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Presidential Scandals

I’m back. 

A short hiatus from blogging turned into a much longer and protracted interruption these last few months.  Not from lack of controversies to discuss, my absence in the cybersphere was actually due to the innumerable dramas emanating from the Trump White House in the lead up to the mid-terms.  Now that the Democrats have retaken the House of Representatives, the vitriol and breaking of constitutional norms will only increase as the President and his family become the targets of investigations and ultimately are indicted for at minimum, lying to the FBI.  

Speaking of presidential scandals, let’s talk about a few.  The modern kind.  No TeaPot Domes today.  

A year ago, I started listening to Slow Burn, a podcast produced by Slate and Slate Plus, an online political magazine.  As host, Leon Neyfakh narrated eight, one-hour episodes that recounted the entire Watergate drama, from the moment of the break-in to President Ford’s pardoning of Richard Nixon.  Much of the content was common knowledge, but some I learned for the first time.  Combined with the History Channel’s recent documentary, Watergate, Slow Burn gave an in-depth look into how the Watergate controversy played out over almost two years of investigation. 

Slow Burn, however, had an overriding objective; to make the point that the Watergate scandal lasted over two years.  Looking back with the benefit of hindsight and history, we tend to think that key events happened in quick succession.  No.  The break-in occurred on June 17, 1972.  Nixon won re-election in a landslide that November.  He resigned and left office on August 9, 1974.  Between those 26 months, Americans barely paid attention to most of the drama, until of course, Nixon fired the special prosecutor and the tapes were released.  It was the tapes that turned public opinion against the president; he had Republicans until that point.  It was a long slog to the end.

Rachel Maddow interviewed Leon Neyfakh in late 2017, just as the Russia probe was entering its second year.  He made the argument to her audience that both the Watergate and Russia investigations were similar in that they were extensive and took time.  Neither had known outcomes and both were fraught with conflicts.  Like Trump, Nixon was a president that exerted unprecedented executive power; power that had to be restrained by the courts and by Congress.  

The subtext to the Maddow interview was:  if history is indeed repeating itself, “Buckle up.  It’s going to be a wild but slow ride.”

Slow Burn, Season 2.  The Clinton Impeachment

Well now Slow Burn is back for season two, and if you thought the Nixon administration was painful, the Clinton scandals were downright virulent.  Of course, I was not alive during Watergate, thus I did not find Nixon painful at all.  The Clinton scandals were quite toxic; although the early screw-ups were more assinine than poisonous.  Only later, did the Clinton White House become truly radioactive.

Unlike Watergate, I was alive and politically aware during Bill Clinton’s presidency and impeachment.  As a college student, I volunteered on Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and attended the Iowa Democratic Party’s victory celebration at the Hotel Savory when he won.  Senior year, I was demoralized by Newt Gingrich’s “Contract on America” (that’s what progressives called it) that wiped out the Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate in 1994.  The Republican agenda got worse from there and Clinton’s “triangulation” policy, which helped secure his second term, left a lot of progressives wondering what their party had become.

But as politically motivated as I was during the 90s, the Clinton impeachment saga, and the details of the Starr investigation that led to it, have always been fuzzy.  Yes, it started as an investigation into a failed Arkansas land deal and ended with the president’s impeachment over an affair he had with a White House intern.  But how the story moved from A to Z had been sketchy.  I did not remember the details (I DID remember the blue dress and the cigar).  More important to understand, at least for me, was the distinctly rabid and vitriolic tone that emanated from Washington D.C., immediately upon Clinton’s election.  The hate directed to the Clintons was very different than the typical partisanship that preceded their entrance onto the political stage.  From where did that disdain come?  Why was it so virulent?

Slow Burn, did not answer all of my questions, but it was a good start.  As a follow up to the series, I read Steve Kornacki’s new book, “The Red and the Blue:  The 1990s and the Birth of Political Tribalism” and Jeffrey Toobin’s, “A Vast Conspiracy.”  Those three sources, along with my own memory and other books, help to explain the dynamics at work in the 1990s.  It was a decade and an administration in which neither party showed its best side and regretfully, partisanship has only gotten worse since.  And while I do not believe we can truly understand the full impact and legacy of a particular era until we are far removed from it, I do think GenX’ers like me should recognize how their own political history has shaped current events.  So with that, I have a few observations about President Clinton, the vast “right-wing conspiracy,” Monica Lewinsky, and his ultimate impeachment and acquittal by the Senate.  The entire ordeal was a disaster for America – the gift that keeps on giving.

Something was different about the Clinton Presidency

Bill Clinton was the first baby boomer to sit in the Oval Office.  That generation is complex and hard to understand.  The baby boom was the largest cohort in American history – 75 million people born between 1946 and 1964.  Demographers have divided the group into segments given the massive cultural, political, and social changes that this generation experienced during their formative years.  This blog is not the place for an explanation of who was impacted the most by what event.  But even the most cursory understanding of American history should leave you with an idea of what these Americans experienced.  Post World War II growth and expansion, Vietnam, the counterculture, civil rights violence, desegregation, and the expansion of women and minority rights, globalization, Watergate, the energy crisis, Middle East wars, the rise of terrorism, and lest we forget the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union.  I guess that is a good start, right?  Oh – and television.  Do not forget television.

Any one of these events would have been traumatic but taken together, baby boomers found themselves impacted in different ways depending on their station, race, gender, and placement.  Moreover, many of these events were actually divisive in nature, causing significant cultural upheaval and inter and intragenerational splits.  It was these cleavages that ultimately led to intragenerational hatred of the Clintons.  The schism that I believe affected Bill and Hillary most predominantly were how the generation looked back on the Vietnam and counterculture era.  To some conservatives their own age, the Clintons were viewed as elitest liberals, educated at Ivy League schools, and patronizing of those that had not followed the same meritocratic route to the top.  Newt Gingrich was one of these baby boomers.  He viewed the Clintons as individuals above their station, passing judgment and looking down on him and others of his ilk.  It all went back to the 1960s.

From their enemies perspective, Bill was a liberal elitest, but Hillary was worse.  Hillary Clinton was a first wave modern feminist, of the modern-feminist movement.  In every way, she was a threat to the traditional political wife, regardless of party and that certainly meant that there would be a backlash.  She did not take her husband’s name and that cost Bill his first re-elect as Arkansas governor.  She was involved in politics and outspoken as a first lady.  The media and Washington pols simply did not know how to handle it.  Of course, she made it worse with a lack of transparency and candor, but that was learned behavior – learned over a decade of being criticized in the political limelight.

And then there was Bill’s history with women.  As Arkansas governor, there were rumors of his trysts not just in his state, but throughout his neighboring ones.  Everyone had heard the rumors of infidelity and while the pre-Gary Hart political landscape may have looked the other way, post-Monkey Business investigative journalism had no problem digging up mistresses.  Combined with his lack of service in Vietnam (and actual protests against the war on foreign soil), and constant parsing of words, Clinton came across as less than candid and of questionable character.

These are not all of the reasons, and certainly, I cannot fully explain what I view as schisms within the baby boom generation in four paragraphs.  But they were there.  And as the generation got older, its members began to revisit their youth and the events that shaped it, leading many to regret and even some to amnesia of their own counter-culture actions.  The baby boom has become more conservative and combined with its other characteristics have had a profound (and not always good) impact on American political life.  One aspect is increased, partisan division.

Newt Gingrich and the quest for the Republican majority

Newt entered Congress in the late 1970s at a time when Republicans had been out of power for decades.  Democrats had held the majority for most of the 20th century, particularly after the New Deal and in Newt’s mind, Republicans had resigned themselves to a permanent minority status.  Gingrich refused to go along.  Armed with hatred of the liberal left establishment, he took to recruiting House Members into defiance and obstruction.  He wanted the GOP to play up their differences with the Democrats, never negotiate, and nationalize every election.  It took a while, but he was successful.  So successful that in 1994, Newt rode the red wave to the Speakership and along with the new Republican majority leader in the Senate (Bob Dole), set off passing bill after bill that would deconstruct the social safety net that had been in place for 70 years.

He had ridden anti-Clinton backlash to that victory and would continue to bang the drum until he was forced to resign after losing seats in the 1998 mid-terms.  It was this backlash and the subsequent Republican majority, propelled by a virulent hatred of the Clintons that forced the President into requesting that his Attorney General, Janet Reno, nominate a special prosecutor to investigate Whitewater (the Arkansas land deal), Travelgate and Vince Foster’s suicide, and Filegate – which had something to do with the Foster suicide and Travelgate.  None of these investigations turned up anything on either Clinton.  Nothing led investigators to conclude that as governor, Clinton had used his position to gain favors with lending institutions.  There was never a “shoe” that dropped.  But in the dark corners of the internet (and sadly, these days, the corners are much bigger and a lot lighter), conspiracy theorists STILL talk about Vince Foster and Hillary’s affair, how she had him murdered, and all the other nefarious crimes that she and Bill have covered up these last 30 years.

Paula Jones, a well-funded conservative opposition, and Monica Lewinsky

Bill Clinton was impeached (that’s political speak for ‘indicted’) for perjury and obstruction of justice.  He committed perjury when he lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky when he testified in the Paula Jones sexual harassment civil lawsuit.  Something happened between Clinton and Jones in the Excelsior Hotel on May 8, 1991.  Both lied about it repeatedly.  That much is obvious to anyone who has read an account of his deposition and impeachment saga.  Jones, for her part, could never prove that she suffered any adverse employment consequences as a result of her interaction with Clinton that day.  Her case was tossed out on its merits but while on appeal, Clinton eventually settled for approximately $700,000.  By then, of course, he had already been impeached (the Senate acquitted).

However you may feel about Paula Jones, it is true that she was used by the conservative movement, already virulently opposed to Clinton on moral grounds.  Republican donors poured money into opposing the Clintons and that included the Jones lawsuit.  But it was not just conservatives and conservative media; what we would come to know as ‘mainstream media’ played a role as well.  Michael Isikoff, at the time, worked for the Washington Post and then later Newsweek, went looking for dirt on Clinton.  He found it and helped propel the story forward.

Everybody wanted a book deal and movie rights.  From Paula Jones’ husband Steve to Linda Tripp to the investigative journalists hunting the story, everyone wanted to make money.  That motivation, combined with a well-financed opposition party, set the entire Lewinsky drama in motion.  But no one would have had the material had the President of the United States not engaged in risky and adulterous behavior while in office.  It was his fault.  No one else caused the political imbroglio that followed once Monica Lewinsky became a public figure.  It was Bill Clinton that had the long history with women; Clinton who refused to settle the Jones lawsuit, and Clinton who taunted his enemies by having an affair with an intern under their noses.  He lied, obfuscated, and embarrassed himself and his family and yet, in the end, continued to play the victim.

What I didn’t remember about the Clinton years

I remember a good deal from Clinton’s first term.  I suspect my recollection was aided by college; much of my political science major was based on coursework in current American media and politics.  Contemporary events became topics of papers and essays.  Administration faux pas and scandals were incorporated into lectures.  I remember ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the failed Attorney General appointments, Harry and Louise, and the tax increase of 1993.

Clinton’s second term is much fuzzier.  Of course, I remember the Lewinsky scandal and the infamous press conference, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman,” but the timeline is a blur – and not because I spent those years drunk or stoned.  I was fresh out of college and in my first job.  I had a mortgage, bills, and more responsibility than ever before in my life.  Keeping tabs on what had become a disappointing administration was at the bottom of my priority list.  I remember Somalia, Kosovo, and the embassy bombings.  I did not remember who took over as House Speaker when Newt was forced to resign after the 1998 mid-term election.

Slow Burn, The Red and the Blue, and A Vast Conspiracy felt like going through old photo albums.  So many names and events rang bells, but until I listened and read about them with 20 years of perspective, their significance did not sink in.  It’s amazing what two decades of hindsight can do to change your perception and historical interpretation.  Our understanding of events change the further we are from them.

This was the case with my view of the Clinton years and more specifically, the scandals.  To be honest, by the time we got to the impeachment, I could have cared less if the president was removed from office.  The impeachment was the result of a four-year, politically motivated, independent counsel investigation – an investigation that found nothing on the original merits but had the juice to stick around long enough to catch the President lying under oath about an affair.  The dots that Ken Starr connected in order to expand his scope from Whitewater to Paula Jones was laughable, and yet it was Clinton’s own Attorney General who approved it.

Ken Starr took on the investigation after Senate Republicans were unhappy that the then Independent Counsel Robert Fiske, had not found anything.  Starr tried – he really did – to tie the Clintons to something Whitewateresque – but came up empty.  He and his investigators were spinning wheels and spending money when Linda Tripp and her tapes entered their lives.  Let’s be clear:  the Starr investigation was a witch-hunt, perpetrated by partisan rancor, hatred for the Clintons, and a hypocritical hyper-morality fostered by the Christian right.  But the President flaunted his indiscretions right in front of his enemies.  He begged them to catch him.  He damaged the office and hurt a lot of people, most of all – Monica Lewinsky.

Years later, I learned of Juanita Broderick.  I have no idea how I missed her interview with NBC’s Lisa Myers right after Clinton’s Senate trial.  Bill Clinton raped her – of that I have no doubt.  Her story is identical to so many others who did not come forward at the time of their assaults because they knew they would not be believed.  We simply cannot look at Bill Clinton in the same way, knowing today what we should have known in 1992.

The Latest Clinton Controversy

The problem with the right is that they overplayed their hand.  Had it not persecuted a decades-long attack on the President and First Lady over a bad land deal, they may have had more success in convincing the public of Clinton’s moral turpitudes.  As it was, the constant drum-beat of partisan rancor and warfare left the electorate desensitized to scandal such that when Clinton was actually caught, a majority of Americans shrugged their shoulders.

What’s more, as Jeffrey Toobin lays out in the final chapters of A Vast Conspiracy, Clinton was able to turn the scandal into a referendum on the opposition and portrayed himself, successfully I might add, as the victim of Republican persecution.  From the beginning, he and Hillary chose to fight.  Armed with Dick Morris (one of the most amoral political pollsters of the time), the President set out to win the battle over public opinion.  No, Hillary did not know the truth about Monica until Bill admitted lying under oath, but she too was intent on winning the public relations war.

Unlike many on the right, I do not blame Hillary Clinton for her husband’s indiscretions nor do I believe she enabled his affairs.  Those accusations, in my view, are misogynistic themselves and wholly inappropriate in 2018.  Bill Clinton is responsible for his sexual exploits.  No one else.  However, I was very disappointed with Secretary Clinton’s response in a recent interview in which she was asked whether her husband should have resigned.  She answered “no” but then to the interviewer’s point about the President abusing his power over Monica Lewinsky, Clinton responded by stating that Monica was an adult at the time.   She then quickly pivoted to Donald Trump and asked why he had not been investigated given all of the sexual misconduct allegations levied against him.  Even a First Lady has the right to defend her husband, but this particular political pivot was incredibly disappointing given the times.

Further, Bill Clinton’s own response to questions about the scandal twenty years later have been embarrassing and unfortunate.  In an interview with Craig Melvin last June, Clinton once again played the victim, lamenting the millions of dollars in legal debt he owed upon leaving office.  He charged that he had done nothing wrong, and that had the American people heard “the whole truth,” they too would agree.  Oh – and he did not owe Monica Lewinsky and her family a personal apology.  As I watched the interview, mouth agape, I simply could not believe what this man had become.  He had had 20 years to prepare for this day, and yet he took the egotistical and narcissist way out.  In so many ways, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump are cut from the same cloth.

The Clinton legacy will continue to evolve.  Post Presidency, he and Hillary created the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative to help improve people’s lives both at home and abroad.  Their enemies have used the charities as another target, thus overplaying their hand – again.  Once everything bad is blamed on the Clintons, voters stop listening.  The right-wing conspiracy theorists continue to hurt themselves by perpetuating ridiculous rumors of pedophilia rings, and vast global networks.  At some point, the baby boomer audience will either be too small or stop caring about Bill and Hillary, enough to force FOX News and other conservative media outlets to focus on a different boogeyman.

For now though, I would encourage you to listen to Slow Burn, and learn more about Watergate and the Clinton scandals.  There are many parallels in what we see today with the Russian investigation, although the latter is much more aligned to Watergate.  Robert Mueller is investigating actual crimes including an attack on the fundamental element of our democracy:  election integrity.  This goes well beyond lying about a blow job or covering up a third-rate burglary.  All are equally important to history, but the Mueller investigation might actually lead to the indictment of a sitting president or at very least, his family members.

Watch this space.


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