This is a transcript of Episode 4 of Season 2 of Slow Burn. Listen in the player below, or subscribe here.
One year before Bill Clinton met Monica Lewinsky, he was sneaking around the White House with someone else.
Clinton had a codename for this individual: Charlie. The two of them had an understanding.
DICK MORRIS: I went to see him in January, and I said I get it—you don’t want me to be part of your administration.
Charlie’s actual name was Dick Morris. He was a political consultant with a specialty in polling.
DICK MORRIS: I said, you want me to be a little bird perched on your left shoulder, whispering in your ear and not talking to anyone else. He said you’ve got it. That’s exactly what I want.
Way back in 1978, Morris had helped Clinton get elected governor of Arkansas. But in the years since, he had become a Republican.
Clinton was the only Democrat Morris was still willing to work for. He got grandfathered in, Morris says, because he was the president. But Clinton’s senior staffers didn’t trust Morris. They saw him as an unsavory character—a ghoul from Clinton’s past.
DICK MORRIS: They saw me as hijacking their president. They wanted him to be a straight liberal, toe the party line, and go down to glorious defeat. And he and I didn’t see it that way.
It wasn’t just that Morris pushed Clinton to the right. It was that he encouraged the president to follow poll numbers instead of his convictions.
George Stephanopoulos once described Morris as “the dark buddha whose belly [the president] rubbed in desperate times.” So it made sense that Clinton’s secret arrangement with Morris began after the disastrous 1994 midterm elections.
ANN CURRY: The 1994 elections from coast to coast—a Republican romp.
NEWT GINGRICH: This is truly a wildly historic night.
PHIL GRAMM: People rejected Bill Clinton’s policies.
The ’94 midterms were a bloodbath for Democrats. They lost their majorities in both chambers of Congress, giving Republicans control of the legislative branch for the first time in 40 years. Newt Gingrich—
TOM BROKAW: One of the most controversial figures and shrewdest political operatives in America.
…who was credited with engineering the Republican takeover, became speaker of the House.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: The first Republican Speaker of the House since 1954.
NEWT GINGRICH: And if this is not a mandate to move in a particular direction, I would like somebody to explain to me what a mandate would look like.
As Clinton tried to navigate this new political reality, he had Dick Morris by his side, helping him write speeches and taking polls aimed at winning over various demographic groups. One time, Morris polled 10,000 married people with kids to find out what Clinton should do on vacation—it turned out camping would go over well, while golfing would not. Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress were urging Clinton to cut federal spending and reduce the deficit.
TOM BROKAW: Today in Washington, Republicans in the House and Senate began debate on their versions of a budget plan.
NEWT GINGRICH: We truly have an opportunity to balance the budget and set a new course for our country.
The struggle over the budget came to a head about a year after the election, when Republicans refused to fund the federal government unless Clinton agreed to their spending cuts. In November of 1995, under Gingrich’s leadership, the Republicans submitted a spending bill that slashed funding for Medicare, public health, and education. It was an extreme proposal, and Clinton vetoed it, just like Gingrich expected him to. In doing so, Clinton triggered a government shutdown.
TOM BROKAW: Neither the president nor the Speaker nor Sen. Dole would give. So tonight much of the government remains shut down.
BILL CLINTON: The American people should not be held hostage anymore to the Republican budget priorities.
A few days after the shutdown began, Gingrich made a bizarre confession to reporters, saying that his hard line on the budget was not entirely a matter of policy or principle. It turned out that Gingrich was motivated, at least in part, by his feelings: he was … mad at the president. As Gingrich explained, he and Clinton had recently flown on Air Force One to attend the funeral of the Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. During the flight, the speaker of the House had been made to sit in the back of the plane.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: He wondered why the president didn’t want to talk budget on the plane and indicated he was hurt by the treatment he received including leaving by the back door.
“This is petty,” Gingrich admitted, “but I think it’s human.”
The White House did not let the speaker’s disclosure go unremarked upon.
BILL CLINTON: If it would get the government open, I’d be glad to tell him I’m sorry.
MIKE MCCURRY: Maybe we can send him some of those little M&Ms with the presidential seal on them or something.
[People in room laugh]
With Gingrich and Clinton unable to forge a compromise, approximately 800,000 federal employees went on furlough. The White House was a ghost town—out of 430 full-time staff members, all but 90 stayed home. This left a vacuum—one that could only be filled by unpaid interns.
Monica Lewinsky had been a White House intern for about four months at the time of the shutdown. She was 22 years old. She had just been promoted to a permanent paid job in the Office of Legislative Affairs, but it hadn’t started yet. Under normal circumstances, she probably would have never come into close contact with the president. But the government shutdown brought them together.
When it came out, two years later, that Clinton and Lewinsky had started a secret sexual relationship during the shutdown, one of the only people who got an honest account from the president was Dick Morris, aka Charlie. By that point, Morris was no longer working at the White House. He had been ousted as a result of an embarrassing sex scandal of his own involving a prostitute.
DICK MORRIS: He called me and he said I assume you’ve seen the story and I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he said ‘Well what do you think?’ And I said, ‘Well remember that the issue here is not what happened but did you cover it up?’ And then he told me, ‘Ever since I got here I’ve had to shut my body down—sexually, I mean. Whether I fucked up with this girl. I didn’t do what they said I did. But I think I did enough so I cannot prove my innocence.’
What happened between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky? Why did it happen, and how? And what are we supposed to do about the fact that the whims and impulses of individual men can—and constantly do—alter the course of history?
This is Slow Burn. I’m your host, Leon Neyfakh.
HANNA ROSIN: He’s risking so much.
TOM BROKAW: The latest in what is now a long list of scandals.
JEFFREY TOOBIN: I mean it was crazy, it was inappropriate, it was wrong.
JANE SHERBURNE: What he had been prepared to squander with this liaison that was so inappropriate. I felt completely betrayed.
Episode 4: Alone, Together.
When Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky had their first private conversation in November of 1995, the president was facing an extraordinary level of scrutiny—even by the standards of his administration. Since the Republican landslide a year earlier, the Clintons had found themselves under relentless investigation. Jane Sherburne, whom you’ll remember from Episode 2, had been working in the White House counsel’s office as a kind of goalie: Her job was to knock away scandals by dealing with congressional requests and grand jury subpoenas.
JANE SHERBURNE: When both the House and the Senate changed hands to Republican control, that changed the picture dramatically, because that meant that you had these investigative committees who had subpoena power and were absolutely determined to use it to defeat the president’s re-election.
The Republican-controlled Congress held public hearings on everything they could.
UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: The committee is meeting today to hear testimony on the firings of the entire staff…
The travel office firings got hearings in the House. So did the savings and loan piece of the Whitewater affair. In the Senate, Al D’Amato, a Republican from New York, looked into the suicide of Vince Foster.
AL D’AMATO: It was both a national interest and a law enforcement interest in examining why Vincent Foster took his life.
As Republicans in Congress worked to keep Bill Clinton’s past in the news, Paula Jones’ sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton was working its way through the courts. Though a district judge had ruled that the lawsuit would have to be put on hold until after Clinton left office, Jones’ lawyers had appealed the decision, and the Clinton White House had to keep on fighting.
On top of all that, the administration was also dealing with Ken Starr, the independent counsel who had unexpectedly taken over the Whitewater investigation from Robert Fiske in mid-1994.
ANDREA MITCHELL: The Clintons are angry and frustrated about the appointment of a partisan Republican to take over the investigation into their finances. The new special counsel, Kenneth Starr, is a veteran of the Bush and Reagan administrations.
The Clintons’ frustration grew when Starr made it clear he would be more or less starting over on his own terms: Among other things, he reopened the Vince Foster investigation that Fiske had already completed. Starr also brought charges against the Clintons’ close friend from Arkansas, Webster Hubbell. After entering into a cooperation agreement with Starr, Hubbell pleaded guilty to embezzling money from the Rose Law Firm.
TOM BROKAW: Today he reported for federal prison in Maryland to serve a 21-month sentence for mail fraud and tax evasion. These are not charges related, however, in any way to Whitewater.
Given that Ken Starr was plainly eager to pounce on any impropriety, one might have expected Bill Clinton to be on his best behavior, if only out of an instinct for self-preservation. But not everyone has the same instincts.
The government shutdown of 1995 lasted five days. During that time, Monica Lewinsky was assigned to work in the office of Clinton’s chief of staff, Leon Panetta. On the second day of the shutdown, the president dropped by Panetta’s office several times. Lewinsky would later remember catching Clinton’s eye repeatedly. By the late afternoon, she could feel a flirtation building, and she decided to raise the stakes.
HANNA ROSIN: At some point they talk alone in the chief of staff’s office and then comes the famous raising of the jacket. Do you want to talk about the raising of the jacket?
NEYFAKH: I think you should talk about the raising of the jacket.
ROSIN: [Laughter] All right, so…
This is journalist Hanna Rosin. At the time all this was happening, she was living in Washington, and she had recently graduated from an internship into a full-time job at the New Republic. Later, after the affair between Clinton and Lewinsky became public, Rosin wrote about it for the magazine. “The famous raising of the jacket” was the moment when Lewinsky showed the president the top of her thong, which peeked out from above the waistline of her pants.
HANNA ROSIN: This is a moment I think a lot about, like what was the nature of this moment you know? Was it a bold move? Was it like feeling you’re sexy move? Was it a shy and subtle move? Was it a move that could be could have been mistaken for nothing? Or was it absolutely obvious what the signals she was sending was?
Lewinsky went on to testify that the president responded to her gesture with an appreciative look, but that’s as far as it went—for the moment. That evening, a few minutes after 8 o’clock, Lewinsky saw Clinton again. This time, she was on her way to the bathroom. Clinton was alone—working, with the door open, in George Stephanopoulos’ office. As Lewinsky passed by, Clinton gestured for her to come in.
HANNA ROSIN: And this is where they have their first conversation which is such like a schoolboy-schoolgirl conversation, except that he’s the president. She tells him that she has a crush on him. He laughs and says, ‘Would you like to see my private office?’
Lewinsky would later remember how, in a study off of the Oval Office, she and Clinton admitted to one another that there was chemistry between them. Then Clinton asked Lewinsky if he could kiss her. She said yes, and he did. Before Lewinsky went back to her desk, she gave Clinton a piece of paper with her name and phone number written on it.
HANNA ROSIN: How normal does that sound, like when you just zoom in that close? That part sounds unbelievably normal, like mundane in a sweet way—there’s chemistry and we are attracted to each other and can I kiss you? That’s before all hell breaks loose. That’s how it starts. That’s the first interaction.
Later that same night, Lewinsky and the president met up yet again—and she performed oral sex on him for the first time. While it was happening, Clinton took a phone call from a congressman. Before Lewinsky left, he tugged on the pink intern pass around her neck and said something to the effect of, “That might be a problem.”
Two days after this first sexual encounter, one of Lewinsky’s coworkers accidentally got pizza on Lewinsky’s jacket. She went to the bathroom to wash it off, and when she came out, Clinton was waiting for her in his secretary’s doorway. The two of them briefly ducked into the private study and kissed. But Lewinsky had to get back to work. Clinton suggested she could bring him some pizza. And a few minutes later, she did. Clinton’s secretary, Betty Currie, let her into the Oval Office.
That kind of sneaking around was a key part of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Hanna Rosin compares it to the love story in George Orwell’s 1984, in which a couple must take extensive steps to avoid detection by the government.
HANNA ROSIN: You know, in apocalyptic repressive societies, all the things you have to do to arrange a meeting. It has that feel to it, like the danger and this sort of dodging and how much trouble you can get in. And then you find teeny, tiny spaces where you can express yourself in snatches of poetry.
At one point during their second sexual encounter, Lewinsky unbuttoned Clinton’s shirt and noticed that he was sucking in his stomach. “It was very endearing and sweet,” Lewinsky would later say. “It made him seem more like a real person to me.” Afterwards, Clinton told Lewinsky that he was usually around on weekends, when the White House tended to be quieter. “You can come and see me then,” he said.
Here’s Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of a book about the Clinton scandal.
JEFFREY TOOBIN: There was this period, during and then immediately after the government shutdown, where they saw each other pretty often.
Toobin describes this stretch of Clinton and Lewinsky’s relationship as “the month of glory.”
JEFFREY TOOBIN: They were in the first flush of excitement, and Hillary Clinton was traveling some of the time. And there was just there were opportunities for them to see each other.
Lewinsky later told her biographer that it was during this period that she began to perceive Clinton as a man rather than as the president. He made her feel attractive, she said. He was like rays of sunshine, but “sunshine that made plants grow faster and that made colors more vibrant.”
JEFFREY TOOBIN: There is no doubt that Lewinsky was thrilled to have this encounter and was besotted with the president. And Lewinsky in subsequent years has never claimed otherwise that this was anything other than consensual on her part. Although, you know, the whole issue of whether a superior—much less the president of the United States—can have a relationship with an unpaid intern that is consensual in the modern understanding is a rich and complicated question.
But as much as Lewinsky enjoyed and looked forward to her meetings with Clinton, she was aware that he could stop calling her at any time. She would later describe how insecure she felt as she waited for Clinton to get in touch, and how she constantly wondered if what she was doing or saying was turning him on or off.
One time, Lewinsky challenged Clinton on why he never asked her any questions about her life. She’d recall saying to him, “Is this just about sex, or do you have some interest in trying to get to know me as a person?” Here’s Hanna Rosin again.
HANNA ROSIN: This is, for me, the moment when I really start to realize how just how young she is. Because she she’s really gaming this, like you can imagine her talking to her friends—‘Does he like me, does he not like me, what does he think about me?’ Because she’s going in there anxious about how he feels about her. Apparently they had phone sex in the week before and she just didn’t know what was going on. She was feeling insecure like, ‘Did he like the phone sex? Is this going to be a thing? Does he have another girlfriend?’ She’s just very anxious about how he feels about her.
Lewinsky’s own account of this time suggests that Clinton was aware of her anxiety, and that he tried to comfort her.
HANNA ROSIN: There’s this very, very Bill Clinton moment in which he says that—this is a real Bill Clinton move—he cherishes the time that he had with her. So you can just imagine this moment where she’s just putting out anxiety about how he feels about her and so he brings forth the word “cherish,” which she finds odd.
NEYFAKH: She finds it odd?
HANNA ROSIN: Yeah, yeah, because she’s thinking, what do you mean? She’s not that young! She’s thinking… the way she put it was it’s a little bit odd for him to talk about cherishing their time together because he didn’t know anything about her.
Was Clinton just being a skilled politician when he talked like this to Lewinsky? Or was he sincerely reaching out for a human connection? In her biography, Lewinsky recalled Clinton telling her how lonely it was in the White House, and confiding in her about the pain and guilt he felt about an American soldier who had just been killed in Bosnia.
It was a turning point in their relationship. “At that moment,” Lewinsky said, “I thought we were so lucky as a country to have such a caring and sympathetic man as the president, and I felt much closer to him.”
During Lewinsky and Clinton’s month of glory, legal pressure on the White House was ratcheting up on several fronts. An appeals court ruled that the Paula Jones lawsuit would go forward.
TOM BROKAW: The court ruled the president was not immune from civil suits while he is in office. The next stop here is the Supreme Court, according to the president’s lawyer.
Around the same time, Ken Starr was escalating the Whitewater probe—specifically, the part of it involving the failed savings and loan bank run by the Clintons’ Whitewater business partner, Jim McDougal. Starr knew that Hillary Clinton had done some legal work for the failed bank when she was a partner at the Rose Law Firm, and he wanted to know more about it. But according to the White House, Hillary’s billing records were missing, and had been for years. Here again is Jane Sherburne:
JANE SHERBURNE: There’s nothing better in Washington for a scandal than something that’s missing. And so that became a steady drumbeat—where are the billing records, where are the billing records, where are the billing records—which seemed absurd, but it was effective. It created again more of this mystery around, ‘What are they hiding?
On January 4, 1996, the billing records mysteriously reappeared in the White House. The circumstances were almost comically suspicious.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Mrs. Clinton’s assistant Carolyn Huber said they just appeared one day on a table at the White House.
They were in a storage area that was mostly full of unsolicited gifts that had been sent to the White House.
CAROLYN HUBER: And I picked up this billing memo and opened it and I was surprised.
JANE SHERBURNE: The irony, again, was that that the billing records were pretty consistent with what Hillary had recalled. I remember going to tell the president that these records had been found and what they meant. And the president says, ‘Well isn’t this a good thing? People wanted these documents, now we found them and we give them the documents. Shouldn’t people be happy?’ [Laughs] No, that isn’t the way this is going to play out.
After the billing records were discovered, Starr’s office served Hillary Clinton with a subpoena, requiring her to testify under oath about where the billing records had been.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: The history-making first appearance by a First Lady before a federal grand jury.
TOM BROKAW: This has to be one of the most difficult days of her life.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Some say this does send a powerful message from the prosecutor to the Clintons.
Neither the billing records themselves nor Hillary Clinton’s testimony brought Ken Starr any closer to proving that either the First Lady or the President had been involved in any criminal wrongdoing. But that only seemed to make the prosecutors more determined and more aggressive.
At one point, Starr’s office came to believe there was another important box hidden in the White House residence—a box that had the name Vincent Foster written on it.
Starr’s prosecutors were apparently prepared to locate this box by any means necessary.
JANE SHERBURNE: One of Starr’s deputies—who is now a federal judge, John Bates—called me up and said that that they were planning to execute a search warrant of the White House. And I just said that is not happening.
Sherburne was imagining the photo-op: FBI agents entering the residence to conduct a search—it would make the Clintons look like criminals.
JANE SHERBURNE: And you know we sparred a little bit and then John said, ‘Well actually there might be an alternative, and the alternative would be for you to conduct the search.’
By this point, Sherburne had earned the Starr team’s trust, in part because she had joined the White House from an outside law firm and was not perceived as a Clinton loyalist. She asked the deputy exactly what he was looking for.
JANE SHERBURNE: You know, I said, ‘Is it a jewelry box, is it a shoe box, is it a storage box? And he said I can’t give you any information about the size of the box, I just know that it’s a box and it says Vince Foster’s name on it. And we want the search of the entire residence.
After clearing the idea with the president and the First Lady, Sherburne agreed to the plan—better that she go into the Clintons’ home and root around for this box than to have Starr’s people do it.
JANE SHERBURNE: It was going through from the kitchen to the bedroom closet to the bathrooms, looking everywhere for a box that could be the size of a jewelry box. You know, admiring the range of the president’s ties in his closet. Going into Hillary’s closets and looking you know, moving around her shoes. I mean, it was very intimate. It made me feel dirty.
NEYFAKH: Did you have to go to Chelsea’s room?
JANE SHERBURNE: Went into Chelsea’s room. And I remember looking under Chelsea’s bed and I saw these dust balls under her bed and I just was sort of delighted, that oh my gosh even in the White House, you know, dust balls under the bed.
NEYFAKH: It’s such a surreal scene. I know it was real to you, but just like the image of a White House lawyer like crawling around in the kid’s bedroom.
JANE SHERBURNE: No, it was tough. And Chelsea went to the same high school that my kids were at. And my son was a year behind her but they were in class together, and I saw on her desk she had, I remember recognizing what she was working on because it was the same thing that my son was studying and it made me very uncomfortable.
NEYFAKH: And you didn’t find anything of course.
JANE SHERBURNE: Didn’t find anything.
I asked Sherburne what it was like to realize, much later, that while she was working desperately to keep the administration out of trouble, literally crawling around on her hands and knees to protect the president and the First Lady, Bill Clinton was in the throes of an affair with a former intern.
JANE SHERBURNE: Anybody who works in the White House, you know, makes tremendous sacrifices—personal sacrifices—and you do it because you believe in what you’re doing and you believe in the president. And I had been in the White House for almost three years, I had three young children, had leaned very heavily on my spouse at that time to carry a lot of the family responsibilities. It was just a very difficult time. But it was a commitment because I believed in what this president wanted to accomplish. And when I realized what he was had been prepared to squander with this liaison that was so inappropriate, yeah I felt completely betrayed. And when Hillary was testifying in the grand jury, you know, I mean it was like, ‘What!? How could this be?’ You know, I felt really, I felt really betrayed.
The president, for his part, seems to have realized that he was doing something dangerous and wrong as early as February of 1996. For two long weeks during that month, he didn’t call Lewinsky at all. Not even on Valentine’s Day. When he finally did get in touch, Lewinsky could tell that something was wrong. She asked if she could come see him, and he agreed. That afternoon, in the Oval Office, Clinton broke up with her.
HANNA ROSIN: He said he no longer felt right about their relationship and he had to put an end to it. He said that she could still come visit him but only as a friend. And then he did such the move, the physical move that accompanies that statement: he hugged her but he didn’t kiss her.
And just like that, three months after it started, the affair between Clinton and Lewinsky was over.
Except, it wasn’t, not by a long shot. Within weeks of the breakup, Clinton called Lewinsky at home again. He told her he’d spotted her at the White House and that he wanted to see her.
NEYFAKH: How did he bend after the breakup?
HANNA ROSIN: The same way everyone else does. I mean, they just kept seeing each other because she worked there. It’s like trying to break up with your colleague, I guess.
At the end of March, Lewinsky saw Clinton wearing a tie at the White House she had given him as a gift.
HANNA ROSIN: I mean, that would light up anyone’s day. So she asks him where he got the tie and he says some girl with style gave it to me. That’s like a rom-com moment, you know? I mean, just the witty repartee, that’s a good flirtation right there.
That night, Clinton called Lewinsky and proposed a plan: The First Lady was on an overseas trip to Greece. If Lewinsky walked by the White House movie theater that night at a specific time, Clinton would be in there with guests getting ready to watch something, and he would invite her in from the hallway as soon as he spotted her.
HANNA ROSIN: I’m not really sure like what in his imagination happened next, like they sat next to each other and made out in the movie theater while guests were there? Like I don’t know how the date would go on from there. But anyway, she said that it would be odd for an intern—she being the wise one thinking ahead—that it might be odd for an intern to be lurking around the White House, the West Wing uninvited. So she said ‘Can we arrange something for later in the weekend?’
Two days later, on Sunday afternoon, Clinton called Lewinsky at her desk and suggested she deliver some papers to him in the Oval Office. Lewinsky walked over carrying a folder that actually contained a new Hugo Boss tie—another gift. After a Secret Service member let her in, she and Clinton were intimate for the first time since their break-up. It was on this afternoon that Clinton did the cigar thing. And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can look it up.
Now, here’s where the story takes a turn. Less than a week after Clinton and Lewinsky’s reunion, Lewinsky was informed by her supervisor that she would no longer be working in the White House.
She wasn’t being fired, he said, just transferred to a different, better job at the Pentagon. What he didn’t reveal was that a member of Clinton’s senior staff had seen Lewinsky hanging around the Oval Office and the West Wing, and had decided, with the election coming up, her presence in Clinton’s orbit was too much of a risk.
After she got transferred, Lewinsky got a call from Clinton at home, and she told him, through tears, what had happened. He seemed surprised. And when she saw him alone at the White House later that day, he appeared stricken.
HANNA ROSIN: This was on Easter Sunday, so the next day was going to be her last day and she was really upset and started crying. And then, in her account, he seems really upset and he says, according to her—these words are amazing—‘Why did they have to take you away from me? I trust you.’ Now, that’s her recollection. Like you can imagine a lot of other things were going through his mind, like ‘Thank God I’ve been saved from myself.’
But then, faced with Lewinsky’s tears, Clinton made what she understood to be a promise: As soon as he won his second term in the November ’96 election, he would bring her right back to the White House.
Clinton then led Lewinsky to a private hallway and started kissing her. He unzipped his pants. While Lewinsky performed oral sex on him, Clinton spoke on the phone with Dick Morris. They talked about a new ad campaign.
Clinton spent 1996 thinking about his reelection. Morris, who by this point had ditched his code name and had come into the open as a White House adviser, was helping him strategize. Through the magic of polling, Morris had identified a key factor that was working against Clinton.
DICK MORRIS: We realized that Bill’s difficulties in personal morality bled over into a feeling that he did not represent American values.
I asked Morris where this sense of Bill Clinton “having difficulties in personal morality” came from. He didn’t hesitate before bringing up Clinton’s very first sex scandal—the one that almost derailed his presidential bid.
DICK MORRIS: Gennifer Flowers.
NEYFAKH: Gennifer Flowers?
DICK MORRIS: Yeah. And then all of the scandals in Washington that all contributed to that.
NEYFAKH: He was seen as someone who was, what?
DICK MORRIS: Immoral. Someone who had no internal guiding sense of morality.
The solution to the problem, Morris told me, was to introduce a raft of morally righteous policies.
LISA MYERS: Television ads promote Clinton initiatives on family leave, parental control over television programming.
GEORGE LEWIS: The president strongly advocates the wearing of school uniforms.
TOM BROKAW: President Clinton tonight has ordered the federal government to take several major steps to crack down on teenage smoking.
DICK MORRIS: The way I would refer to it is that public values defeat private morality. The way I phrased it less generously to him was, “Americans who were raising children, who in their 20s and 30s, want to assure that the president helps them raise children in a better moral environment than you are.”
So that’s what was going on with Bill Clinton in public. In private, he was still talking on the phone to Monica Lewinsky, who by the spring of 1996 was serving in the Pentagon, unhappily, as assistant to the assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.
By Lewinsky’s estimate, Clinton called her every four to seven days during this period. They would talk late at night, and sometimes early in the morning. They had phone sex regularly.
But for all this talking, Lewinsky and Clinton did not see each other in private even once during this period—and Lewinsky suffered. She became preoccupied with trying to run into the president at public functions, and she kept track of his schedule in hopes of ending up in the same room as him. Here, again, is Jeff Toobin:
JEFFREY TOOBIN: Once she’s exiled to the Pentagon, she is desperately trying to get in Clinton’s presence again. And in August of ’96, she actually goes to New York to a fundraiser where Clinton is celebrating his 50th birthday party and she somehow manages to get next to him, and in a surreptitious way grabs his penis through his pants. And she really does this! And fortunately I guess for both of them no one saw this, but it’s just indicative of both the kind of playfulness between them, but also just the weirdness of the whole situation.
Lewinsky kept track of how many days there were until the 1996 election, when she believed Clinton would bring her back to the White House without hesitation. A friend later testified that Lewinsky would spend entire weekends not leaving her house, waiting for Clinton to call.
The thing was, when he did call, Clinton always spoke to Lewinsky tenderly and attentively. In her biography, Lewinsky talks about how she was sustained by these conversations, and how, despite the fact that she was no longer seeing Clinton in person, she came to feel even closer to him.
Clinton did little to discourage Lewinsky’s feelings. One time, after she told him over the phone that her family was coming to Washington for a visit, Clinton’s secretary, Betty Currie, called her and offered to set the family up with a tour of the White House. When they came, Clinton took a picture with them in front of his desk.
Why did Clinton do it? Any of it? What was he thinking? Why did he start it? Why did he continue it? Why couldn’t he stop himself from coming back to Lewinsky after he’d already broken it off? Was he in love, as she seemed to be? Was he just acting on a politician’s instinct to please whoever was in front of him? Was he scared that if he didn’t indulge Lewinsky and keep her happy that she would betray him?
I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. One possibly relevant data point is that, during the period of time we’ve been talking about—November ’95 to late ’96—Clinton never allowed Lewinsky to perform oral sex on him to completion. That, at least, would seem to rule out the simplest explanation of his behavior, that he was guided by nothing more than a straightforward, desperate need for sexual gratification.
Bill Clinton himself has barely talked about why he did it. When he was promoting his memoir in 2004, he said it was “because he could.” He also said it was because he was angry, that with Ken Starr hounding him on Whitewater and Republicans getting in his way after the 1994 midterms, he felt compelled to do irrational, destructive things.
HANNA ROSIN: He really is risking so much. I mean everyone says that about affairs but he really is risking so much, given his enemies and what’s already been written about him and what people wrote throughout the campaign. I mean, it’s so dangerous.
NEYFAKH: And he’s being sued for sexual harassment at this moment by a woman who works for him.
HANNA ROSIN: [laughs] Oh it’s not funny. It’s really not funny. God, we think of this so differently now. It’s not funny. I’m actually amazed that in my conversation with you I’m still laughing because I did think in my head, oh the Monica Lewinsky scandal really does mark a moment in feminist shame. It is genuinely the thing I look back on and think God, the way—I mean everyone says this—but the way we talked about her, the way we treated her, how kind of blind we were to the power dynamics. We talked about them but in this kind of superficial way, you know? But it just wasn’t prime in our minds, the power dynamic and sort of the position she was put in and how her life was absolutely ruined by this and how she got dragged into it. And yet, you and I are still, we still find it funny. Why is that?
Lewinsky waited up all night for the president’s call, but it never came.
Not long after that, she reached a crisis point. Realizing that Clinton was in no rush to bring her back, she confided in a friend at work, another former White House employee who had been moved to the Pentagon. Lewinsky started telling this friend everything.
And at first, all Linda Tripp did was listen. But then…
LINDA TRIPP: Over time, I remember thinking if this were my daughter, I would want an adult to step in and stop it. Someone has to step up to the plate and be an adult.
Next time on Slow Burn, you’ll hear more from Linda Tripp—a lot more. Look for that very special episode on September 12, two weeks from now. In the meantime, since there’s no show next week, you can get your fill of Slow Burn by catching me on Reddit doing an AMA—that’s Ask Me Anything—on Wednesday, Sept. 5. Visit the Slate Podcasts Twitter page for info on how to join and how to ask me whatever questions you want. That’s twitter.com/slatepodcasts.
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. This week, you’ll hear an extended interview with Dick Morris, Clinton’s secret adviser, who in recent years has become a full-fledged Trump supporter.
DICK MORRIS: Voters, they objected to Kenneth Starr making all of this stuff public, saying how the hell am I going to raise my kid in this environment? That’s why, for example, Donald Trump’s Hollywood tape did not defeat him.
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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. 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 archives and C-SPAN for the archival audio you heard in this episode.
For script notes and all kinds of other help, we want to thank Ava Lubell, Henry Grabar, Andrew Kahn, Faith Smith, Jeff Friedrich, and Mary Wilson.
See you in two weeks.