideas, but also to question their motives, morals, and patriotism. The ‘politics of personal destruction’ was central to the Republican strategy.”
Ah, yes. Poor Bill Clinton. The problem was not Bill exposing himself and getting quite literally caught with his pants down. The problem was those vicious conservatives and their politics of personal destruction.
I will ask Tyrrell the next time I see him if that was him at Little Rock’s Excelsior hotel on May 8, 1991 forcibly arranging a private foray between the angelic governor and a stalking state employee trying to lure the choir boy into bed. If not Tyrrell, perhaps it was Dick Scaife wielding an Arkansas cattle-prod at Boy Clinton’s posterior.
But alas, that’s not how Paula told it.
“In her [later] lawsuit Paula claimed that the man, who was by then president, had exposed himself to her and asked that she ‘kiss it,’” wrote Tyrrell, accurately. “As the lawsuit worked its way toward resolution… he became the first elected president in American history to be impeached.” Clinton fought the proceedings all the way, adds Tyrrell, “and on the walls of the Clinton Library it is clear he is still fighting.”
So much so, concludes Tyrrell, that the Clinton Library today wants to convince visitors that the investigative journalism of an opinion magazine was the real felony of the 1990s.
“The Governor would like to meet with you”
That brings us back to Paula and the felony, and ultimately the road to impeachment.
Had Brock’s mere mention of a “Paula,” with no last name, really made her recognizable? In Paula Jones’ view, it did. She decided to go public to clear her name with family, friends, associates, and particularly an angry husband.
In a detailed, 79-point complaint issued against both President Bill Clinton and Danny Ferguson, filed May 6, 1994, Paula Jones denied any sexual contact with Clinton whatsoever and charged everything from intentional infliction of emotional distress to defamation of her character. She alleged that at the Excelsior Hotel on May 8, 1991, where she was working as a state employee at the Third Annual Governor’s Quality Management Conference, at approximately 2:30 p.m., state trooper Danny Ferguson had approached her and said, “The Governor would like to meet with you.” He gave her the governor’s hotel suite number, assuring her, “It’s okay, we do this all the time for the Governor.”
She said she went to his hotel room expecting that the governor was interested in some matter of business of the state (not knowing how Governor Clinton perceived state business). Clinton made the moves on Jones, which, for the Arkansas marvel, didn’t exactly evoke the image of a Hallmark card. Jones said that the dazzling Clinton dropped his trousers and asked for oral sex — which, as detailed repeatedly in the TAS articles, was customary procedure. Jones said she refused and fled the room. Jones claimed this was just the start of three years of “outrageous” activity toward her by Clinton and his troopers.
For the record, Danny Ferguson would deny Jones’ charges. Worse for Jones, in Ferguson’s formal answer submitted to the court by his attorneys, he went so far as to contend that Jones had asked if Clinton had a girlfriend and, when Ferguson answered negatively, “responded that she would be the Governor’s girlfriend.” Jones then “asked for a piece of paper and a pen and wrote down her home phone number and told defendant Danny Ferguson to give it to Governor Clinton. She said to tell him that she was living with her boyfriend and that if the boyfriend answered, Governor Clinton should either hang up or say that he had a wrong number.”
That was Danny Ferguson’s counter-response. Someone was lying.
Had Paula perhaps allowed herself to be used by Clinton only to be betrayed when she learned that Clinton had planned to toss her like used underwear? Did this country girl, flattered by attention from the governor of Arkansas, later feel sickened and outraged at how this powerful man exploited her?
(Monica Lewinsky would tell Barbara Walters in an exclusive interview in March 1999 that her presidential boyfriend had confided in her that he “might be alone in three years,” referring to the prospects of Hillary dumping him. Maybe she might be his girlfriend, too.)
Such would be pure speculation. My preference in most cases Clinton is to believe the girl rather than the Bill.
“Lapse in judgment”
And so, all of this first hit the press and the courtroom in 1994.
In due course came the Paula Jones lawsuit in December 1997, listing Monica’s name among Bill’s assortment of playthings. Then came the deposition of Clinton in January 1998, followed a few days later by the 42nd president’s epitaph: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” A wild seven months followed, with rumors, reports, and lies — and insistences by liberals that their Oval Office bad boy was a model of innocence and charm. Then, in mid-summer, came news of a dress, a stained dress, with the bad boy’s distinctive markings.
In July, the FBI began doing tests on semen stains on a blue dress worn by the college girl during an Oval Office session with the leader of the free world. Bill was busted.
Monica had initially denied everything in a January 7, 1998 affidavit. Her covering up for her boss surely had given him confidence to lie liberally in his deposition and to the American public over the next two weeks. The lovely Bill had telephoned Monica (not the first time) late-night at 2:00 a.m. on December 17 and told her with oozing empathy that it “broke his heart” to see her name on the naughty list of cruel women smearing his good reputation. But soon enough, Lewinsky would reverse course, spilling the beans, sharing the dress, and coming full circle to where nowadays, in the MeToo world, she concedes that her 50-something boyfriend had engaged in a “gross abuse of power.”
The bombshell hit on August 17, 1998, with President Clinton giving a primetime speech on national television:
Good evening. This afternoon in this room, from this chair, I testified before the Office of Independent Counsel and the grand jury. I answered their questions truthfully, including questions about my private life, questions no American citizen would ever want to answer. Still, I must take complete responsibility for all my actions, both public and private. And that is why I am speaking to you tonight. 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 Ms. 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.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.
The way that Slick Willie phrased his admission, conceding a “lapse in judgment,” could have allowed for only a single sexual act. That was all he needed to admit, after all, since there was only one stain. 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.
It was a most reluctant confession. As former Democratic speechwriter-turned-pundit Chris Matthews put it, Bill Clinton “didn’t decide to tell the truth, he got caught.” Yes, chimed in legal analyst Stuart Taylor, Clinton was “a fundamentally dishonest man,” who “cannot be trusted.”
As for the wife he said he misled, Hillary first learned the sloppy truth from the lawyers, not her husband, who had told her on August 13. She then began absorbing the treacherous details, published widely in the press and in the Starr Report delivered to Congress on September 9, 1998. To wit:
There had been 18 months of gifts and at least a half-dozen sexual encounters between Bill and Monica, one while on the phone with a congressman, another with Bill maneuvering a favorite cigar as a sexual instrument. They occurred between November 15, 1995 and March 29, 1997, the peak of Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign.
The first sexual encounter took place on the same day that Clinton signed a “Family Week” proclamation. On that 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 flash him the straps of her thong underwear — what the girl later winsomely described as a “little smile.” Hillary’s husband invited the intern back to his office.
Another infamous episode unfolded on Easter Sunday, April 7, 1996. After Bill spent the morning at church, he headed back to the White House. He 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 were interrupted. 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 obliged. 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.
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.
The details in those publications were a salacious revelation for tens of millions. And yet, for those of us who had read the articles in The American Spectator, none of it was a surprise.
More than a question of sex
Four months later, in December 1998, the House would pass two articles of impeachment, delayed only slightly when an audacious President Clinton smoked off a military strike against Saddam Hussein. It was universally suspected as a wag-the-dog stunt. It did not, however, delay the Republican House members.
The most respected voice in the impeachment proceedings was Congressman Henry Hyde, admired on both sides of the aisle and hailed for his fairness and decency. Hyde passionately argued the case for impeachment based less on sexuality than illegality. “It’s not a question of sex,” said Hyde in his brilliant floor speech before the historic vote. “It’s a question of lying under oath. The issue is perjury, lying under oath. The issue is obstruction of justice.”
Actually, it was all of those things. Bill Clinton had a sexual problem as well as a legal problem. He had trouble with truth throughout his personal and public life. He had a problem keeping his hands to himself and cajoling women to put their hands (and whatever else) on him. His warped legal-moral ethics prompted him to enlist the hands of the state and its functionaries to lie for him, cover up for him, obstruct for him, and, for all intents and purposes, practically pimp for him.
These problems, as The American Spectator demonstrated four years before his impeachment, had clear roots and warning signs way back in Arkansas. The wily days of Boy Clinton in Little Rock in the 1980s came back to bite President Clinton in the White House in the 1990s.
“Without our Troopergate stories Bill Clinton never would have been impeached,” wrote R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. in 2017, “and Hillary would probably still idolize him as ‘The Virgin President.’”
What the world saw — or should have seen — in The American Spectator exposés on Bill Clinton was a reckless pattern of behavior. It was so reckless that it led to abuses of public trust and power, to deceit and obfuscation, to willful and brazen conduct. What TAS had shown of Clinton’s Arkansas years had signaled a pattern likely to continue into the White House. Old habits die hard, and this one refused to die for Bill Clinton.
The American Spectator had flagged the train-wreck ahead. If only the American public had listened. And if only Bill had learned to behave himself.