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Wednesday, April 13, 2022

April 13, 2022: Presidential Scandals: Clinton and Lewinsky

[On April 14, 1922, the Wall Street Journal published a story breaking the news of a crooked deal that became known as the Teapot Dome scandal. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that history and four other presidential scandals, leaving aside the Grant administration as we’ll get to them in a couple weeks and the Trump administration because ugh. Share your thoughts on these & other histories, including Grant or Trump if you’d like of course, for a scandalous crowd-sourced weekend post!]

On how two quite distinct things can be true at once, and how my own perspective has changed over time.

The first true thing I want to say about the President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal is that it was the result of a multi-year, highly partisan and suspect fishing expedition. After he was appointed in August 1994 as an independent counsel to investigate the nothing-burger that was the Whitewater “scandal,” attorney Ken Starr—who had long been an avowed opponent of Clinton’s and was funded by an even more overt and powerful such opponent, billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife—kept expanding the scope of that investigation to other and equally suspect “scandals.” For example, in October 1997 (more than three years after his appointment) Starr released a 137-page report (drafted by Starr’s assistant Brett Kavanaugh!) on the 1993 suicide of Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster. After that wasted effort, Starr turned his attention to Clinton’s adulterous relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, making the resulting scandal the sole successful product of a four-year partisan fishing expedition into all things Clinton.

But the second true thing I want to say is this: the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was more than that, was indeed a significant and serious presidential scandal. Partly that’s because of how Ken Starr initially learned of it: Clinton was being deposed in Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against him, and lied under oath about whether he had ever “had sexual relations” with Lewinsky (I’m not willing to accept Clinton’s later argument that he didn’t consider oral sex “sexual relations” and so wasn’t lying). But it’s also because of the affair itself—not because of the adultery part (countless presidents have cheated on their spouses, and to my mind that’s ultimately a personal matter) but because of its unethical and unprofessional nature: of Clinton having sex with an intern, someone over whom he had direct professional power; and of him doing so in the Oval Office, while conducting the political and national business of the presidency. I don’t imagine he was the first president for whom those things were true either, but repetition of something scandalous doesn’t make it any less scandalous, and I would argue those unethical and unprofessional sides to the affair demand our condemnation in any case.

Finally, a third, more personal but also I believe broadly relevant true thing: my perspective on the relative dynamics of those other two things has shifted significantly in the 20+ years since the scandal. At the time, I was entirely convinced that, whatever Clinton’s personal flaws and failures, the scandal was far more fully a reflection of the GOP’s unhinged hatred of him and his administration (which seems to have been a main public takeaway from the impeachment trial at the very least). But while those contexts and factors remain part of the story as I’ve said here, I have to say that over the last few years, the unfolding perspectives and narratives of the #MeToo movement have fully convinced me of the paramount importance of challenging and ending workplace sexual harassment (among many other issues of course). While Clinton’s own such workplace harassment scandal might not have risen to the level of an impeachable offense, it nonetheless reflects clearly and potently the truly ubiquitous presence of such issues, even at the highest and most powerful levels of American society. To my mind, that (along with the deeply impressive second act of Monica Lewinsky’s life and work) should be the ultimate takeaway from this 1990s presidential scandal.

Next scandal tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Takes on this scandal or other ideas you’d share for the weekend post?

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