I first heard the name “Monica Lewinsky” some time in my first week working as a reporter covering Congress. It was impossible then to imagine how much that moment would dominate the rest of the three years I spent on the beat, and to a large degree the politics of the next two decades.
In this era of sexual harassment revelations, coming seemingly daily, that time in the late 1990s has come back into view for the public. There’s been a lot of talk along the lines of “Why did Bill Clinton get a pass?”
And there is no doubt he did get a pass in that case, but it is worth remembering how and why. Looking at it from the inside, or at least from inside the Beltway, it wasn’t immediately obvious that the president would survive the scandal.
Almost as soon as the Lewinsky news broke, there was talk – on both sides of the aisle – about Clinton resigning.
One of the favorite parlor games in Washington, among Democrats and Republicans alike, through the winter and spring of 1998 was speculating on whether President Gore would reshuffle his cabinet when he arrived in the Oval Office. People dusted off the 22nd Amendment to see whether the new president would be able to run for two full terms even if he filled out the remainder of the time of his disgraced former president (Answer: Yes, as long as President Clinton resigned after Jan. 20, 1998, President Gore could run in both 2000 and 2004 without violating the two-term limit).
Speculation about a resignation buzzed across Capitol Hill well into the summer, as it became clear that the president had blatantly lied when he said “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
As late as mid-September, there was a sense in Washington that the Clinton era could collapse at any second.
I remember a particular moment where it seemed like he was finished.
On Sept. 11, 1998, Congress released to the public Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s long-awaited report. Members, staffers and journalists snatched up the 445-page volume and within minutes reporter Candy Crowley was live on CNN reading the salacious details.
In the sprawling Senate Press Gallery, every TV was tuned to that broadcast. Everyone in the gallery sat riveted as she read, even as we struggled to hammer out our own stories on the report.
At one point, Crowley came to a line where Starr reported some particularly cringe-worthy sappy remark by the president (there were lots of them, it seems). It sounded as if every female reporter in the gallery burst out laughing simultaneously, as if they had heard that kind of nonsense from men too many times before.
It’s over now, I thought – he just lost the respect of every woman, a demographic that had been crucial in both of his elections.
The Starr report, said USA Today in an editorial on Sept. 14 calling for Clinton to step down, tells “a tale of a man who entered into the most shallow sort of affair knowing better than anyone else what pain the nation would suffer if he were caught …”
Perversely, what saved Bill Clinton from political oblivion was the Republican-led House Judiciary Committee. From the moment the committee announced on Sept. 24 that it would open an impeachment proceeding in October, the speculation about resignation fell silent in the Capitol.
The impeachment removed any incentive Clinton might have had to resign – he wasn’t going to appear to buckle under political pressure and it gave him a way to shift the storyline from a shameful scandal to a partisan witch-hunt. Republicans had no incentive to press seriously for his resignation since they sensed blood in the 2000 election and they were not eager to give a President Gore extra time to clean the Democratic Party slate. And Democrats were not eager to give the Republicans a win by appearing to abandon their president, so they rallied behind him as a political martyr, albeit a flawed one.
The impeachment process itself shifted the discussion from sexual misbehavior to political drama. Bill Clinton got a pass not so much because people approved of his behavior or condoned sexual misconduct, but because there were political forces on both sides inside the Beltway that made it expedient to talk about something else.
I’ve wondered lately what would have happened if Clinton had resigned, as I thought he would and should have done. Perhaps we could have had the long-overdue discussion about sexual misbehavior by powerful men two decades earlier than it happened. And at least, I suspect, a great deal about our country and our politics would be very different today.