n 1998, news broke that upended politics and sent a presidency hurtling toward impeachment. Twenty years later, an all-star panel tries to make sense of that moment—and what it tells us about our own.
Most journalists experience indelible moments that color our thinking long after the story moves on. These moments, usually in the first half of a career, come when a reporter or editor is immersed in a story that at the time is all-consuming—as though history suddenly has revved its jets—and remains a frame of reference even years later.
It is just our luck that for many Washington journalists of my generation, one of those career-defining stories revolved around furtive acts of West Wing fellatio.
Sure, go ahead and snicker. Even at the time, the scandal involving Bill Clinton’s illicit relationship with Monica S. Lewinsky, which broke publicly on this day 20 years ago—January 21, 1998—was the inspiration for no end of lewd jokes and chortling.
What many people don’t remember—and what people who are too young to have followed the story in real time may find inconceivable—is how strange and disturbing and fragile things seemed at the beginning.
And they may not perceive what seems clear to many veterans of those days: How much the angry, raucous, media-saturated politics of the Age of Trump has its roots in the angry, raucous media-saturated politics of the Age of Clinton.
In the opening days after the Washington Post and Newsweek broke the news that independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s years-long investigation into Clinton’s financial affairs was now focused on his sexual affairs, there was widespread speculation that a presidential resignation might be days away.
Within several weeks, however, it became evident that even as the sex scandal was at least briefly an object of prurient obsession for nearly everyone, only for some people—well short of a majority—was it an object of moral indignation and constitutional gravity. Jay Leno cracked on The Tonight Show that Clinton was doing so well in the polls that he was already planning his next sex scandal.
That quip captured the prevailing view of Clinton’s sex scandal that took hold long before Clinton reversed his emphatic denials of an affair with Lewinsky (in August 1998) and the Senate acquitted him (in February 1999) in an impeachment trial in which the outcome was never in doubt. In this light, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was the kind of story that could only flourish outside the main currents of history—after the end of the Cold War but before the September 11, 2001, attacks jolted us from our national slumber.
On its 20th anniversary, however, those surreal days of January 1998 seem connected in a much more linear and living way to the politics of 2018.
It was the first time as a journalist I experienced political events at close range and thought, “I can’t believe this is happening—it feels like a hallucination.” In the Trump era, I (and many others) have these moments several times a week.
Present at the Creation was the title of Dean Acheson’s memoir of the early days of the Cold War. Those of us immersed in the Clinton story sometimes perceive we were present at the destruction. In this case, the destruction of confidence that the game of politics was on the level or that people with respected titles, like president or senator or lawyer or anchorman, were necessarily comporting themselves in respectable or responsible ways.
Clinton survived his scandal not so much because people believed his finger-wagging assertion, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”—then a faint pause as he seemed to blank on her name—“Ms. Lewinsky.” He survived because he persuaded a majority that the scandal was not about sex (as most people at first naturally assumed), nor about the rule of law (as Republicans primly insisted was their real concern). It was about power. And in power battles, the question that matters most is not “What is the truth?” It is instead: “What side are you on?”
To mark the anniversary of the Clinton-Lewinsky moment, POLITICO—which was still nine years away from launch when the scandal broke—assembled a group of journalists who played central roles in the story to ponder the lessons of that history. The conversation is excerpted below.
Michael Isikoff, then a Newsweek reporter and now with Yahoo News, was the reporter who first learned about the connection between Lewinsky and Clinton and the fact that Starr was investigating. Newsweek editors wanted more time to deliberate whether to publish, meaning Isikoff got partially scooped on his scoop when Matt Drudge used his platform on the then-new internet to publicize the big battle taking place inside the magazine. “Those few days were as gripping and nerve-wracking as any I have experienced,” he said.
Isikoff predicted that Washington will again see an impeachment battle after what he sees as the probability that control of the House of Representatives flips to Democrats in the 2018 elections.
Isikoff also asserts that recent events have vindicated his old reporting. Back then, Clinton loyalists attacked his professionalism by suggesting he was a sex-obsessed reporter on the “bimbo beat.” What he was really exploring, he said, was the way important people use their power to exploit women—as highlighted by the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
It is just a fact that there is no reasonable way—under the new prevailing standards around sexual harassment—that Bill Clinton could pass a test that Al Franken or Charlie Rose or Kevin Spacey failed. Of course, as many have noted, it is hard to see how Donald Trump passes such a test either.
Susan Glasser, now a global affairs columnist for POLITICO and then the editor shepherding scandal coverage for the Washington Post, argued that Trump learned a very specific lesson from Clinton: Don’t let the truth get in the way of politics.
“I believe that Donald Trump has learned from and will take to heart the lessons of how Clinton survived politically the year 1998,” she said. “It was political genius how he handled it by lying. Lying was proven to work in some way that has enabled further the cynical and divisive political culture of Washington.”
Glasser also wonders the same thing I do: How is it that a story that would have been jaw-dropping—and quickly all-consuming for the news media—in the Clinton years seems to be moving swiftly to the margins of Trump coverage. This was the revelation, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, that a few weeks before the 2016 election, Trump’s personal lawyer secretly paid a pornographic-film actress, who then recanted her previous claim that she and Trump had a sexual relationship a decade earlier.
Why has this has not produced a 1998-style feeding frenzy? And don’t responsible editors have an obligation to press on this story?
Peter Baker, then the White House reporter for the Washington Post and (amazingly) still on the beat 20 years later for the New York Times, reminded the group that lots of Democrats in 1998 were none too fond of Bill Clinton, in the same way that many Republicans in 1974 were appalled by Richard Nixon. But Clinton used the modern political and media culture to ensure that his own party did not turn on him. In the same way that Trump has so far kept his own party—which includes many leaders who loathe him—from turning on him.
“One of the things that Clinton did that helped ensure his survival is to make sure, a) he made it partisan, and, b) he took advantage of the partisanship of his opponents. Right? You’ve talked about the opponents’ overreach helping him out. By making it a partisan thing, he forced Democrats who didn’t approve of his behavior [and] who might have abandoned him under other circumstances to stand by him because they didn’t want … to stand with the other guys, “ Baker said. “That has only gotten more so in 20 years by virtue of the media and social media and the increasingly balkanized, polarized environment in which we live in. Everything is seen through the partisan lens, and it’s so hard to kind of get to that Nixonian era where basically Republicans were able to say, ‘Enough. We don’t believe that this president belongs here, even though he’s from our own party.’”
If there was one common belief among the panel we assembled, it was in the redemptive power of conscientious and politically independent reporting. But a chastening note came later from someone all the panelists know—Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel—who wasn’t on the panel but with whom I spoke afterward.
Emanuel was then by Clinton’s side as a White House senior adviser. During that year of partisanship and frenzy, he said, he first noticed non-journalistic voices, like The Daily Show, having as much power—and, in some ways, more power—than traditional media in setting the agenda and creating the prism through which politics is viewed. “You guys lost,” he said, without a tone of gloating. …. [Establishment] people and institutions lost authority and public support, and that includes the media.”
That is an argument that Trump definitely believes. And, if true, one from which he benefits.
The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the full conversation here.
John Harris: Twenty years ago this week, the Monica Lewinsky scandal breaks wide open, and for a certain group of us, it was a defining moment in our careers covering Washington. Mention her name to my children, who [in 1998] were not yet born, and it prompts snickers. Those snickers and eye rolls—many people have those now when they think of that scandal. I’m trying to invite people to remember that in those opening days, it did not prompt laughter, it seemed really serious. The issues raised about the presidency, about the media, seemed—then and even now—seem profound.
Peter Baker: I actually think we’re kind of coming full circle back to that. The whole “Me Too” thing in the last few months has put this back on the table in a way that doesn’t sound quite as snickering. After 9/11, a lot of people said, “Oh, look what they spent their time on in the ’90s instead of focusing on real threats.” And, “Oh, gosh. That was just a case of sexual McCarthyism gone amuck.” And I think today it looks a little different.
We’re revisiting in some ways what President Clinton did and what he was accused of in the light of Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose and all these others. And you hear some of the people who defended him—including people like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand—saying, “Well, maybe actually we shouldn’t have handled it the way we should have. Maybe we shouldn’t have defended him.”
Susan Glasser: I think the comparisons that are echoing for people right now are, as Peter correctly pointed out, the #MeToo movement in Washington and the sense that the world has changed and that what seemed an acceptable level of sort of sexual peccadilloes on the part of the president is actually something much more predatory and disturbing. But it’s also about institutions. Trump poses these big questions about the nature of the presidency, what our expectations are for the office, what is the proper role of Congress or the media when the presidency seems to be out of balance in some way. And, of course, that is instantly what people recognized as the potential problems and threats when the Monica Lewinsky story first broke. That was the question we were instantly confronted with that people forget. It wasn’t so much, “Did he or didn’t he do it with Monica Lewinsky?,” although that was certainly relevant right away. It was also the question of, “What are we supposed to do when the president lies under oath, or he was accused instantly of suborning perjury?”
Harris: Michael, take us back though that moment. Nobody was closer to the story than you.
Michael Isikoff: Oh, my God. It was crazy. I had, through a weird set of circumstances, been aware of the Lewinsky relationship with Clinton for months. I had been talking to Linda Tripp. She had been telling me everything … the late-night phone calls and surreptitious visits. At one point, she offered to give me the blue dress. So I was aware this was a potentially big story. We would talk about it at Newsweek: How would we ever publish this? How would we ever be able to prove that this was real? Then I get the phone call on a Tuesday. There is this little event going on at the Ritz-Carlton: Tripp is having lunch with Monica, and [Whitewater independent counsel Ken] Starr’s got the whole thing wired. And I nearly fell off my chair. Starr? Ken Starr is on this?
Baker: Well, that’s what makes it different: It’s not a sex scandal at this point; it’s the prosecutor who is alleging criminal acts that go beyond infidelity.
Isikoff: Absolutely. That’s when I knew this was an earthquake. Washington was about to explode, because any way you cut it, this was going to be a monster story. Those few days 20 years ago were as gripping and nerve-racking as any I have experienced.
Harris: Just to take people back, Peter and I both covered the White House [for the Washington Post], and Susan was our editor on many of the important stories. Before this, we, let’s face it, would gossip all the time—“What about this rumor? What about that?”—as kind of a recreational habit to pass the hours on the press plane. But we would, for the most part, never think about injecting that into our stories or making it a major subject of coverage.
Glasser: In part because of the politics before then. It’s not that it was a taboo subject; it had been raised from the very beginning of Clinton’s presidential campaign, and he had won not once but twice despite this conversation about his extracurricular sex life. And I think there was a feeling that, politically speaking, it was out there and the judgment of the public had been heard on it.
Isikoff: But the public didn’t know what was true and what was not. Just as we all didn’t. That’s why you would talk about it and gossip about it. I got into this for a number of reasons, but one big reason was that I had helped in the Post’s coverage of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. So when the Paula Jones allegations first surfaced, my perspective was, “Well, if we took Anita Hill seriously, we have to take this seriously.” And let’s remember what the core allegations of Paula Jones were: that a state trooper summons her—while she’s on the job—up to a hotel room to see the then-governor, who proceeds to make sexual advances, drops his pants, exposes himself and asks for oral sex. Now, who does that sound like when you hear it today? I think most people would think, “Oh, my God. Harvey Weinstein.” That’s what Paula Jones was alleging. So then the question became, “Was she telling the truth?” And I spent a lot of time on that. The Post went around and round about how to handle something like this. Yes, she had come forward [via Clinton’s] political enemies, yet she had witnesses. The woman who was sitting next to her confirmed that the state trooper was there and took her down and she came down and appeared shaken as she left the hotel room.
Harris: We used to torture ourselves: “Well, what’s the angle? Who paid for the state trooper’s gas?” So there was a public angle and we’d have to look at it. The sex was, of course, nobody’s business, but maybe the abuse of funds is. And now we would say, “No, sexual relations, as they reflect power relationships, are fair game.”
Glasser: I went back and [read] both the original, fascinating Newsweekstory, which was written by Michael [Isikoff] and the original, fascinating Washington Post story, which was written by Peter [Baker], Sue Schmidt and Toni Locy. And I was really struck: There is a very antiquated and very sexist characterization of all of the women, in particular Monica Lewinsky, in those original stories. Questioning her veracity, her presentation—everything about her was considered to be fair game, from how she dressed and her lack of maturity and her own penchant for talking about sex with Linda Tripp. There was a deep vein of skepticism that she could ever possibly be telling the truth about this sexual relationship with the president of the United States. What really struck me, reading those accounts 20 years later: Everything Monica Lewinsky said was true.
Isikoff: I happened to be on Morning Joe the other day talking about this, and I was admonished because I slipped at one point and called it “the Lewinsky scandal.” I was admonished, and deservedly so.
Baker: [Monica Lewinsky] hates that, and she’s right.
Isikoff: This was a Clinton scandal; it was not a Lewinsky scandal.
Baker: It was a tough story to write. Michael’s editors were squeamish about it and weren’t sure whether or not to go forward with it because we had never actually accused a sitting president of the United States of doing anything like this. Gennifer Flowers came out through a tabloid in a campaign setting; it was just different.
I remember sitting in the office of [the Post’s] national editor. By this point, we knew Michael had a story; we knew it had been spiked [by Newsweek’s editors]. We had gotten the gist of it ourselves through our own reporting, and we were about to publish. And the question that was being asked was not, “Should we publish?” It was, “What holes do we still have?” And what strikes me is that here we are 20 years later, there’s no way on earth a story like that wouldn’t be published by the first organization that got it. Newsweek did hesitate, understandably, for good reasons, because they wanted to be responsible.
Isikoff: [Hesitates] Yeah.
Baker: I’m not agreeing with that; I’m on your side on that one.
Isikoff: OK, good. Just to make that clear.
Baker: I think that they were trying to sort through tough issues, and they made a wrong call.
Isikoff: They were squeamish. One of the arguments that was raised is, “Well, what if [Lewinsky] is just a fabulist? What if she is just making this all up, and we go put on the newsstands for a week that the president is being investigated for this relationship, and it turns out she is a complete flake?”
We had lots of advantages over everybody else, but our biggest advantage is we did have the tape. We had listened to the tape that Friday night into the wee hours of the morning, parsing every word—I remember we just went around and around. There wasn’t the explicit confirmation that Clinton had told her to lie, which was the core basis for Starr getting involved. It was ambiguous. There is an exchange where he says, “Well, has he told you to lie?” “No, he didn’t tell me to lie.” “Does he expect you’re going to tell the truth?” “Well, no.” So what is it? I suspect that accurately reflects what actually happened, because Clinton, for all his recklessness and stupidity for getting himself involved in this situation, was smart in that sense.
Glasser: You said you listened to the tapes on Friday. It was not until Saturday, which is actually 20 years ago today—Saturday, January 17th, 1998—that Clinton went to give his deposition in the Paula Jones case. And they had the information about Monica, and they asked him a series of questions. And Clinton up until that very moment … probably sitting in the room is when he realized the vulnerability.
Harris: There’s no way they’re asking these questions if they don’t know.
Isikoff: But the Jones lawyers blew it.
Glasser: That’s right.
Isikoff: They relied on this tortured definition of sexual relations instead of asking specifically, you know—
Glasser: Specific questions. Had they said, “Did you do it?”
Baker: Again out of a desire not to besmirch the presidency. This is a tough thing. You’re asking people to say to the president of the United States, “Did you do this particular act?”
Glasser: That’s when the cover-up begins. It’s when Clinton starts to realize he’s going to have to lie even more in order to protect himself, that his secret is out.
Harris: I’m torn, though. On one hand, I think we would agree: There is no way Bill Clinton could pass the test as it’s prevailing currently against Senator Al Franken or against Charlie Rose, based on what we know of his behavior and the allegations against him—not just from Monica Lewinsky but from a trail of other people on the record, Kathleen Willey, Paula Jones. He’d flunk the test. Except there is no way that Donald Trump could also pass that test, and yet he seems to pass it. What gives?
Isikoff: Good question. My instant reaction would be there is so much else with Trump—so many other questions that might even be larger—that maybe this one doesn’t get as much attention as it should.
Baker: The other day on the front page of a couple of the papers is a story about the president, the future president of the United States, allegedly paying $130,000 to keep a porn star quiet about their affair.
Harris: Three days later, and now it’s, “In other news …”
Baker: It wasn’t even on a front page a second day because of Michael’s reason: There are so many other things. Is he mentally fit? Is he saying racially inflammatory things? Oh, and is he paying off a porn star?
Glasser: But let’s also say that the deck is still stacked against women. There are no women executive editors at these newspapers making decisions about what’s important. There is a sense that somehow, [much as when] Gennifer Flowers came up in 1992 but Clinton was elected anyways, that because the Access Hollywood tape came out, because these women—19 women came forward and accused Donald Trump of various kinds of sexual harassment or assault even before the election—his claim and that of his supporters is basically, “Old news,” or, “Fake news.”
Baker: I would say one of the unfortunate lessons from the Clinton episode that some other politicians have internalized is that denial works, and in Clinton’s case, lying works. For seven to eight months, he basically says to the American people, “No, I didn’t have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky,” and then he finally admits it in the grand jury in August 1998. But by that point, the public was tired and sick of it, and they’d already made up their own minds about it, and it wasn’t as shocking. Had the admission come from the very beginning, it might have shocked the public enough to force him to resign. But he gave his supporters something to hold on to: “It’s not true. It’s a lie. It’s Ken Starr.”
Harris: The delay allowed him to change the question from, “Did he do it? Is that OK?,” where I think a lot of people would have said “No, it’s not OK.” The question was not, “Did he do it?” The question was, “Which side are you on? Are you on Bill Clinton’s side, or are you on Ken Starr’s side?”
Isikoff: Clinton benefited from two things. One is, first of all, in addition to lying, he had a very aggressive set of media-savvy defenders who knew how to shape his story to go after his political enemies and frame it that way. And then he had the excesses of his political enemies, who clearly went too far.
At the end of the day, impeachment is a political question. If the country is not with you, it doesn’t make sense to move forward. It was clear, once the results of the 1998 elections came in and Republicans lost seats during a midterm [in which] they should have picked up big gains, that the public wasn’t there. But Clinton’s political foes were so determined to get him that they took it to a step where they turned the country against him.
Harris: Michael, I want to challenge you, though—
Isikoff: Please do. Let’s not all agree with each other.
Harris: —from what I think would be a—would be a Clinton perspective. You spent a significant portion of the ’90s exploring what was, I think, obvious at the time: Clinton’s personal frailty, his vulnerability to weaknesses of the flesh, his sex life. And Donald Trump is exposed as writing a check to a pornographic star, and that is, “Well, we need 24 or 48 hours to chew that over,” and on we go. That does not seem to jibe.
Isikoff: First of all, let me stop you. I reject the idea that my reporting was about his “sex life” any more than the brilliant reporting that the New York Times and the New Yorker and others have done about the abuses of powerful men toward subordinate women—nobody says that was about their “sex lives.”
Glasser: Yeah, I agree with Michael on that. I think that’s important.
Isikoff: That’s the way the Clinton people wanted to craft it: I was the guy on the “bimbo beat.” That was the way they could dismiss the legitimate questions about their boss’ abusive conduct toward multiple women and his lying about it. So I think that’s a very important point. Should Trump’s more-than-indiscretions get more attention? Yes, of course. But, as I said before, there’s just so much with Trump that, where does this rank? Does it trump the questions about whether he is mentally fit to be in office, whether he has the temperament to be president, whether he was in league with a foreign power in some way that got him elected in the first place? Those are all huge questions that need to be sorted out.
Glasser: I’ve always believed that Bill Clinton’s denial and how he handled the revelations of January 1998 were both the key to his political survival of the impeachment and trial and also the template for future presidents who would face enormous scandal. I believe that Donald Trump has learned from—and will take to heart—the lessons of how Clinton survived, politically, the year 1998, and not only weathered the scandal but did so for a long period of time with his reputation intact and even burnished. It was political genius how he handled it by lying. Lying was proven to work in some way that has enabled further the cynical and divisive political culture of Washington.
On Trump, what I would say is that we don’t know what we’re going to face in terms of the Mueller investigation, in terms of how these various strands—the Russia investigation, Trump’s business dealings—how they play out, whether they come to a head in some sort of a political process on Capitol Hill or not. If they do, it may well be that they somehow merge with the questions about Donald Trump’s character and comportment and behavior toward women. We haven’t seen the end of the story yet. And it may well be because the politics are shifting that you could envision an article of impeachment that somehow makes reference to this conduct toward women.
Baker: Most politicians end up being forced out because they feel ashamed or they don’t want to live with the battering that comes with having their lives exposed, or they think it might be unfair coverage, or what have you, right? Nobody forced Al Franken to resign except that Al Franken decided to resign. There was no process that required him to leave office; he decided to leave office. Bill Clinton refused. Democrats would have preferred in some way that he leave office, because Al Gore would have been perfectly fine as a president; he would have been fine running in the 2000 elections as an incumbent. Bill Clinton said no.
Now, his supporters say that was a heroic act on his part to resist the mob, but it also meant that Bill Clinton proved a point: They can’t make you leave, so don’t. And I think Donald Trump is the same way: He’s willing to live with all kinds of things being said about him in a way that most politicians would have either shame or say, “No, I’m not going to live with this crap,” or whatever. And it doesn’t seem to bother him.
Isikoff: We should probably talk a little bit about the dramatic changes in the news media, and how that affects coverage of these scandals and how they play out.
Harris: Back then, we believed—and I think it was true—powerful platforms like Newsweek, like the Washington Post, like the New York Times could set the agenda of what the consequences and relevance of the story would be. I’ve long since surrendered that belief that any institution sets the agenda; the mob of a million arguing voices does their thing—nobody sets the agenda. What would have happened if we were in the current media climate in 1998?
Isikoff: When Newsweek held the story, they were holding the story for a full week. There was no Twitter. Although Newsweek had a dedicated AOL website, I had never even seen it. Nobody read it. It was there for the sole purpose of posting the magazine when it came out. We had never put a story up—
Baker: But then you did, right? And that was a revolutionary moment.
Isikoff: Right. So we have to give the devil his due. Matt Drudge posts this little item on a Saturday night [on] big screaming arguments at Newsweek about holding a story about the president’s relationship with a former intern. Then everybody is like, “What the hell is going on?” Everybody is scrambling. By Tuesday, you guys [at the Post] break the story, so it’s out there. But we knew we had more than anybody else. We had the tape; we had—I had been talking to Tripp for months. The decision is made: We’re going to post the story on our website. And it was like, “Huh? How does that work? What do you do?” We wrote a 10,000-word story or whatever it was. But since we didn’t think anybody would even know how to find our website, we faxed the story around to news organizations all over town.
Glasser: Yeah, and the fax was the key instrument, the revolutionary technology at the time. At the Washington Post, I had started work the week before as the deputy national editor for investigations. And the internet was considered a perk at the time at the Washington Post. And I did not actually even have access on my computer to the internet, and I was going to end up overseeing this coverage. I said, “How do you get information? How do you access the internet?” And they said, “Well, you go to the library.” It took three weeks of lobbying the top editors of the Washington Post to get me access to the internet. In the meantime, the president of the United States has almost been forced to resign from office because of the internet.
Baker: This whole story as it played out over the year was a whole revolution in the media. You had the advent of Drudge, at least in a powerful public way; you had Michael’s story first going up on the web; I wrote the first story that ever appeared on the Washington Post website about the step toward impeachment; we had Fox News, which really came into its own as a powerful force in politics in that year. All of these forces beginning to show how the media was going to transform ultimately into what it is today, without social media, which has then taken that three or four or five extra steps.
Harris: Do you think [having social media at the time] would have just accelerated the process and we all would have been in different camps, so Clinton would survive in this environment? Or would it have meant the whole project would have erupted in flames within the first week?
Isikoff: I don’t know. You had Fox News. That was around. You had MSNBC—but it was not what it is today—to defend Clinton. So, you know, it may have been worse for him if the technology was there, because would he have had the same access to defenders?
Glasser: The flip side is Starr’s investigation would have been completely different. I was struck rereading Michael’s excellent account of all the wiring that Linda Tripp did and the taping [of Lewinsky]. She did that because she was concerned of being called in as a witness; she was concerned about her own account of her relationship with Monica Lewinsky being called into question. Well, of course, in the era of email and texting and Facebook, there would have been so much evidence that a prosecutor would have been able to gather very quickly. The entrapment aspect of this would actually have gone away, because they would have just had all the evidence.
Isikoff: That’s a great point. There would have been text messages.
Glasser: Yeah, of course there would have been. And Monica definitely would have saved them. If she’s saving the dress, she definitely would have saved—
Isikoff: She would have been texting Linda after every one of her visits with Clinton.
Glasser: Yeah, she would have been like, “Oh, my God. We did this. We did—”
Isikoff: And it would have been right there.
Baker: One of the things that Clinton did that helped ensure his survival is, a) he made it partisan, and, b) he took advantage of the partisanship of his opponents. By making it a partisan thing, he forced Democrats who didn’t approve of his behavior [and] who might have abandoned him under other circumstances to stand by him because they didn’t want to stand with the other guys. That has only gotten more so in 20 years by virtue of the media and social media and the increasingly balkanized, polarized environment in which we live in. Everything is seen through the partisan lens, and it’s so hard to get to that Nixonian era where basically Republicans were able to say, “Enough. We don’t believe that this president belongs here, even though he’s from our own party.”
Isikoff: You had a little moment of that when Clinton finally came clean and admitted it, and I think Joe Lieberman made that speech on the Senate which indicated he was about—did he call for Clinton’s resignation or he just—
Baker: Clinton was in Moscow, and I was with him at the time. It was an incredibly dramatic moment because Russia’s economy was collapsing and the president of the United States was being called out by his own party on the floor of the Senate. And this is where the Republicans lost an opportunity: They preferred to go for an all-or-nothing, impeachment-or-nothing kind of attack rather than sitting together with the Joe Liebermans and the other disaffected Democrats—of whom there were plenty—and saying, “Let’s do a bipartisan censure,” or whatever it is that will have an end result in which both parties spoke out and said, “This is unacceptable. We may not be pushing you out of office, but we don’t think this is [appropriate] behavior by a president.”
Harris: Peter, one part I don’t agree with you about Bill Clinton is [the idea] that he was kind of indifferent to the opinions or judgments of others, that he just compartmentalized and was sort of at peace with the false story he had to project. I think it pained him greatly. And this is the difference with Trump. I honestly think Trump is contemptuous of establishment institutions, establishment voices, establishment precedents. Bill Clinton … the presidency that he wanted would have been to have the acclaim of those establishment voices. Bill Clinton cared what the New York Times editorial page said about him. And he cared about whether he was a president being subpoenaed, whereas I honestly don’t think Trump gives a damn.
Isikoff: Yes, but go back to what I always thought was one of the telling moments after the scandal breaks and it’s the darkest days. Who does Clinton talk to? Dick Morris. “What are the numbers? Do a poll for me.” And Morris is giving him the numbers … and Clinton is, like, writing them down. It was a cold, political calculation: “What can I get away with? What can’t I get away with?”
Isikoff: Clinton—I mean, it must be killing him, because he’s such a public figure, how does he contain himself? But the fact that he is not out there saying anything, I think, says a lot about how views have changed.
Harris: I feel that the original behavior that led to this is still deeply unsettled in Bill Clinton’s mind. And the evidence I have for that is his own memoir … it’s almost an hour-by-hour account of his presidency. ‘And then I called Tony Blair, and then I stopped to grab a Diet Coke.’ And in that tick-tock of his presidency, Monica Lewinsky enters the story not when they had their relationship starting in November 1995. She doesn’t ever get a reference until this week in January 1998. And that, to me, said something telling and also kind of sad. We have to remember that there are human beings at the heart of this, and Monica Lewinsky is probably the biggest victim. She mattered not at all except to the extent that she was thrown into this firestorm.
Isikoff: That does remind me of another telling point from that episode: I believe Monica testified that she was not sure—even after the first four or five times she had sexually serviced the president—whether he knew her name. That is not your normal sexual straying infidelity. It gets into the power question that I think was so troubling.
Glasser: Another name we haven’t mentioned is that of Hillary Clinton, and we haven’t talked about Chelsea Clinton, also victims in this scenario. It’s fascinating, the extent to which over the last year and a half, Donald Trump was able to rewrite the narrative of Bill Clinton’s scandal and his aggressive behavior toward women and pattern of lies and deception and rewrite that as a story about Hillary Clinton as his enabler. It’s also an interesting and important footnote that arguably it was the Clinton impeachment scandal which gave rise to Hillary Clinton’s independent political career.
Baker: It’s literally the day that he is being acquitted on the floor of the Senate after the trial that she is in the White House meeting with Harold Ickes, talking about this potential Senate race in New York and which counties she might do well in and so forth. It was really like the prequel to the next story.
Harris: I recall Jay Leno, two weeks into it, he said, “Bill Clinton is doing so well in the polls that he’s already planning his next sex scandal.” But beneath the jokes, it is a reality that this moment deeply compromised a very promising presidency, and in my judgment, it compromised a brand of Clinton politics for which there were big prices to pay. One of those prices was paid by Al Gore. I think Hillary Clinton’s aura and her brand of politics has been compromised with enormous consequences—if you imagine a world in which Al Gore wins and George W. Bush doesn’t, or you imagine a world where Hillary Clinton is now president and Donald Trump isn’t. This moment 20 years ago, January 1998, had big consequences, maybe more than that are obvious, which continue to echo to this day.
Isikoff: If Hillary Clinton had won the election, what would this conversation be like with Bill Clinton back in the White House? And would the Harvey Weinstein scandal have broken if Hillary Clinton had won the election? There are so many different ways you can think about this. But bottom line, we deal with the history that played out. We do look at this differently now than many of us did at the time. There was always the question about where Monica Lewinsky would rank when they write the obituary of Bill Clinton. Would it be in the first paragraph, the second paragraph, the third paragraph? I think there was a point at which it had probably dropped to three or four. I think it’s now up there to two or possibly in the first one. And that’s no small thing if you are Bill Clinton.
Baker: He had successfully—for a while—rewritten history so that his was a presidency of peace and prosperity compared to what followed, so by the time 2008 comes around and his wife is running for the first time, people look back quite fondly on the Clinton presidency. And they said, “Well, gosh, that was a time when we had 22 million more jobs and we were booming and we had relative peace around the world, and now here we are with this quagmire and a financial crisis and all.” And now we’re back talking about this again, and it’s a complicated thing. That’s what makes Clinton such a fascinating figure. There is this combination of promise and peril; his greatest strengths are also his greatest weaknesses. It’s such a Shakespearean story for him to bring all this upon himself, and then defying his enemies—both his tormentors and, in some ways, his saviors. He’s a story we’re going to be writing about and changing for many decades to come.
Glasser: I think one of the reasons we’re going to be changing the story is that Donald Trump has caused us to reexamine the legacy of most of our recent presidents. And it’s going to look very different if you have someone like Trump who remains in office and is seen to have gotten away with accusations of a similar or even more serious gravity when it comes to attitudes and relations toward women. The story of Bill Clinton is now intertwined with that of Donald Trump, just as the legacy of Barack Obama is now intertwined in our minds with that of Donald Trump. So until we know the ending of the Trump story, we’re not going to know how to look at this chapter in Bill Clinton’s presidency.
Harris: Michael, I’m going to give you the last word. Do you feel now that your reporting, intensely criticized at the time, has been vindicated? Do you have any regrets about the whole episode?
Isikoff: Yes and no. Yes, vindicated. Although the criticism was unpleasant, I never had any doubts, nor did my editors, that we handled it in the right way. I think we got it entirely right. What we published, it holds up, so, no; no regrets on that score.
I would like to end on one point about just how complicated Bill Clinton is and his greatest strengths are his greatest weaknesses. I want to take you back to the Paula Jones episode for one moment. When I first started looking into that, the White House communications person at the time was George Stephanopoulos. And Stephanopoulos made the point to me: Do you realize when this event with Paula Jones was supposed to have happened? It was the day after Bill Clinton flies back from Cleveland at the Democratic Leadership Conference, where he gave this rousing speech that essentially put him on the map as the probable front-runner for the Democratic nomination. It was his highest moment in national politics. He was pumped. He could taste it: He was going to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States. And what does he do the very next day? Stephanopoulos made the point that it proves it couldn’t have happened: “Do you think he’s that crazy?” In fact, it’s all there. At his moment of greatest triumph, he sows the seeds for the greatest debacle of his political life. And I think there is something very large—when you talk about “Shakespearean”—to say about all that.
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