On Jan. 21, 1998, NPR’s Mara Liasson was scheduled to interview Bill Clinton about his upcoming State of the Union address.
MARA LIASSON: The biggest news for us was what he was going to say. I even had a little scoop on that—he was going to say something about Social Security. And I knew what it was, so I was going to ask him about that. How quaint.
Liasson and her colleague Robert Siegel had planned out the whole interview.
MARA LIASSON: And then, the day of, we wake up and read the Post and we see the story about Monica Lewinsky. And we looked at each other and we went, “Ew, yuck, I guess we have to ask him about this.”
The notion that Clinton had been romantically involved with a former White House intern first appeared on a fledgling website called the Drudge Report. The site’s proprietor, Matt Drudge, had received a tip that editors at Newsweek were sitting on a story about Clinton’s affair. Drudge published the allegation in the middle of the night on Sunday, Jan. 18—about 24 hours after Monica Lewinsky walked out on Ken Starr’s prosecutors at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Drudge had received the tip from Lucianne Goldberg, the literary agent who was working with Linda Tripp.
Drudge’s post didn’t make it into the mainstream media for three full days. When it finally did, by way of a front-page story in the Washington Post, it was a lot for people to take in.
TOM BROKAW: The unexpected: Reports of a new sex scandal involving President Clinton.
JOHN SEIGENTHALER: Bombshell allegations that he had a sexual affair with a former White House intern.
Not only was the president being accused of having an affair with a woman half his age, he was also under criminal investigation by independent counsel Ken Starr for trying to cover it up.
CLAIRE SHIPMAN: There’s a growing sense here that this scandal could unravel the administration.
When Mara Liasson and Robert Siegel sat down across from Clinton in the Oval Office the day the Post story came out, they opened their interview with a series of direct but charitably phrased questions about the allegations.
MARA LIASSON: I was very, um, decorous, and I said—
MARA LIASSON ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED: Mr. President, where do you think this comes from, did you have any kind of relationship with her that could have been misconstrued?
MARA LIASSON: Then he said, “Well, Mara, I don’t know anything more about this than you do.”
BILL CLINTON ON ALL THINGS CONSIDERED: Mara, I’m gonna do my best to cooperate with this investigation. I wanna know what they want to know from me. I think it’s more important for me to tell the American people that it wasn’t improper relations, I didn’t ask anybody to lie, and I intend to cooperate. And I think that’s all I should say right now so I can get back to the work of the country.
MARA LIASSON: What I do remember very distinctly from the interview was that Bill Clinton, who has a large jaw, his jaw muscle was like pulsing as he was speaking. And you could see this bah-bum-bah-bum-bah-bum, this kind of jaw-muscle pulsing. So he was tense.
The Lewinsky story sent a chill through the White House, as Clinton staffers who had grown accustomed to scandal wondered amongst themselves if this one was for real.
ELI ATTIE: They just read about it in the paper like everybody else.
This is Eli Attie. In 1998, he was working for Vice President Al Gore. Later on, he would become a writer for the television show The West Wing.
ELI ATTIE: The building, you know, was very functional, but with this kind of overlay of unreality I think because, you know, when the Lewinsky story started to break, nobody really knew what it meant. Nobody knew where it was heading.
One night, Attie was talking on the phone with a friend from Time magazine, whose outlook on the situation left him jolted.
ELI ATTIE: I was wondering, you know, what Clinton might do, what he might say. And this guy said to me like, “Don’t you get it? Gore’s going to be president by Friday. There’s no way Clinton survives this week.”
A few days later, Attie was organizing a routine press conference, in which the vice president and the first lady would announce a new grant for after-school programs. The morning of the event, Attie was informed that the president would also be making an appearance.
ELI ATTIE: I remember it as if it were yesterday because, you know, Gore spoke about after-school care and it was fine.
AL GORE: This morning’s announcement should be seen in the context of how we prepare the children in this country to succeed in the 21st century.
ELI ATTIE: And the first lady spoke and same thing.
HILLARY CLINTON: This morning we come together to hear about the president’s plans to strengthen education.
ELI ATTIE: And then President Clinton got up and he gave another fairly mundane speech about after-school care and education, and you could have slept through the whole thing. And then, at the very end of the president’s remarks, he said—
BILL CLINTON: Now I have to go back to work on my State of the Union speech. But I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me. I’m going to say this again: I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time. Never. These allegations are false, and I need to go back to work for the American people. Thank you.
ELI ATTIE: And he just walked right out the door.
Clinton’s denials were enough to assuage most of his prominent allies, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who vouched for him publicly and without equivocation.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: I believe that the allegations are completely untrue.
But Clinton’s critics on the right were not satisfied.
REED IRVINE: He has scandal after scandal, it should disqualify him from being the occupant of the Oval Office.
REP. BOB BARR: Mr. President, you are responsible for bringing shame upon a great institution, and we, the people of the United States of America, will hold you accountable.
In the weeks and months that followed, some of the most withering criticism that Clinton took came from a coalition of conservative activists whose political views were bound up with their faith. The influence of the Christian right within the Republican Party had been growing steadily since the Reagan years. When the Lewinsky story broke, some of the movement’s leaders pounced on it with righteous vigor.
Here’s John Ashcroft, a Christian conservative who in 1998 was a senator from Missouri.
JOHN ASHCROFT: Leaders who suggest that they can separate their private lives and their public actions are wrong. Morality is not divisible. It is not divisible by any man, it is not divisible by any president.
Clinton and his allies, meanwhile, continued to insist he’d done nothing inappropriate. Even as increasingly vivid details about his relationship with Lewinsky began to trickle out of Starr’s grand jury.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Today even more graphic and salacious allegations came to light.
The official position of the White House was that none of it had happened.
Most Americans were pretty sure that wasn’t true. And so, during the spring and summer of 1998, conservatives who thought Clinton’s alleged behavior was immoral and unforgivable went to war against his defenders, many of whom believed that even if Clinton had done something wrong, it wasn’t as grave or dangerous as the campaign to chase him out of office. It was a struggle that played out in the media—in newspapers, on the World Wide Web, and most importantly on television. Meanwhile, a steady stream of public opinion polls provided a running score.
How did the right—and the religious right, in particular—fan the flames of outrage during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal? How did the president’s supporters fight back? And how did the American people decide whose side to take?
This is Slow Burn. I’m your host, Leon Neyfakh.
DAVID BLOOM: The criminal investigation of the president is proceeding tonight at a breakneck pace.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Will the president feel the need to tell the nation what he knows?
RANDY TATE: He’s no longer someone we can look to with moral authority in the White House.
BILL CLINTON: I don’t think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned.
Episode 6: God Mode.
In the 1990s, Bill Bennett was basically a professional moral crusader. Earlier in his career, he had served as secretary of education under Ronald Reagan and drug czar under George H.W. Bush. But after hitting it big in 1993 with The Book of Virtues, an anthology aimed at teaching moral principles to children, the devout Catholic became something in between a preacher and a political pundit.
BILL BENNETT: You can’t invent a new color and you can’t invent a new virtue. There either is courage and fidelity to task and responsibility, or there isn’t. These are the things by means of which we keep society together, or we don’t.
That’s Bennett promoting his book in 1994. Throughout the ’90s, he appeared regularly on Sunday talk shows, wrote op-eds, and published books—all while running a right-wing think tank called Empower America. Some of Bennett’s fellow Christian conservatives saw him as a future candidate for president.
After the Lewinsky story broke, Bennett emerged as one of Clinton’s most unsparing critics.
BILL BENNETT: I care if my president is a felon. But I care just as much whether he’s a scoundrel. I care just as much whether I can trust him to be telling the truth.
This is Bennett speaking at a debate with Mario Cuomo just a few days after the world learned Monica Lewinsky’s name.
BILL BENNETT: If he can’t be trusted to tell us the truth, then he has to go.
At this early stage, many of Bennett’s fellow Republicans were exercising restraint, telling reporters it was too soon to be using words like impeachment or resignation.
JOHN PALMER: From the Republican National Chairman, words of caution.
JIM NICHOLSON: We don’t really know what has happened and should refrain from giving people a reason to make this a highly partisan political matter.
Bennett went all in, refusing to consider the possibility that Clinton might be telling the truth and wasting no time in calling for his ouster. For Bennett, anything less would teach America’s children that lying and cheating were OK.
BILL BENNETT: One of the worst things we do in this society is we destroy the innocence of the young before their time. We have done it through TV, we’ve done it through the movies, we’ve done it through popular culture. We’re now doing it through our politics.
In a borderline implausible twist of fate, Bill Bennett had a direct and intimate connection to Bill Clinton: His older brother Bob was the president’s personal lawyer. One of Bob Bennett’s primary duties was to speak publicly on Clinton’s behalf regarding the Paula Jones sexual harassment case.
While Bob Bennett was out defending Clinton’s honor on television—
BOB BENNETT: We’re going to show you that this is a pack of lies.
Bill Bennett was condemning Clinton as a liar and lamenting his deficiencies as a role model.
BILL BENNETT: This may be the trashiest, sleaziest moment in American history.
Raised by a single mom and, for a while, an abusive stepfather, the Bennett brothers shared a bumpy childhood in Brooklyn. Bill, the future Christian activist, liked to read, while Bob, the future lawyer, liked to box. At school, Bob protected his younger brother; sometimes when Bill came home he would give Bob a list of everyone who had picked on him so Bob could go confront them.
When they grew up and assumed their respective positions in the Clinton drama, the Bennetts started getting confused for one another. I learned they were brothers because the New York Times misidentified Bob as Bill in a photo caption and had to run a correction.
Here’s Bob Bennett, explaining what happened when he gave Newsweek an incendiary quote about how his client was being gratuitously tormented by Republicans.
BOB BENNETT: I said that, you know, they’d cut them themselves just to bleed on him, nothing was more important than going after him. And instead of attributing it to me, they attributed it to Bill. He got all sorts of letters calling him a traitor and everything.
Both brothers always insisted that they didn’t let politics—or Bill Clinton in particular—get between them. Bill Bennett, who did not agree to be interviewed for this podcast, was impeccably gracious whenever people asked him about his Clinton-enabling brother.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: What’s the possibility that your brother Bob, the president’s lawyer, will conclude that he has been deceived and lied to by his client and publicly repudiate his client?
BILL BENNETT: Whatever Bob Bennett knows or thinks, he doesn’t tell me. As to the measure of the man, I know him, I know him better than you do. We grew up together. There were things he did for me as a child I will never be able to repay. If you wish to trash Bob Bennett, you can. I will not join you.
Apart from this unlikely overlap between his family and his work, Bill Bennett could not have asked for a more perfect foil than Bill Clinton. This was true even before the Lewinsky story broke. Bennett had always been a culture warrior, and one of his recurring themes was the depraved influence of liberalism on American culture. In 1992, Bennett wrote a book about how real Americans still had good values, while the intellectuals who controlled the levers of power in Washington, New York, and Hollywood were a bunch of moral relativists who held American traditions in contempt. As Bennett saw it, the two sides were “in the midst of a struggle over whose values will prevail in America.”
Bill Clinton, with his pot smoking and his draft dodging and his reputation as a womanizer, fit perfectly into that narrative. Here’s Bennett in 1996, during the lead up to Clinton’s re-election.
BILL BENNETT: I am not a Bill Clinton guy. I have never been a Bill Clinton guy. I have never believed this guy was telling the truth about things at all.
It wasn’t just Bill Bennett. The entire Christian conservative movement was invigorated, if alarmed, by Clinton’s pro-choice, gay-friendly agenda. With Clinton in the White House, Christian activists like Pat Robertson and James Dobson were able to consolidate their hold on the grassroots of the Republican Party. Here’s journalist Steve Kornacki, who writes about the Christian right in his new book about the rise of political tribalism.
STEVE KORNACKI: Basically, the story of the 1990s is in part, at least in Republican politics, is the Christian right reached full maturation politically and it was understood to be a giant and crucial component of any winning coalition for the Republican Party.
In 1994, with their political influence in Washington growing, Christian conservatives gained a spiritual ally in the fight against Bill Clinton with the appointment of Ken Starr to the Office of the Independent Counsel.
Ken Starr was deeply religious. As a boy, he would listen to his father, a minister, rehearse his sermons in the family’s backyard. And in college, he saved up money for tuition by going door to door selling Bibles. Here is Starr:
KEN STARR: I am an evangelical Christian. I attend a nondenominational church and have for many, many years. And my faith journey calls on me in the words of the prophet of all to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly.
Starr wasn’t shy about discussing his religious beliefs when I interviewed him earlier this month.
KEN STARR: As an evangelical Christian, I take the teachings of the New Testament seriously and try to live up to those teachings, including the teachings of compassion and kindness and mercy and forgiveness.
But he was insistent that his faith played no part in his handling of the Clinton-Lewinsky investigation.
KEN STARR: I’m a law person who tends to just think of, look, this is my job, I’m not a spiritual guide or a savant. I’m not a priest or a rabbi. So I leave all that to others and just focus on what is the charge that I have as a duly appointed law officer?
Starr’s faith wasn’t widely noted when he was first appointed independent counsel, and for the most part, it stayed that way until after the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke. Since the allegations against Clinton were so obviously tied to morality and family values, Starr’s religiosity became newsworthy. In early February, the Washington Times published a front-page story about Starr being “deeply Christian.” The story included an old quote from Starr about how he loved to go jogging in the morning and sing hymns to himself as he huffed and puffed.
Many of Clinton’s defenders came to see the intensity of Starr’s faith as the source of his desire to punish Clinton for the Lewinsky affair. Here’s Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School in 1998:
SIDNEY BLUMENTHAL: It is not simply that Ken Starr has jettisoned the language of the law, speaking now of “defilers of the temple,” the apocalyptic rhetoric of a zealot on a mission divined by a higher authority. The ultimate problem is in his fervor, he is engaged in an anti-constitutional destructiveness.
Starr’s most visible antagonist in the media was Clinton’s former campaign manager James Carville, a flamboyant political consultant from Louisiana. Carville was not on the White House payroll, but when the Lewinsky story broke, he went to bat for Clinton like it was his job.
JAMES CARVILLE: This is a scuzzy investigation. He’s so obsessed with the president’s sex life … The real Nixonian character here—and people understand that—is Ken Starr … who was put in there by a political hack, to do the jobs of political hacks … and he can’t even follow the law!
Carville saw Starr’s religiosity as a kind of puritanical self-righteousness.
JAMES CARVILLE: He was better than everybody else, he was holier than everybody else. He was very, very, very concerned, and would go down to the creek and listen to gospel music as inspiration to stop consensual sex.
That’s Carville. He talked to me a few months ago while he was driving. That thing he said about Starr going down to the creek and listening to gospel music? He made a similar comment back in ’98 about how Starr was trying to wash the fornicators and the sodomites out of Washington on the Potomac River.
JAMES CARVILLE: The whole thing was one of the great exercises is pure bullshit in the history of the United States.
About 10 minutes into our conversation, just as I was getting ready to ask him a question, Carville made a break for it.
JAMES CARVILLE: Hey man, I gotta stuff an Egg McMuffin in my face real quick. So I’ll call you back in a minute. OK.
I thought I’d lost him. But then, seven minutes later—
JAMES CARVILLE: OK, go ahead.
He got right back to ragging on Ken Starr.
JAMES CARVILLE: I just don’t like him. I don’t like his friends, I don’t like the way he smirks. I don’t want to have dinner with him. I don’t want to talk to him. I don’t wish him any physical ill. But I just don’t like him.
Carville was no less blunt in 1998, when he accused Starr and his team of leaking grand jury secrets to the press and generally questioning their integrity.
Starr was deeply offended by Carville’s attacks, especially the accusation that he was driven to extremes by his religious beliefs.
KEN STARR: It was politicizing a dimension of human life and freedom of conscience that was anti-constitutional. And so I viewed it as unfortunate, but just any weapon that the White House and its friends could use, they would use it.
Back in 1998, Starr mostly kept such thoughts to himself, letting prominent conservatives who supported the investigation rally to his defense instead. Among Starr’s champions was Bill Bennett.
BILL BENNETT: Ken Starr should take the time he needs to do it right. The Democrats have knocked him down. They’re kicking him every way they can. This is the most shot-at, kicked-at, hit-at independent counsel in history.
Bennett called on Clinton to take control of his surrogates and show some respect toward the independent counsel.
BILL BENNETT: The president needs to call off the dogs. He needs to call off his goons and say, “Stop the smear campaign, stop the intimidation.” What kind of president would allow this kind of thing to happen?
But Clinton liked having the attack dogs out there. When a White House spokesman was asked about Carville, he said only that the administration was “not in a position to dissuade” him from speaking his mind.
Now, it’s fair to ask: What was the point of fighting all this out in the public eye—for either side? Giving quotes to newspapers, appearing on cable news shows, doing press conferences—what was it supposed to achieve?
After all, while Carville and Bennett gave interviews, Ken Starr and his prosecutors were gathering evidence.
DAVID BLOOM: The criminal investigation of the president is proceeding tonight at a breakneck pace.
And the grand jury was hearing from witnesses.
CLAIRE SHIPMAN: Another White House intern, as well as former presidential adviser George Stephanopoulos, were called before the grand jury today.
DAVID BLOOM: Prosecutors wrapped up a fourth straight day of grand jury testimony.
The legal process, in other words, was moving inexorably toward a conclusion. So why did it matter what anyone said on TV in the meantime?
The reason it mattered is that realistically, that legal process was only going to be consequential if it resulted in Congress forcing Clinton out of office. If impeachment was ever put on the table, it would be a political process, not a legal one. And that was why people like James Carville and Bill Bennett thought it was so important to go out and make their arguments and try to win people over to their side.
And at first, it really wasn’t clear which side would win. As you heard Eli Attie say, it seemed absolutely possible in the days after the story broke that Clinton would be forced to resign and Al Gore would be sworn in as president.
CHARLIE RANGEL: If indeed the president was guilty of obstruction of justice, I really would think that impeachment would be one of the words to be used.
CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER: The odds are 80, 60 percent that his presidency is over and that he’ll have to resign in a month or two.
But then, the poll numbers started coming in.
CLAIRE SHIPMAN: Unexpectedly, the president’s job approval ratings are at an all-time high.
DAVID BLOOM: Seventy-nine percent.
TOM BROKAW: The highest since he was first elected.
TRENT LOTT: What we need is a few more allegations of problems, and it could go over 100 maybe.
There had been indications very early on that Clinton would lose public support. Polls taken in the days after the Lewinsky story broke showed his approval rating dropping by as much as 10 points. But this dip turned out to be temporary, and soon enough, it was clear that the forces aligned against Clinton were at a severe disadvantage. Even people who thought Clinton was lying didn’t think he should lose the presidency because of it.
CLAIRE SHIPMAN: And a majority—54 percent—think the Starr investigation has political motivations.
James Carville, understandably, felt vindicated.
JAMES CARVILLE: The origins of this entire thing were partisan or political and people kind of saw it from the beginning. I mean, I was basically trying to convince people of something they already knew.
Bill Bennett, on the other hand, was horrified. He couldn’t believe that Americans were willing to tolerate the president’s sins, to give him a pass just because the economy was booming, or to accept the argument that private behavior was unrelated to an elected official’s public duty.
In a speech at the end of January, Bennett scolded his fellow Republicans for not taking the allegations seriously enough.
BILL BENNETT: First, I want start with some counsel and advice to friends on the right. Stop yucking it up. Stop laughing about it. It’s not funny. This is our country. This is our president. As my son, 8 years old, said to his mother the other day, “Why are they laughing? Shouldn’t we be mad?” The answer is yes. We should be mad.
But people just weren’t that mad. Around the time that Bennett gave this speech, the Washington Post published the results of a poll in which 60 percent of respondents said they “did not think it was important whether Clinton had an affair with a former intern” and 65 percent said “they would want him to remain in office if in fact the affair had happened.”
For Bennett, these numbers were a repudiation of a foundational political belief—that real Americans still had good values, even if the liberal elite did not.
BILL BENNETT: And the unstated fear of many of us is that the moral decline in Washington is not only in Washington, but outside the beltway too. We have been lowered down, folks—those opinion polls are from all over the country.
Bennett held out hope that the winds would shift, that when Clinton was finally forced to confess, the public would turn on him.
BILL BENNETT: I think it’s gonna change. I believe it’ll change once the case is presented, once more of the facts are out. People keep saying, it’s just about sex, it’s about sex—it’s not just about sex. The problem is if there was a sexual relationship, he has lied about it—and he has lied under oath about it, probably—and when people put all that together and actually see some evidence of it, if it’s true, I think opinion will change. I hope it’ll change. Look, Jim, if the truth comes out …
The evidence started to come in that summer. In mid-July, Starr’s office issued a subpoena requiring Clinton to appear before the grand jury. Not long after that, Monica Lewinsky made a deal with prosecutors that gave her immunity in exchange for her testimony. Starr’s office had been trying and failing to negotiate an agreement with Lewinsky’s lawyer, Bill Ginsburg, for months. Ginsburg was a medical malpractice attorney hired by Lewinsky’s father—and by all accounts he didn’t really know what he was doing.
TOM BROKAW: Ginsburg’s critics—and there are many of them—think that he may be in over his head.
Sometimes, Ginsburg went on TV and said things that were counterproductive.
BILL GINSBURG: All 24-year-olds and all 18-year-olds and 19-year-olds tend to embellish.
Ginsburg had proven to be such a reckless and ineffective advocate that Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz went on television and implored the Lewinsky family to hire someone new. Finally, Lewinsky replaced Ginsburg with a pair of experienced D.C. attorneys who were able to reach a deal with Starr without delay.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Monica Lewinsky has made a deal: full immunity, no strings, just an agreement to tell the truth, the whole truth, no matter who she takes with her in the process.
The deal came as a relief to Lewinsky, who had been living under the threat of prison time ever since that day at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. But the moment she signed the agreement, she burst into tears. Later she told her biographer: “It was knowing that I was turning against someone with whom I had wanted to spend the rest of my life.”
Lewinsky’s time as a cooperating witness was dreadful in its own way: First she had to endure day after day of private debriefing sessions with prosecutors, in which she had to answer questions about how Clinton had touched her and where. She also had to testify in front of Starr’s grand jury, then watch helplessly as details about her testimony leaked out to the press.
On July 30, 1998, it was reported that Lewinsky had provided Starr with an extraordinary piece of physical evidence—something that promised to extinguish any remaining doubts about whether she and Clinton had been sexually involved.
LISA MYERS: Tonight all eyes are on the FBI crime lab in Washington. Tests are underway on a navy-blue cocktail dress which Lewinsky turned over as evidence of her relationship with the president.
At around 10 o’clock on the night of Aug. 3, the president left a formal dinner party in the White House while wearing a tuxedo and went to meet one of Ken Starr’s prosecutors in the Map Room. There, the prosecutor and an FBI agent stood watch as a White House doctor drew a 4-milliliter blood sample from Clinton’s right arm.
With his scheduled appearance before Starr’s grand jury coming up in just a few weeks, Clinton was cornered.
SOLOMON WISENBERG: Do you understand that because you have sworn to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, you could be prosecuted for perjury and/or obstruction of justice?
BILL CLINTON: I believe that’s correct.
Clinton was allowed to deliver his testimony from the White House. With a camera on him and a group of Starr’s prosecutors in the room, the president began by putting on his reading glasses and reciting a statement in which he confessed that he and Monica Lewinsky had indeed shared a series of sexual encounters.
BILL CLINTON: These encounters did not consist of sexual intercourse. They did not constitute sexual relations as I understood that term to be defined at my Jan. 17, 1998, deposition.
During four hours of testimony, Clinton admitted to deliberately withholding the truth about his relationship with Lewinsky when Paula Jones’ lawyers asked him about it under oath.
BILL CLINTON: My goal in this deposition was to be truthful, but not particularly helpful. I did not wish to do the work of the Jones lawyers. I deplored what they were doing. I deplored the fact that they knew, once they knew our evidence, that this was a bogus lawsuit. But I was determined to walk through the minefield of this deposition without violating the law, and I believe I did.
Clinton made a highly legalistic argument: He said that when he’d denied having sexual relations with Lewinsky, he was using the idiosyncratic definition of “sexual relations” that the Jones lawyers had provided to him during his deposition. Based on that definition, Clinton said, he had been telling the truth.
BILL CLINTON: My understanding of this definition is that it covers contact by the person being deposed, if the contact is done with an intent to arouse or gratify. That’s my understanding of the definition.
There’s a common misconception about the point Clinton was making here. He wasn’t saying oral sex didn’t count. He was saying that, according to the Jones lawyers, having “sexual relations” with someone requires touching them in a manner intended to arouse or gratify them. According to this definition of “sexual relations,” Lewinsky had had sexual relations with Clinton, but not vice versa.
BILL CLINTON: I thought the definition included any activity by the person being deposed, where the person was the actor and came in contact with those parts of the body with the purpose or intent of gratification, and excluded any other activity. For example, kissing is not covered by that, I don’t think.
Clinton went into considerably less detail when he addressed the nation later that night.
TOM BROKAW: Over the years, there have been dramatic late-night speeches from the White House, but nothing like the speech that we’re about to hear from there tonight, when President Bill Clinton explains to the nation his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.
He came on TV around 10 o’clock and, with nearly 70 million people watching, began to explain himself.
BILL CLINTON: Indeed I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.
After getting through the part of his address in which he expressed remorse, Clinton shifted his focus to Ken Starr.
BILL CLINTON: The independent counsel investigation moved on to my staff and friends, then into my private life. This has gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people.
In Washington, the consensus was that Clinton had badly miscalculated in attacking Starr instead of just saying he was sorry. Even Democrats were angry at his apparent defensiveness—after all, he had lied to all of them as well. In the wake of the speech, it once again seemed possible that Clinton would lose the support of his political allies.
Here’s journalist Peter Baker, who helped break the Lewinsky story in the Washington Post.
PETER BAKER: And his people, they always knew that the biggest danger wasn’t the Republicans, it was the Democrats. The people who pushed out Richard Nixon back in 1974 were Barry Goldwater, Hugh Scott, the Republicans who marched down to the White House and say it’s over, you have to give up. And that’s the scenario they always worried about at the White House.
After Clinton’s public address, it wasn’t clear whether Democrats would just express their disapproval or go further. How mad were they? How mad were their constituents? Now that Clinton had admitted to the affair and opened himself up to charges of perjury, would Democrats decide to cut bait and call for his resignation?
In order for that to happen, some influential member of the party would have to make the first move. But who?
JOE LIEBERMAN: Television is making it harder for millions and millions of Americans to raise our children with the values and the discipline we would like them to have.
Joe Lieberman was a family values Democrat, a moderate senator from Connecticut who cared about upholding the moral authority of government. He was also an Orthodox Jew who had, throughout the ’90s, found common cause with the Christian right on a host of cultural issues. If anyone in the Democratic party was going to abandon Clinton over the Lewinsky matter, it was Lieberman. Here again is Steve Kornacki.
STEVE KORNACKI: If Joe Lieberman said, “This crosses the line and Bill Clinton needs to go,” other Democrats then potentially might have said, “You know, if Lieberman’s there, it’s safe for me to be there. I’m going to go there.” Or “If Lieberman is there, I need to be there because this is no longer a Republican push, this is no longer a conservative push, Ken Starr.” This is Joe Lieberman—this is a mainstream establishment Democrat here.
When word got around that Lieberman was planning to weigh in, Clinton’s chief of staff called the senator and urged him not to take a hard line. Whispering in Lieberman’s other ear was none other than Bill Bennett. It so happened that Bennett and Lieberman were friends. They had worked together throughout the ’90s on public morality campaigns against gangster rap, violence in movies, and The Jerry Springer Show.
STEVE KORNACKI: Bennett saw this as, you know, this was a moment to lean on Lieberman a little bit. He was talking to him privately and trying to push him, I think, in that direction of, go to the Senate floor, don’t just say you’re disappointed. Don’t just say you know the president needs to do better. Say the president needs to go. The president needs to lead by example here. And I think Bennett had real hope—and I think Lieberman might have been giving him real hope—that he is going to go down there and do that.
On Sept. 3, two weeks after Clinton’s confession, Lieberman stepped onto the Senate floor and began to deliver a speech.
JOE LIEBERMAN: Mr. President, I rise today to make the most difficult and distasteful statement—for me probably the most difficult statement I’ve made on this floor in the 10 years I’ve been a member of the United States Senate.
No one knew where Lieberman was going—and the way he was condemning Clinton, it didn’t look good for the White House.
JOE LIEBERMAN: Mr. President, my immediate reaction was deep disappointment and personal anger.
Finally, Lieberman put his cards on the table.
JOE LIEBERMAN: It seems to me that talk of impeachment and resignation at this time is unjust and unwise.
He would not be calling for impeachment, and he would not be demanding that Clinton resign. Bill Bennett had failed.
And yet, the intensity of Lieberman’s criticism on the Senate floor made it clear that the White House still had more work to do. The week after, Clinton began a new phase of his cleanup effort—one that seemed specifically engineered toward shoring up support with voters who cared about his morality and his values.
Clinton, who had been raised as a Baptist, first delivered a televised speech at the annual White House Prayer Breakfast.
BILL CLINTON: I was up rather late last night, thinking about and praying about what I ought to say today.
Unlike in his earlier address, this time he took a tone of humility and repentance.
BILL CLINTON: I don’t think there is a fancy way to say that I have sinned. It is important to me that everybody who has been hurt knows that the sorrow I feel is genuine.
A few days after that speech, it was reported that Clinton had recruited a group of religious leaders to counsel him in his quest for healing and forgiveness.
TOM BROKAW: Now with his presidency in trouble—to say nothing of his personal life—Mr. Clinton has turned to the clergy.
According to the New York Times, the ministers Clinton selected would meet and pray with him weekly and help him resist what one of the ministers called ‘‘the temptations that have conquered’’ the president in the past.
JIM MIKLASZEWSKI: The president will also turn to the Rev. Gordon MacDonald of Lexington, Massachusetts, who had his own extramarital affair 12 years ago, sought redemption, then wrote a book about it—that the president says he’s already read twice.
Activists associated with the Christian right didn’t buy these gestures. Randy Tate, head of the Christian Coalition, questioned whether Clinton’s private reckoning was anything more than a public relations strategy.
RANDY TATE: It seems more contrived than it does contrite. If he asks forgiveness and he is sincere, we can forgive him as an individual. That does not absolve the president of the United States.
But it didn’t matter what Randy Tate thought. After the prayer breakfast, Clinton’s job approval ratings went up again.
DAVID BLOOM: Mr. Clinton’s supporters say they’re bolstered by public opinion polls, which show most Americans disapprove of the president’s behavior but don’t want to see him resign or be impeached.
Bill Bennett was disappointed in his country. In late March, he gave a speech in which he declared that “the American people were coming dangerously close to being complicit in their own corruption.”
In the last days of summer, Bennett published a short book on this theme called The Death of Outrage. In it, Bennett lamented that that the war over the nation’s values was seemingly being won by the liberal elite. Bennett wrote that Americans needed to realize they were being played for fools by the president and his defenders.
BILL BENNETT: There’s concern, there’s consternation, there’s a worry, but there should be outrage.
KATIE COURIC: Is that the death of outrage you’re talking about?
BILL BENNETT: That’s the death of outrage I’m talking about.
Although Bennett’s book became an instant bestseller, it was overshadowed by a different one that came out around the same time: the Starr Report.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: The report from Ken Starr is out, landing with a thud on the internet, splashed across front pages across this nation and around the world this morning.
Starr had submitted the fruits of his investigation to Congress on Sept. 9. In addition to describing the president’s encounters with Lewinsky in extraordinary detail, the report alleged that Clinton had committed 11 impeachable offenses, including perjury, witness tampering, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power.
You’ll hear more about the Starr Report in our next episode. What’s important to understand for right now is that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal could have pretty much ended with its publication. Republicans in Congress could have decided not to pursue impeachment and instead push to censure Clinton—meaning formally condemn him but not try to oust him from the White House. It would have been a compromise with broad, bipartisan appeal, one that put an embarrassing asterisk on Clinton’s presidency without overturning the will of the voters who had elected him.
Were Republicans really going to push for impeachment when most Americans didn’t want them to? What was the point, given that without Democratic support, the Senate would never vote to convict him? Here’s James Carville again.
JAMES CARVILLE: They were moving in, and as they kept getting deeper, there was nobody behind them. It’s kind of an eerie feeling, you know, when it’s like an army that moved ahead and they looked back and there was no supply line—the public was not with them.
But Republicans who wanted to see Clinton thrown out of office did have one reason to remain hopeful: the upcoming midterm elections.
TOM BROKAW: Decision ’98—all across the country, candidates are making the final push for votes.
The impending elections were significant for two reasons. One was that if Democrats lost a lot of seats in Congress, it could undercut the sense of Clinton’s invincibility and perhaps convince a critical number of Democrats to turn on him. The other reason the midterms mattered was that they made Republicans in Congress feel more pressure than ever to cater to their most fervently anti-Clinton constituents.
Republicans needed these voters to turn out in large numbers. That gave the Christian right a whole lot of influence.
PAT ROBERTSON: Unless we go back to the moral foundation, every single thing that we have by way of our freedom, by way of our wealth, by way of our materialism, by way of our government, is in danger.
That’s Pat Robertson, the televangelist who had run for president a decade earlier. He was speaking at the annual gathering of the Christian Coalition in September of 1998. With less than two months to go before the midterms, Robertson and a host of other speakers at the convention called on Republicans to impeach Clinton at any cost.
PAT ROBERTSON: We are in serious trouble! And we’ve got to do something here in America now to get strong leadership into this nation. It is imperative.
According to Kornacki, the pressure had a significant, if not decisive impact.
STEVE KORNACKI: I think one of the reasons—there are a bunch of them—but one of the reasons why Republicans still pressed on with impeachment, even with the polls not moving in their favor, was that Christian Coalition convention. And I think they were exposed to a huge element of their base being totally up in arms about this, being ready to fight it in the midterm election, and I think that entered into their thinking—we can’t let these voters down.
And so they didn’t. On Oct. 7, 1998, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee announced a resolution to begin impeachment proceedings.
TOM BROKAW: Tonight, Bill Clinton knows that whatever else happens in his presidency, he will always have a black mark by his name. Only the third president to formally become the subject of an impeachment inquiry …
It didn’t matter that it was probably a lost cause—that getting two-thirds of the Senate to vote against Clinton in an impeachment trial would be extremely difficult regardless of how the midterms turned out. To Clinton’s most dedicated adversaries, what mattered at this point was not turning back.
It was a few months later, with the impeachment process in full swing, that Bill Bennett did something surprising at a theater in Richmond, Virginia: He engaged in a public debate with his brother Bob.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Thank you, welcome, and good evening, ladies and gentlemen. And welcome to tonight’s program on values in America, featuring Bill Bennett, Bob Bennett …
It was the first time they had ever faced off in this way, and while the tone of the event was decidedly gentle, it was still a collision between two different views of justice.
BILL BENNETT: Is it your view that lying to a grand jury, perjury, obstruction of justice, simply are insufficient grounds to remove a president?
BOB BENNETT: I think they’re terrible, terrible things, but the fact of the matter is, is most of our presidents lie.
BILL BENNETT: Under oath?
BOB BENNETT: I think sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. And what I’m very worried about …
Bob, who had recently helped Clinton settle the Paula Jones lawsuit, spoke about the excesses of partisan politics, the erosion of privacy in America, and the importance of context in moral reasoning.
BOB BENNETT: When fostering values and moral principles and judging others, we must do so without putting such values in a straitjacket. Often, the most judgmental of us, and certainly—and I mean this—present company excluded, are the biggest moral hypocrites.
Bill, who is now an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump, responded by citing data on murder, rape, suicide, drug use, and abortion, and arguing that the president, his brother’s client, had pushed the country into a moral abyss.
BILL BENNETT: People are not sure they can trust anymore—not just their leaders. A lot of it is their leaders, but their neighbors too. I don’t know if trickle-down works in economics but it works in civics. It works in politics.
What bothered Bill was the idea that Clinton was somehow exempt from judgment. Judging our leaders, he said, was an essential part of living in a democracy.
BILL BENNETT: That’s what it means to be self-governing. That’s what it means to be human. We hope to judge openly, honorably, tolerantly, but we have to judge.
Next week on Slow Burn, feminists react to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and start a conversation about power dynamics and consent that we are still having to this day. And though you may have heard that everyone in the feminist movement simply turned their backs on Lewinsky in order to close ranks around their Democratic president, the real story is a whole lot more interesting.
AMY RICHARDS: When we were defending Monica, I think what we were implicitly saying was we believe her. We believe that she’s telling us the truth, and she’s telling us that she was not a victim of Bill Clinton’s. And we were defending her truth, as much as I think we were also sort of defending choices that she made.
Slow Burn is a production of Slate Plus, Slate’s membership program. You can sign up for Slate Plus to hear bonus episodes of the show. In this week’s bonus episode, you’ll hear an extended interview with Ken Starr, the independent counsel who spent years investigating Whitewater until something more exciting came along.
Careful listeners will note that I said that last week, when the Slate Plus episode actually featured an interview with Linda Tripp, but this time I mean it.
KEN STARR: We’re trying to get to the bottom of this, these are very serious allegations. And again, the allegations echoed with what we suspected in the Arkansas phase of the investigation, which was that the president had lied under oath.
This episode of Slow Burn was produced by me and Andrew Parsons, with editorial direction by Josh Levin and Gabriel Roth. Our researcher is Madeline Kaplan. Our theme song is by Spatial Relations, and this episode featured music by Nick Sylvester of Godmode. Our artwork is by Teddy Blanks at Chips NY. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of Slate Podcasts. T.J. Raphael is the senior producer for the Slate Podcast Network.
Thanks to the NBC News archive, C-SPAN, NPR, and the Richmond Forum for the archival audio you heard in this episode. For a full bibliography of all the works we consulted while making this episode, check out our show page. For help with research, special thanks to Steve Kornacki, whose book The Red and the Blue, comes out Oct. 2, as well as to Peter Baker, Dan Williams, and Seth Dowland.
For script notes and all kinds of other help, we want to thank Ruth Graham, Daniel Schroeder, Ava Lubell, Jeff Friedrich, Benjamin Frisch, Jayson De Leon, Mary Wilson, and Camilla Hammer.
See you next week.
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