On Jan. 26, 1998—15 years ago Saturday—Bill Clinton famously told the nation, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
Clinton later confessed that he did indeed have an "improper physical relationship" with Monica Lewinksky, a 24-year-old White House intern.
For his deceit, Clinton became the second president in American history impeached by the House of Representatives—the second step required for removal from office, a Senate trial, failed to eject Clinton. The impeachment remains controversial, with many supporters arguing that Clinton's personal life should not have been a public issue.
In the years since Clinton introduced Lewinsky to his cigar collection, other politicians have humiliated themselves. In 2011 a congressman named Weiner—whose wedding was officiated by Clinton—tweeted a photo of his, ahem, wiener. In 2007 a conservative senator who described Clinton as a "nasty, bad, naughty boy" was arrested for soliciting sex in a men's restroom. But the Lewinsky scandal remains the king of all American sex scandals.
Press Past brings you an exhaustive report from the Feb. 2, 1998 issue of U.S. News covering the growing scandal. The story features forgotten tidbits, including how Hillary Clinton kept the knowledge from her daughter and interviews with Lewinsky's friends.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 2, 1998, issue of U.S. News & World Report.
By Ronald Brownstein and Kenneth T. Walsh
In some ways, Bill Clinton's career in national politics amounts to a sustained test of public tolerance for ethical controversy. So far, the limits of that tolerance have proved very broad. He has survived—even at times thrived—despite a steady procession of controversies that trace all the way back to the celebrated 60 Minutes interview, exactly six years ago this week, in which he introduced himself to the American public by in effect admitting that he had been unfaithful to his wife.
But the case of Monica Lewinsky, the 24-year-old former White House intern who has claimed in taped recordings to have conducted a sexual affair with the president, may test those limits like never before. If the allegations are true, the woman—the "girl," her lawyer keeps calling her—was only a few years older than Chelsea Clinton is now when she began a sexual relationship with Clinton. If the allegations are true, the affair began while he was president, not before; after he began a life in which every action was scrutinized, not before; with someone who worked for him, not with him—with someone described by friends as gushy and giggly. If the allegations are true, he didn't encourage her merely to fib to the press (as he once seemed to urge Gennifer Flowers) but actually to lie under oath. If the allegations are true, he didn't just try to talk her out of testifying honestly by himself but also enlisted the help of Vernon Jordan, one of the most powerful and well-connected lawyers in Washington.
If the allegations are true, the questions speak not only to Clinton's judgment but also to his self-control, his character, even his stability. Bill Clinton has survived so many seemingly fatal reversals that few in Washington are willing to predict that this will be the one to finally capsize his political career. But even many of his most ardent defenders understand that these charges could present Clinton with the most formidable challenge of his career.
At week's end, despite an accelerating cascade of accusations—including persistent rumors linking Clinton to other women—decisive proof of any of these allegations remained distant. In a series of interviews, Clinton denied that he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, or that he asked her to lie in the Jones case, or that he asked Jordan to entice her to lie. Jordan likewise denied pressuring Lewinsky to lie. Lewinsky herself officially stood by an affidavit she gave earlier this month in the Jones case in which she also denied any sexual relationship with the president.
Sources said that Hillary Rodham Clinton told Chelsea the Lewinsky story was a flat-out lie. But others within the White House clearly felt as if they could not be sure what was true. To a startling degree, even senior White House staff found themselves kept in the dark last week; sources said Clinton was sharing the details of what he did, and didn't do, only with his outside lawyers. Senior Clinton advisers say the blackout is due to their reluctance to confront him over potentially embarrassing details—and their awareness that they could be vulnerable to subpoena later on if they learned sensitive information. Aides described Clinton himself as oddly subdued in discussing the furor, as if it were happening to someone else and he was observing it from afar.
Ominously for the White House, Lewinsky's sworn denial of the affair hardly seemed ironclad. Her lawyer, Los Angeles attorney William H. Ginsburg, said that she stood by her statement "at this time." Even some of Clinton's initial denials seemed phrased with unusual, lawyerly precision. Asked by National Public Radio if he had "any conversations" with Lewinsky about her testimony, Clinton did not respond with a blanket denial. Instead, he said that "given the state of the investigation, it would be inappropriate" for him to expand on his earlier assertions that he didn't ask anyone "to tell anything other than the truth."
So careful were Clinton's responses, and so high were the stakes, that analysts scrutinized his remarks with rabbinical care. When Clinton initially said there "is" no sexual relationship between him and Lewinsky, reporters wondered whether that included previous sexual contact; Clinton later denied a sexual relationship in the past tense, too. It was a sign of the fevered atmosphere that some in Washington even seized on Clinton's use of the phrase "sexual relationship." On Friday, in his National Journal column, noted legal writer Stuart Taylor questioned whether Clinton chose that construction to artfully allow the possibility that he had engaged in oral sex with Lewinsky. (In similar scandals, other politicians have claimed that extramarital oral sex did not constitute adultery—a distinction that some allege Clinton has made as well.) Faced with such multiplying and embarrassing questions, White House aides held open the prospect that Clinton might present himself for a dramatic press conference or high-profile television interview to answer questions about the controversy.
Monica Lewinsky grew up in comfortable circumstances in Beverly Hills, Calif., the daughter of an oncologist (her father) and an author (her mother) who divorced when she was 14. From interviews with friends and neighbors, she emerges as personable but unremarkable: a young woman who left few footprints before finding herself in this swamp. She was a B student at Bel Air Prep, a private high school in West Hollywood from which she graduated in 1991. One of her main hobbies was watching Days of Our Lives. She went to Santa Monica College and then to Lewis and Clark College, the small liberal arts school outside Portland, Ore., where she received a degree in psychology in 1995. Shirley Pape, 75, who lived next door to Lewinsky in Portland, recalled her as "a lovely and vivacious girl with beautiful skin and black hair." Still, one college associate remembered Lewinsky with the sort of mixed assessment that may prove critical in the days ahead. "I remember Monica as being insecure enough to make anything up just to get attention," says Stephen Enghouse, 29, a former classmate and friend. "She was very friendly, bubbly, and she was a bit flirtatious with men. She was immature and insecure."
Like many ambitious young people before her, the path she found to Washington was an internship at the White House. She was helped by a recommendation from family friend Walter Kaye, a wealthy New York insurance agent who contributed $ 100,000 to the Democratic National Committee and slept in the Lincoln Bedroom in December 1995. In Washington, she did not adopt the group-house style of most interns. She used to visit Ilo hair salon in Georgetown two or three evenings a week to have her hair done, at $ 36 a visit, says Gary Walker, owner of the salon.
Through the summer and fall of 1995 she was one of about 250 interns. White House sources say Lewinsky handled the usual assortment of clerical tasks. Fellow workers recall her as "nice . . . bouncy . . . gushy" but also too loud and too giggly. Lewinsky often found her way into the halls and rooms outside the Oval Office and sought to do chores that put her in contact with the president, the sources say. "Sure, she tried to catch the president's attention," says an administration official who saw Lewinsky regularly. "But there are a hundred people trying to do that every day, from contributors to mayors to staffers." Evelyn Lieberman, then the deputy chief of staff with responsibility for supervising the interns, found that she frequently had to enforce what she considered common-sense codes on them, such as telling young women that their skirts were too short. Still, even in that somewhat chaotic environment, Lewinsky was visible and persistent enough that she attracted Lieberman's attention as one overly intent on hanging around the Oval Office.
Lucianne Goldberg, a literary agent who has listened to the tapes, told U.S. News that Lewinsky talked about having sex in the Oval Office and the small room connected to it. "It is very much a young girl in love with a married man," says Goldberg. Imitating a teenage voice, Goldberg recalls Lewinsky saying, "Why won't he call me. I think he's going to call me. He said he's going to call me. Why doesn't he call me?" Lewinsky reportedly complained that Clinton has never thanked her for a tie she sent him, although he has worn it publicly.
After about six months in the intern pool, Lewinsky climbed out to the dry land of a paying job as an assistant in the White House Legislative Affairs office, which removed her from the West Wing and moved her to the Old Executive Office Building next door. Even then, sources said, Lieberman noticed that the young woman still found her way to West Wing events involving the president; more than once, Lieberman told her to return to her office and do her job.
White House officials criticized Lewinsky's work. Sometimes, they now say, she sent birthday cards to members of Congress and got the birth dates wrong or made errors in their titles. In one case, she sent a letter to Sen. Rod Grams, a Minnesota Republican, responding to his request that Clinton reopen Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House, which is closed for security reasons. The letter, sent out over the signature of John Hilley, director for legislative affairs, mistyped the word public as pubic, according to a Clinton adviser. The letter said, "Free and pubic tours of the White House continue." Lewinsky was chided by her superiors for the error.
Perhaps previewing their defense in the controversy, Clinton strategists late last week began offering an alternative explanation for the president's interaction with Lewinsky. One adviser suggested that in this stressful environment, Lewinsky made herself friendly to the president's confidential secretary Betty Currie and to the president, looking for patrons. When Clinton responded with compassion, she misinterpreted his interest as flirtation or attempted seduction, and, some White House officials say, may have fantasized about a sexual relationship. Clinton might have believed that he was dealing with a young woman in distress and decided he needed to reach out more effectively to her, in a fatherly way. In this version of events, the advisers suggest, Clinton realized that his critics might falsely conclude he was trying to seduce her, so he turned to Jordan, his confidant, to offer her help.
What's known for sure is that Lewinsky didn't last long in the White House. Only about four months after she took her job in legislative affairs, sources said, her supervisor, Lieberman, imposed the same punishment she had brought down on several other distracted young staffers: She moved Lewinsky into a different job. In April 1996, Lewinsky was transferred to the Pentagon as an assistant to the Defense Department's bow-tied chief spokesman, Kenneth Bacon. At the Pentagon, Lewinsky generally drew good marks from co-workers as being diligent and enthusiastic. In early November, another Pentagon official said, Lewinsky gave notice that she planned to leave in December; she left her job just after Christmas, apparently to pursue a career in public relations in New York.
At some point during her time at the Pentagon, Lewinsky became friendly with a co-worker, Linda Tripp. Tripp, 48, had a longer and more complex history in Washington. After working in a variety of classified positions as an administrative aide in the Army during the 1980s (her husband at the time was an Army officer), she joined the Bush White House in April 1990 as a "West Wing floater" assigned to an assortment of senior officials. She parlayed that position into jobs as an assistant to a series of high-level Bush aides, including Chief of Staff Samuel Skinner. "She seemed very fond of the Bushes," notes a former colleague.
After Clinton ousted Bush in 1992, Tripp stayed on as an aide in the White House counsel's office, eventually becoming the principal assistant to Bernard Nussbaum, Clinton's first counsel. In July 1994, a few months after Lloyd Cutler replaced Nussbaum, Tripp moved to the Pentagon, first as the deputy and then as the director of an office that provided tours of military installations for influential civilian leaders.
In some ways, Tripp was a logical fit as a friend and mentor to Lewinsky. A single parent with a daughter not much younger than Lewinsky herself, Tripp functioned "kind of like the surrogate parent" for the younger woman, according to one former colleague.
But in other respects, Tripp was an odd choice as a confidant. In terms of the Clinton controversies, she was a woman with a past. In 1993, Tripp's name had surfaced during investigations into the suicide of former Deputy White House Counsel Vincent Foster. An aide in the counsel's office at the time, Tripp was the last person known to see Foster alive. During the Senate investigation of the suicide, interoffice E-mails between Tripp and a colleague questioning the counsel office's actions in the wake of Foster's death played a role in fueling Republican suspicions of a coverup. Tripp remarked that her co-worker had mentioned that shredded documents were in Foster's briefcase five days before White House counsel Bernard Nussbaum discovered the suicide note. Tripp wrote: "Christ. And we're the support staff????"
According to some sources, Tripp was moved to the Pentagon in 1994 because key White House officials had lost confidence in her loyalty. One neighbor quotes Tripp as saying she was pushed out because she "knew too much." But despite the strained departure, Pentagon co-workers say they did not detect an overt political agenda on Tripp's part. "My feeling is she was close to apolitical," said a former colleague. "I never got the impression Linda had an agenda."
Nonetheless, Tripp again found herself in the middle of a Clinton administration scandal last summer, when she told Newsweek, in an on-the-record interview, that another woman, Kathleen E. Willey, who like the president is 51, had confided to her that Clinton had kissed and fondled her when she met with him in the Oval Office to discuss a possible job. Robert Bennett, Clinton's lawyer, emphatically denied that any sexual encounter had taken place between Clinton and Willey and said Tripp's account was "not to be believed."
Lewinsky began confiding in Tripp before the Willey revelations. But it's striking that Lewinsky continued to share intimate details with her friend even after Tripp had appeared publicly as a source of sexual allegations against the president. At some point, Tripp began recording her conversations with Lewinsky. Exactly when or why is unclear, though several sources have said Tripp moved to do so because of Bennett's challenges to her credibility in the Willey incident. Eventually, Tripp amassed a cache of almost 20 taped conversations withLewinsky, in which the younger woman spoke about what she claimed was her affair with Clinton, sometimes in graphic terms, and expressed regret over the cooling of their relationship. According to several accounts, Tripp has told investigators that Lewinsky also played for her messages on her answering machine that she said came from President Clinton.
It was the pressure of the advancing Paula Jones litigation that forced these developments to a head. According to the Washington Post, sources who have heard the tapes say Lewinsky claimed that she called Clinton after she received a subpoena in mid-December to give a deposition in the Jones case. Lewinsky also says on the tapes that Clinton instructed her to deny the relationship and that he would send Vernon Jordan, his longtime friend and adviser, to talk with her. Lewinsky reportedly claims that Jordan, during a meeting in a car, encouraged her to deny any sexual relationship with Clinton and insisted she had little to worry about because perjury is rarely prosecuted in civil cases. In a statement last week, Jordan emphatically denied those allegations: "At no time did I ever say, suggest or intimate to her that she should lie."
But Jordan's entry increased the stakes. Though he oversees the army of lobbyists at Akin, Gump, the third-biggest lobbying firm in Washington, Jordan is not himself a lawyer or a lobbyist. He is not a member of the Clinton administration, but within the Oval Office he enjoys more influence—and less accountability—than any Clinton cabinet secretary. Nor is Jordan's influence limited to the political sphere. He and his wife sit on 17 corporate boards between them, including Revlon, American Express, and Dow Jones. "Power broker" is the term most often used to describe Jordan. In light of the latest White House scandal, a more apt label might be "fixer."
Providing Clinton with behind-the-scenes assistance on personnel (and personal) matters is part of what makes Jordan one of the most influential men in Washington. Jordan discreetly queried Gen. Colin Powell about becoming Clinton's secretary of state. He helped Clinton friend and former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell line up a lucrative consulting contract before Hubbell was convicted of fraud. He advised Hillary Clinton on her dealings with Whitewater prosecutors. He even persuaded the Clintons to start vacationing in Martha's Vineyard.
Jordan also took an active interest in Lewinsky's welfare. Jordan acknowledged that he arranged for Lewinsky to receive job interviews at affiliates of the advertising agency Young & Rubicam and at American Express Co. and Revlon, where he serves as a director. He also referred Lewinsky to Washington lawyer Frank Carter, who helped her prepare her early January deposition in the Jones case in which she denied having an affair with the president. In a separate statement, U.N. Ambassador Bill Richardson said that last fall he had offered Lewinsky a "junior public affairs position." Revlon also offered her a job but after the controversy broke announced last week that it was rescinding the offer.
Meanwhile, Tripp, Lewinsky's confidant, was facing her own subpoena in the Jones case. According to several accounts, Lewinsky urged Tripp not to disclose Lewinsky's purported relationship with Clinton and to disavow Tripp's earlier account of the president's encounter with Willey. Eventually, Lewinsky apparently gave Tripp a document entitled "Points to make in affidavit." The document, which offers detailed public relations advice that might stretch the sophistication of a 24-year-old, counsels Tripp to recant her earlier story and to tell Jones's lawyers "You have never observed the president behaving inappropriately with anybody." The source of the unsigned document is unknown.
On Monday, January 12, Tripp took her story—and her tapes—to Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr. From there, events unfolded rapidly. According to several accounts, Tripp told Starr she was planning to meet with Lewinsky the next day; Starr's office brought in the Federal Bureau of Investigation and arranged for Tripp to wear a hidden microphone during the January 13 encounter at a suburban Virginia Ritz-Carlton Hotel.
In that tape, according to several accounts, Lewinsky repeated her allegations that Jordan encouraged her to keep quiet about her relationship with Clinton. Armed with the new tape, Starr immediately sought and received permission to expand his inquiry from the Justice Department and the three-judge federal panel overseeing his investigation. On January 16, one day before Clinton was delivering his own historic deposition in the Jones case, Starr's office reportedly attempted to persuade Lewinsky to recant her affidavit and testify against the president; but those talks broke down, and the story surfaced in the press.
Now, the prospect is for another long-running confrontation between a prosecutor who Clinton allies believe is harboring a vendetta and a White House that the prosecutor believes is committed to stonewalling.
To make any case against Clinton, legal experts agree Starr would first have to gain the cooperation of Lewinsky. Unless Lewinsky is willing to take the witness stand and subject herself to cross-examination, the secret tape recordings of Lewinsky talking to Tripp would be useless in court. They are considered hearsay and cannot be used as evidence. But Lewinsky'slawyer, William Ginsburg, indicated last week that he was at loggerheads with Starr. He seeks broad protection from prosecution for Lewinsky; instead Starr is escalating the pressure. Last Friday, Ginsburg said that Lewinsky has been formally notified that she is a target of Starr's investigation—which means that he is threatening her with indictment, possibly as a means of persuading her to testify against Jordan or Clinton. Other evidence that reportedly exists might help Starr turn the screws, including courier receipts showing that Lewinsky sent packages to Clinton's secretary Betty Currie and messages from Clinton on Lewinsky's answering machine that Tripp claims to have heard.
Starr's team stirred up bad blood with Lewinsky from the start, according to Ginsburg. In an interview with CNN, Ginsburg described an extraordinary scene at the Ritz-Carlton on January 16, in which Starr's team of lawyers and FBI agents "somehow" arranged a meeting with Lewinsky and then held her and questioned her for at least eight hours without a lawyer present. "That's as close as you can get to a constitutional breach," said Ginsburg. "She was never detained or arrested, but there was enough intimidation by the process, as well as words said to her about the imminence of prosecution, that she did not dare to leave." Instead, Lewinsky called her parents, who in turn called Ginsburg, an old family friend. Ginsburg said that he learned that Starr's team had urged her to be wired with a microphone similar to the one Tripp had worn to help them in their continuing investigation against the president. Starr denies Ginsburg's account, but the two sides resumed negotiations late Friday.
Clinton's defenders could raise numerous legal issues about the tape recordings between Tripp and Lewinsky. It is likely only the one recording made with the oversight of the FBI would be admissible in court; it would be impossible to "authenticate" the ones that Tripp did alone—in other words, to prove that they had not been faked. Also, defense attorneys might ask whether Tripp voluntarily wore a wire for the FBI. The suggestion would be that she was coerced into doing so by the threat from Starr's team that she could be prosecuted for her previous tape recordings. Some questioned the propriety of Starr's wiring Tripp or apparently attempting to entice Lewinsky into what amounted to a sting operation against the president. "This kind of Columbo maneuver is not consistent with the role or authority of the prosecutor," says Cass Sunstein, a prominent constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago. "It is peculiar and inappropriate behavior on his part.
Regardless of whether the case ultimately produces legal charges against the president—or a serious attempt in the House to examine impeachment—the new allegations create another huge rock in the road for Clinton as he tries to generate momentum for the aggressive policy agenda on issues such as education, child care, and Medicare that he has laid out over the past month. At best, they will prove to be a sustained distraction; at worst they could disintegrate his public support. In fact, polls released late last week began to show some erosion in Clinton's public favorability ratings, even though most Americans said they still did not "care" about this matter, according to a CNN/Time survey. A crucial dimension in public judgment could be the imbalance of power inherent in his relationship with a young intern at the White House. Says Republican pollster Bill McInturff, "There is a vast difference between saying sometime in your marriage in the 1980s you have 'caused pain' [as Clinton did in the 60 Minutes interview] and saying that as president of the United States, after all these stories and allegations, that you engaged in this activity."
Yet so explosive are these events that the investigation is not without risk for Starr either. Starr, who has had a history of conservative political affiliations and has maintained an active corporate law practice, has faced criticism for conflicts throughout his tenure as independent counsel. This dramatic new turn in his investigation instantly opened new questions about his judgment as well. "Starr is someone I know and respect and like," says Sunstein. "But I think he's been so obsessively fixated on this ongoing investigation that he's lost a sense of perspective."
Amid all the swirling accusations, holding a sense of perspective isn't easy. The allegations immediately created the sense of a presidency besieged—and perhaps unraveling. Yet Clinton has faced that sense before, and each time he has regained his footing. Perhaps the most definitive characteristic of the Clinton presidency is that it resists definitive predictions. Whenever he seems on top of the world, something knocks him off stride; whenever he seems flattened beyond recovery, he recovers. This new challenge could break that pattern or simply confirm it once again.
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