The Lewinsky scandal was a political sex scandal emerging in 1998, from a sexual relationship between 49-year-old United States president Bill Clinton and a 22-year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. The news of this extra-marital affair and the resulting investigation eventually led to the impeachment of President Clinton in 1998 by the U.S. House of Representatives and his subsequent acquittal on all impeachment charges of perjury and obstruction of justice in a 21-day Senate trial.
In 1995, Monica Lewinsky, a graduate of Lewis & Clark College, was hired to work as an intern at the White House during Clinton's first term, and began a personal relationship with him, the details of which she later confided to her friend and Defense Department co-worker Linda Tripp, who secretly recorded their telephone conversations.
When Tripp discovered in January 1998 that Lewinsky had sworn an affidavit in the Paula Jones case denying a relationship with Clinton, she delivered the tapes to Kenneth Starr, the Independent Counsel who was investigating Clinton on other matters, including the Whitewater scandal, the White House FBI files controversy, and the White House travel office controversy. During the grand jury testimony Clinton's responses were carefully worded, and he argued, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is", in regards to the truthfulness of his statement that "there is not a sexual relationship, an improper sexual relationship or any other kind of improper relationship."
The wide reporting of the scandal led to criticism of the press for over-coverage. The scandal is sometimes referred to as "Monicagate", Lewinskygate", "Tailgate", "Sexgate", and "Zippergate", following the "-gate" nickname construction that has been popular since the Watergate scandal.
Allegations of sexual contact
Lewinsky claimed to have had sexual encounters with Bill Clinton on nine occasions from November 1995 to March 1997. According to her published schedule, First Lady Hillary Clinton was at the White House for at least some portion of seven of those days.
In April 1996, Lewinsky's superiors relocated her job to the Pentagon, because they felt that she was spending too much time around Clinton. According to his autobiography, then-United Nations Ambassador Bill Richardson was asked by the White House in 1997 to interview Lewinsky for a job on his staff at the UN. Richardson did so, and offered her a position, which she declined. The American Spectator alleged that Richardson knew more about the Lewinsky affair than he declared to the grand jury.
Lewinsky confided in a coworker named Linda Tripp about her relationship with Clinton. Tripp persuaded Lewinsky to save the gifts that Clinton had given her, and not to dry clean a semen-stained blue dress. Tripp reported these conversations to literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, who advised her to secretly record them, which Tripp began doing in September 1997. Goldberg also urged Tripp to take the tapes to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr and bring them to the attention of people working on the Paula Jones case. In the fall of 1997, Goldberg began speaking to reporters (notably Michael Isikoff of Newsweek) about the tapes.
In January 1998, after Lewinsky had submitted an affidavit in the Paula Jones case denying any physical relationship with Clinton, she attempted to persuade Tripp to lie under oath in the Jones case. Instead, Tripp gave the tapes to Starr who was investigating the Whitewater controversy and other matters. Now armed with evidence of Lewinsky's admission of a physical relationship with Clinton, he broadened the investigation to include Lewinsky and her possible perjury in the Jones case.
Denial and subsequent admission
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News of the scandal first broke on January 17, 1998, on the Drudge Report, which reported that Newsweek editors were sitting on a story by investigative reporter Michael Isikoff exposing the affair. The story broke in the mainstream press on January 21 in The Washington Post. The story swirled for several days and, despite swift denials from Clinton, the clamor for answers from the White House grew louder. On January 26, President Clinton, standing with his wife, spoke at a White House press conference, and issued a forceful denial in which he said:
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'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. Thank you.
Pundits debated whether or not Clinton would address the allegations in his State of the Union Address. Ultimately, he chose not to mention them. Hillary Clinton stood by her husband throughout the scandal. On January 27, in an appearance on NBC's Today she said, "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."
For the next several months and through the summer, the media debated whether or not an affair had occurred and whether or not Clinton had lied or obstructed justice, but nothing could be definitively established beyond the taped recordings because Lewinsky was unwilling to discuss the affair or testify about it. On July 28, 1998, a substantial delay after the public break of the scandal, Lewinsky received transactional immunity in exchange for grand jury testimony concerning her relationship with Clinton. She also turned over a semen-stained blue dress (that Linda Tripp had encouraged her to save without dry cleaning) to the Starr investigators, thereby providing unambiguous DNA evidence that could prove the relationship despite Clinton's official denials.
Clinton admitted in taped grand jury testimony on August 17, 1998, that he had had an "improper physical relationship" with Lewinsky. That evening he gave a nationally televised statement admitting his relationship with Lewinsky which was "not appropriate".
In his deposition for the Jones lawsuit, Clinton denied having "sexual relations" with Lewinsky. Based on the evidence provided by Tripp, a blue dress with Clinton's semen, Starr concluded that this sworn testimony was false and perjurious.
During the deposition, Clinton was asked "Have you ever had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as that term is defined in Deposition Exhibit 1?" The judge ordered that Clinton be given an opportunity to review the agreed definition. Afterwards, based on the definition created by the Independent Counsel's Office, Clinton answered "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky." Clinton later stated, "I thought the definition included any activity by [me], where [I] was the actor and came in contact with those parts of the bodies" which had been explicitly listed (and "with an intent to gratify or arouse the sexual desire of any person"). In other words, Clinton denied that he had ever contacted Lewinsky's "genitalia, anus, groin, breast, inner thigh, or buttocks", and effectively claimed that the agreed-upon definition of "sexual relations" included giving oral sex but excluded receiving oral sex.
Two months after the Senate failed to convict him, President Clinton was held in civil contempt of court by Judge Susan Webber Wright. His license to practice law was suspended in Arkansas for five years and later by the United States Supreme Court. He was also fined $90,000 for giving false testimony. Clinton declined to appeal the civil contempt of court ruling, citing financial problems, but still maintained that his testimony complied with Wright's earlier definition of sexual relations.
In December 1998, Clinton's political party, the Democratic Party, was in the minority in both chambers of Congress. Some Democratic members of Congress, and most in the opposition Republican Party, believed that Clinton's giving false testimony and allegedly influencing Lewinsky's testimony were crimes of obstruction of justice and perjury and thus impeachable offenses. The House of Representatives voted to issue Articles of Impeachment against him which was followed by a 21-day trial in the Senate.
All of the Democrats in the Senate voted for acquittal on both the perjury and the obstruction of justice charges. Ten Republicans voted for acquittal for perjury: John Chafee (Rhode Island), Susan Collins (Maine), Slade Gorton (Washington), Jim Jeffords (Vermont), Richard Shelby (Alabama), Olympia Snowe (Maine), Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania), Ted Stevens (Alaska), Fred Thompson (Tennessee), and John Warner (Virginia). Five Republicans voted for acquittal for obstruction of justice: Chafee, Collins, Jeffords, Snowe, and Specter.
President Clinton was thereby acquitted of all charges and remained in office. There were attempts to censure the president by the House of Representatives, but those attempts failed.
Effect on 2000 presidential election
The scandal arguably affected the 2000 U.S. presidential election in two contradictory ways. Democratic Party candidate and sitting vice president Al Gore claimed that Clinton's scandal had been "a drag" that deflated the enthusiasm of their party's base, effectively suppressing Democratic votes. Clinton claimed that the scandal had made Gore's campaign too cautious, and that if Clinton had been allowed to campaign for Gore in Arkansas and New Hampshire, either state would have delivered Gore's needed electoral votes regardless of what happened in Florida.
Political analysts have supported both views. Before and after the 2000 election, John Cochran of ABC News connected the Lewinsky scandal with a voter phenomenon he called "Clinton fatigue". Polling showed that the scandal continued to affect Clinton's low personal approval ratings through the election, and analysts such as Vanderbilt University's John G. Geer later concluded "Clinton fatigue or a kind of moral retrospective voting had a significant impact on Gore's chances". Other analysts sided with Clinton's argument, and argued that Gore's refusal to have Clinton campaign with him damaged his appeal.
During the scandal, supporters of President Clinton alleged that the matter was private and "about sex", and they claimed hypocrisy by at least some of those who advocated for his removal. For example, during the House investigation it was revealed that Henry Hyde, Republican chair of the House Judiciary Committee and lead House manager, also had an affair while in office as a state legislator. Hyde, aged 70 during the Lewinsky hearings, dismissed it as a "youthful indiscretion" when he was 41.
A highly publicized investigation campaign actively sought information that might embarrass politicians who supported impeachment. According to the British newspaper The Guardian,
Larry Flynt...the publisher of Hustler magazine, offered a $1 million reward... Flynt was a sworn enemy of the Republican party [and] sought to dig up dirt on the Republican members of Congress who were leading the impeachment campaign against President Clinton.
[...Although] Flynt claimed at the time to have the goods on up to a dozen prominent Republicans, the ad campaign helped to bring down only one. Robert Livingston – a congressman from Louisiana...abruptly retired after learning that Mr. Flynt was about to reveal that he had also had an affair.
Republican congressman Bob Livingston had been widely expected to become Speaker of the United States House of Representatives in the next Congressional session, then just weeks away, until Flynt revealed the affair. Livingston resigned and challenged Clinton to do the same.
Flynt's investigation also claimed that Congressman Bob Barr, another Republican House manager, had an affair while married; Barr had been the first lawmaker in either chamber to call for Clinton's resignation due to the Lewinsky affair. Barr lost a primary challenge less than three years after the impeachment proceedings.
Dan Burton, Republican Representative from Indiana, had stated "No one, regardless of what party they serve, no one, regardless of what branch of government they serve, should be allowed to get away with these alleged sexual improprieties...." In 1998, Burton admitted that he himself had an affair in 1983 that produced a child. (However, Burton was never accused of lying under oath about his affair.)
Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Representative from Georgia and leader of the Republican Revolution of 1994, admitted in 1998 to having had an affair with a House intern while he was married to his second wife, at the same time as he was leading the impeachment of Bill Clinton for perjury regarding an affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. (However, Gingrich was never accused of lying under oath about his affair.)
Republican Helen Chenoweth-Hage from Idaho aggressively called for the resignation of President Clinton and admitted to her own six-year affair with a married rancher during the 1980s. (However, Chenoweth-Hage was never accused of lying under oath about her affair.)
Historian Taylor Branch implied that Clinton had requested changes to Branch's 2009 Clinton biography, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President, regarding Clinton's revelation that the Lewinsky affair began because "I cracked; I just cracked." Branch writes that Clinton had felt "beleaguered, unappreciated, and open to a liaison with Lewinsky" following "the Democrats' loss of Congress in the November 1994 elections, the death of his mother the previous January, and the ongoing Whitewater investigation". Publicly, Clinton had previously blamed the affair on "a terrible moral error" and on anger at Republicans, stating, "if people have unresolved anger, it makes them do non-rational, destructive things."
- List of federal political scandals in the United States
- List of state and local political scandals in the United States
- List of federal political sex scandals in the United States
- Second-term curse
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In January, Tripp gave Starr the tapes. She made the recordings secretly at her home at the urging of her friend Lucianne Goldberg, a New York literary agent.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Lewinsky scandal.|
- A Chronology: Key Moments In The Clinton-Lewinsky Saga. CNN. (1998)
- "The Fallout". BBC Online in-depth coverage. (1999)
- A Guide to the Monica Lewinsky Story - The Coffee Shop Times (last updated July 8, 2001)