The intern spilled the coffee
A blue dress, a spark, secret recordings. A well-kept secret, hadn't it been for the incipient internet. In the late 90s, the intimate life of the most powerful man in America is discussed in court
"I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”With a raised fist and a shaky hand, Bill Clinton faced the country. On the 26th of January, 1998, the American people saw their President assure them, live on television, of his innocence. In the week prior, a scandal had been revealed.
On the 17th of January, website Drudge Report published information on an alleged romantic affair between Clinton and a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. According to the online page, Newsweekmagazine had access to recordings that proved the illicit affair.
The scandal was reported by the press four days after, on the 21st of January. “Clinton Accused of Urging Aide to Lie”, published The Washington Post.The President vaguely denied the case, but it wasn’t enough. A public statement that left no room for doubt was needed.
During a press conference on the 26th of January, the President, side by side with the First Lady, Hillary Clinton, faced the cameras and denied the accusations targeting him. “I never told anybody to lie, not a single time; never. These allegations are false.”
The next day, Hillary was no longer just an onlooker. “The great story here […] is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for President,” said the First Lady, in an interview with NBC’s “Today” programme.
The American people seemed convinced. During the Lewinsky scandal, the approval rates of the President within the public opinion even improved.
From Arkansas to the White House
On the 26th of January, 1992, Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary were interviewed for “60 Minutes”. It was one of the first great Media events of the then Governor of the state of Arkansas, who had announced, in the previous year, that he was running for the White House.
A Presidential run marked by… adultery accusations. “Are you prepared tonight to say that you never had an extramarital affair?”, asked journalist Steve Kroft.
Clinton was dismissive. “I'm not prepared tonight to say that any married couple should ever discuss that with anyone but themselves. […] I have acknowledged wrongdoing. I have acknowledged causing pain in my marriage.”
On the 3rd of November, 1992, Bill Clinton became the 42nd President of the United States and he was re-elected for his second term in 1996. But his love life no longer stopped crossing paths with his political career.
The saga of the blue dress
Clinton’s public statement, in January 1998, might have convinced the nation, but, in Justice, the affair was far from over. The investigation about Clinton – which included the Whitewater political-financial scandal, the controversies of the illicit White House layoffs and the improper use of FBI confidential files – now focused on whether or not the President had lied to the court about the nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. An essential piece of the puzzle was lacking, though: the testimony of the former intern.
In late July, the police reached a deal: in exchange of an honest testimony, Lewinsky was guaranteed immunity. The interrogation lasted six hours. In popular culture, it was immortalised in a clothing piece: the blue dress stained with semen, irrefutable proof of the illicit relationship between the intern and the President.
Clinton had no choice. On the 17th of August, he was heard by a grand jury and admitted he’d had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. It was the first time a President in term spoke in front of a grand jury, being the target of the investigation. That same night, Clinton decided to face the country. This time, Hillary wasn’t by his side.
“Indeed I did have a relationship with Ms. Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong,” he confessed. The contrast with his previous public adress, seven months prior, couldn’t be bigger. The scandal haunted Clinton’s presidency.
Public, the press and, of course, the Congress followed the scandal eagerly. “I'm having to become quite an expert in this business of asking for forgiveness,” said Clinton, in the Summer of 1998.
Apologies – and there were at least a dozen of public ones – weren’t enough. In September, the report of the investigation was made public. The White House was shaking. The House of Representatives of the United States gathered to decide the impugnation of Clinton’s term. The accusations? Perjury and obstruction to Justice.
Clinton was the second President of the United States whose impeachment was voted by the Camera of the Representatives of the United States. The only other American leader in the same position was Andrew Johnson, in 1868.
The country stopped to hear the veredict. On the 12th of February, 1999, Clinton was acquitted. “I want to say again to the American people how profoundly sorry I am for what I said and did to trigger these events,” he said. Clinton was still the President. American tried to move on.
American comedian Jay Leno made, over more than 20 years of the programme “The Tonight Show”, 4.607 jokes about Bill Clinton. Monica Lewinsky was the subject of 454. The world of music also took inspiration from the scandal: Beyoncé mentioned Lewinsky in “Partition”, as did Eminem in “Rap God”, Snoop Dogg in “Bitch I Knew” and G-Ezay in the song “Monica Lewinsky”.
After the White House
One month after Clinton’s acquittance, Monica Lewinsky broke her silence. She told her version of events for the first time to Barbara Walters, on the programme “20/20”. “Sometimes I have warm feelings, sometimes I’m proud of him still and sometimes I hate his guts.”
Her 15 minutes of fame lasted in time. A handbags line was named after her, she appeared on “Saturday Night Live” and she presented a reality-show. After a decade in silence, Lewinsky returned to the Media radar with a news story for Vanity Fair.
“Thanks to the Drudge Report, I was also possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet,” she wrote.
For the Clintons, staying away from the limelight wasn’t an option. Hillary Clinton launched a political career of her own, becoming senator of New York, secretary of state and presidential candidate to the 2008 and 2016 presidential elections.
Hillary Clinton has mentioned the scandal in her autobiography, Living History: “As a wife, I wanted to wring Bill's neck.” The couple celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary in 2015.
After his second term ended, Bill Clinton endorsed political causes and developed humanitarian work. When he left the White House, in 2001, his approval rate was 65%, the highest for any American president since World War Two.
The Lewinsky scandal has tarnished his second term. In the speech during which he admitted his guilt to the country, the President said “even Presidents have private lives”. Clinton’s almost dictated his departure from the White House.
The scandal is represented in Bill Clinton’s official portrait, by artist Nelson Shanks.
On the left side of the painting there’s a shadow, a metaphor of the impact of the Lewinsky case in his presidency.