“I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
So proclaimed President William Jefferson Clinton, 49, in a public address on January 26, 1998.
“That woman” to whom Clinton referred was Monica Lewinsky, then 24, a Lewis and Clark College graduate who had served in 1995 as a White House intern and in 1996 took a job with the White House Office of Legislative Affairs.
During Miss Lewinsky’s tenure in both those positions, she and Clinton actually did engage in what he would later term an “improper physical relationship.” At first, though, he tried to talk his way out it.
Eleven days prior to Clinton’s adamant declaration, right-leaning muckraker Matt Drudge’s fledgling website Drudge Report reported that Newsweek had been actively holding back a potentially sensational story by investigative journalist Michael Isikoff.
The piece, according to Drudge, alleged that Clinton and Lewinsky had had sexual conduct in the Oval Office on nine separate occasions between 1995 and ’97 and that both had lied about it — Monica, under oath.
Furthermore, Lewinsky had detailed the encounters over the phone to her friend Linda Tripp who, without Monica’s knowledge, recorded their conversations. Lewinsky also held on to what would become a famously unwashed blue dress splashed with DNA evidence of Bill Clinton’s semen.
Subsequently, Tripp had taken the Lewinsky tapes to literary agent Lucianne Goldberg. He, in turn, encouraged Tripp to share the recordings with attorneys representing Paula Jones in her sexual-harassment suit against the president — a case within which Lewinsky had previously submitted an affidavit denying any physical interactions with Clinton.
Goldberg also told Tripp to contact Independent Counsel Ken Starr, who was investigating other Clinton-related scandals regarding Whitewater, the White House FBI files, and the White House travel office.
With a move that forever altered the media landscape, Matt Drudge’s revelations seemed to force the hand of the then-dominant print and broadcast news outlets.
The Lewinsky scandal story — soon to be nicknamed “Monicagate” and “Zippergate” (among other terms) — broke on a mass scale on January 21. Five days later, Clinton addressed the press from the White House.
With First Lady Hillary Clinton by his side, the president steadfastly and with apparent moral indignation announced:
“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, Miss 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.”
The next morning, Hillary Clinton appeared on the Today show and summarily dismissed the allegations, stating: “The only story here for anybody willing to find it and write about it and explain it is this vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president.”
With that, the term “vast right-wing conspiracy” entered the popular lexicon.
During his deposition in the Paula Jones lawsuit, Clinton swore under oath that he did not engage in sex with Monica Lewinsky. Citing the tapes and the stained dress, Ken Starr declared the president had lied and ordered him to undergo a new deposition on these matters.
In response to the question, “Have you ever had sexual relations with Miss Lewinsky?,” Clinton replied in the negative.
Later, when it came to light that he had placed an unlit cigar inside Monica’s vagina and that she had fellated him, Clinton, with legalistic aplomb, stated, “I thought the definition included any activity by [me], where [I] was the actor and came in contact with those parts of the bodies.” In other words, the president claimed that receiving oral sex didn’t “count” as having “sexual relations.”
The case continued throughout 1998. On August 17, Clinton came clean in a taped grand jury testimony, confessing that he and Lewinsky had undertaken an “improper physical relationship.” That night, he repeated the admission to the American people in a TV broadcast, saying that what happened was “not appropriate.”
By the end of the year, Clinton faced impeachment. He ultimately beat the charges in Congress, but a judge later fined him $90,000 for being in civil contempt of court for giving misleading testimony. In 2001, Clinton also lost license to practice law in his home state of Arkansas for five years.
The entire situation provided limitless fodder for both serious journalists and comedians alike — especially the comedians. The very name “Lewinsky” became perhaps the defining punchline of the final days of the 20th century, particularly as the internet rapidly came to conquer the world.
Today, Monica Lewinsky, now 44, is active campaigner against online shaming and cyberbullying.
The FX anthology series American Crime Story, which scored huge ratings and acclaim in 2016 with The People vs. O.J. Simpson, has announced plans to focus on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, perhaps in Season 4.
Just as the O.J. episodes used the book The Run of His Life by Jeffrey Toobin as source material, the show’s creators will be basing their season on the 2000 bestseller A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President, also by Toobin.
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Main photo: President Bill Clinton [ABC News Video/screenshot]