The Curse of the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal
It is 20 years since the Bill Clinton/ Monica Lewinsky scandal, and a different US president is now living under the shadow of a special counsel investigation and possible impeachment. Premiering this month, The Clinton Affair explores the greatest political scandal of its time and its aftermath. Now in her 40s, Monica Lewinsky discusses how it has changed her life. But what about the others involved? Seemingly, many of those swept up in the events have, in subsequent years, experienced misfortune on a par with Lewinsky. Failed Presidential bids, public shaming, debt, trashed reputations and more, 'the curse of the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal' stretches far and wide.
It is November 1995 and a 22-year-old intern is having an affair with her married boss… the President of the United States. But what began as your standard creepy, office hook-up escalated into heavy-handed FBI interrogation, public humiliation and international infamy which would follow Monica Lewinsky for years to come (She was later diagnosed with PTSD).
Branded a slut and a predator' by the American press, her notoriety severely limited her career options. Over the decade that followed, she started her own handbag line, hosted a dating show and advertised a diet company (before she was deemed too controversial and dropped!). Now a social activist against cyberbullying, Lewinsky has reassessed her relationship with Clinton in the wake of the #MeToo movement and, finally, others have too. The conclusion being, in a liaison between an intern and the leader of the Free World, almost 30 years her senior, there really is only one 'predator'….
One person who still doesn’t see it that way is Bill’s feminist wife, Hillary Clinton. When pressed, this year, Clinton still denied the affair was an abuse of power. It's been argued that Hillary Clinton’s 'huge blind spot' on this point, cost her the 2016 Election. During the campaign, Trump attempted to deflect attention from his own sexual assault accusers, by holding a press conference with Bill Clinton’s accusers. Among them was Paula Jones… the woman whose assault allegation led to the exposure of Clinton’s affair with Lewinsky.
Sex, lies and audio tape
For many at the time, Linda Tripp was the villain of the piece. She secretly recorded telephone conversations with her friend, Lewinsky, discussing the affair and passed them over to independent prosecutor, Ken Starr. When the scandal blew up, Tripp was arguably the most hated women in America. She lost her White House job, narrowly escaped jail and had the dubious honour of being immortalised by John Goodman on Saturday Night Live. Tripp now runs an all-year-round Christmas shop in Virginia, which recently got trolled by Yelp! users. Two decades after the Affair, she spoke out publicly for the first time, calling her experience a 'high tech public lynching'.
It was right-wing literary agent Lucianne Goldberg who suggested to Tripp she should tape her conversations with Lewinsky. She later testified that she lied to her, saying it was legal to do so. Like Tripp, she was vilified in the press. Michael Moore legally placed a webcam on a window of her apartment, in a project he called 'I See Lucy Cam' in 1999. Tragedy filled the years that followed; her husband, Sidney, passed away in 2005 and her son, Joshua, died in 2011, aged only 44.
Privileged white men behaving badly
Special counsel, Ken Starr‘s association with powerful men and their sexual misconduct did not end there; though curiously he seemed to switch sides. From 2007-8, he helped defend billionaire and now-registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein against charges of statutory rape of underage girls. In 2013, he spoke out in support of Christopher Kloman, a retired teacher and friend, who had pleaded guilty to molesting female students over three decades. In 2016, Starr was removed as President of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, over his mishandling of sexual assaults which took place there.
Brett Kavanaugh, Starr’s zealous associate counsel, wanted to put sexually graphic questions to Clinton, a president, he argued, had 'disgraced the office'. On the eve of his confirmation to the US Supreme Court this year, Kavanaugh himself was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, including attempted rape. Though he won the nomination (by the lowest margin in history!) the cost was heavy. There were huge national protests; he was forced to leave his Harvard teaching job; in Yale, Kavanaugh’s alma mater, lines from his first accuser, Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, were graffitied all over campus. He was also condemned for showing a lack of 'judicial temperament' in his response. In his speech following Blasey Ford’s testimony, Kavanaugh called the allegations 'revenge on behalf of the Clintons', adding: 'My family and my name have been totally and permanently destroyed'. The irony appeared to be lost on him…
In the aftermath of the scandal, Larry Flynt, publisher of Hustler magazine, launched a campaign to expose hypocrisy among the Republicans who pursued Clinton’s impeachment most vehemently. Among them, Bob Livingston was expected to be the next Speaker of the House, when Flynt tracked down multiple women he’d had affairs with. He left Congress in March 1999 and never returned. Bob Barr, the first lawmaker to call for Clinton’s resignation, also had an extramarital affair exposed. He lost a primary challenge less than three years later.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich later admitted he was having an affair while he led Clinton’s impeachment. During his 2012 bid to become the Republican presidential candidate, his former wife, Marianne, gave a damning public interview about his infidelity. Four months later, Gingrich was forced to pull out of the race, his campaign over $4m in debt.
Wag the dog
In August 1998, three days after testifying that he 'had an inappropriate relationship' with Lewinsky, President Clinton launched missiles against al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and Sudan. Some commentators suggested Operation Infinite Reach was a deliberate bid to deflect attention from the scandal, echoing the 1997 film, Wag the Dog. Their main target, Osama bin Laden, escaped unharmed. Amid huge backlash across the Islamic world, the Taliban allegedly went back on previous agreements with Saudi intelligence to hand him over. Three years later came 9/11…
Al Gore later blamed Clinton’s scandal for deflating the Democratic base, contributing to his narrow 2001 election defeat. Clinton, on the other hand, argued it was Gore’s reluctance to campaign with him, in response to the scandal, which contributed to his failure to motivate voters. Some say they were both right….
If anyone came out of the scandal unscathed, it was Bill Clinton himself. His marriage survived; he left office with the highest approval ratings of any departing president measured since Harry Truman. Since then, he has won numerous accolades; most recently The Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama in 2013. This year, Lewinsky found herself uninvited to Town & Country’s annual philanthropy summit after he was confirmed as a speaker.