Happy Birthday, Monicagate!

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Jan. 17 2008 7:00 PM

Happy Birthday, Monicagate!

An anniversary we'd all rather forget.

Bill Clinton. Click image to expand.
Bill Clinton

The press loves anniversaries of big public events because they're predictable, a quality seldom found in the news. Coverage can be planned in advance. Stories can be written, laid out, and put to bed without any worry that later developments will compel revisions. Sputnik is turning 50? Let's cover it. The only thing it can possibly do while we're not looking is turn 51.

Given this predisposition, I find it worth studying the rare instances when the press accords a significant anniversary little attention. In November 2006, I offered a few tentative thoughts about why the 20th anniversary of the Iran-Contra scandal went largely ignored. Today, let's consider the 10th anniversary of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

It was 10 years ago on Jan. 12 that Linda Tripp notified Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's office that she had audiotapes of Monica Lewinsky telling her that she'd had an affair with President Bill Clinton, and that he'd urged her to lie if asked about it under oath. (For the full chronology, click here.) Ten years ago on Jan. 13, Tripp wore a Federal Bureau of Investigation wire while discussing this further with Lewinsky at a hotel bar in the Pentagon City shopping mall. Ten years ago on Jan. 16, the FBI had Tripp lure Lewinsky to the bar once again, this time to allow FBI agents to swoop down on Lewinsky, haul her off to a hotel room, and question her about the affair and whether the president had suborned perjury or obstructed justice. Ten years ago on Jan. 17, President Clinton, while being deposed by lawyers for Paula Jones—the plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging that Clinton harassed her sexually while he was governor of Arkansas—stumbled into the perjury trap that Starr had set:

Q. Did you have an extramarital sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky?
A. No.
Q. If she told someone that she had a sexual affair with you beginning in November of 1995, would that be a lie?
A. It's certainly not the truth. It would not be the truth.
Q. I think I used the term ''sexual affair.'' And so the record is completely clear, have you ever had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky, as that term is defined in Deposition Exhibit 1, as modified by the Court. ...
A. I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I've never had an affair with her.

Ten years ago on Jan. 19, Matt Drudge ran an item about all this on his Web site, the Drudge Report, cribbing from an unpublished Newsweek story. As I write this, not even Drudge is flogging the anniversary!

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive," wrote poet William Wordsworth, "But to be young was very Heaven!" No one will ever say that about Monicagate. (Slate tried to name the scandal "Flytrap," but the label didn't stick.) It was a bummer for all concerned, from its tawdry beginning as an item of Internet gossip to its ambivalent end when Clinton, having become the first president since Andrew Johnson to be impeached by the House, was acquitted by a Senate reluctant to flatter Clinton's infractions by calling them high crimes or misdemeanors.

Everybody lost, with one exception, or possibly two. The press was excoriated for running outlandish, poorly sourced stories that nearly always turned out to be true, which just made everyone angrier. Starr was condemned for collaborating with Paula Jones and her nakedly partisan allies. Lewinsky was ridiculed for her brazen seduction of the chief executive, her too-tender heart, and her weight problem. Clinton was vilified for his infidelity and his mendacity. Hillary Clinton was mocked for her refusal to believe, until presented with forensic evidence that the rest of us neither required nor wanted especially to know about, that Lewinsky was telling the truth. Congressional Republicans were criticized for politicizing the confrontation and ended up losing seats in the 1998 midterm elections, a setback that caused House Speaker Newt Gingrich to resign. His designated successor was forced to withdraw after it came out that he, like Clinton, had cheated on his wife (a trespass that both Gingrich and House Whip Tom DeLay—probably Clinton's most severe congressional critic—would also confess to later on). Linda Tripp was rightly identified as the worst villain of all for deceiving her friend Monica and for being a prude, a tattle-tale, and a buttinsky, and had to endure being played by John Goodmanon Saturday Night Live.

The only unambiguous victor I can identify is Jonah Goldberg, son of Tripp's confidante Lucianne Goldberg, a literary agent who shopped Tripp's story to Newsweek. Jonah Goldberg's role in Monicagate was marginal (Tripp played her Monica tapes to Lucianne mere et fils in Goldberg's apartment), and in 1998 Salon wrote him off as "The Jester of Monicagate." But by making himself very available to the braying jackals of cable news, Goldberg was able to parlay a job as TV producer for conservative think-tank bore Ben Wattenberg into a contributing editorship at National Review, a columnist gig at the Los Angeles Times, and a measure of respectability thus far unsullied by his authorship of a best-selling book alleging significant connections between fascism and contemporary liberalism.

Another possible net winner is Hillary Clinton. Yes, she endured national humiliation. And yes, Chris Matthews has been much vilified for stating, after the New Hampshire primary, "The reason she's a U.S. senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around." But this is at worst an exaggeration. Clinton's pursuit of a Senate seat came about at least in part because of a widespread belief, especially among Democratic partisans, that she was in need of a new role. Indeed, Hillary has long maintained that running for the New York seat vacated by retiring Sen. Pat Moynihan wasn't her idea. "I don't think it ever occurred to her before a lot of people started calling and asking her to do it," Bill Clinton said in February 1999. Hmm. What do you suppose was on these Democrats' minds in late 1998 and early 1999? Might it have been Clinton's impeachment in December 1998 and his acquittal in February 1999? Obviously, Hillary brought strong political skills to bear, but it would be absurd to deny that Monicagate played a significant role in getting her to run. Possibly it helped her win that first race as well. And if she hadn't won, she wouldn't be running for president now. (Ironically, the president of the organization leading the charge against Matthews—David Brock—is a repentant conservative hatchet man responsible for introducing into the public dialogue the very allegations that led to Paula Jones' lawsuit and therefore to Monicagate itself.)

The only reason I mark Hillary a "possible" winner is that Monicagate is the last thing she wants to hear about, especially now. Which probably helps explain why its anniversary has gone ignored in the press. The whole subject is a source-killer for any journalist who wants to cover Hillary's presidential campaign.

Are there any lessons to draw from Monicagate? Not a lot. But there are a few:

1. Never ask about a politician's sex life, because someone just might tell you.

2. The sky does not fall when a newspaper prints the word penis.

3. Ditto vagina, which Eve Ensler couldn't have freedfrom its taboo status in the mainstream media if Monicagate hadn't freed penis first.

4. All politicians commit adultery. There are exceptions, but they're statistically insignificant and not worth investigating.

5. Guilt is but one consideration when a nation undertakes to expel a president from office before his term ends.

6. If you have or had an "inappropriate" relationship with the president of the United States, don't tell your best friend.

Monicagate doesn't seem to give Brits the same migraine it gives Americans, so the United Kingdom hasn't flinched from celebrating its 10-year anniversary. The best offering is "Oral History: The Monica Lewinsky Scandal Ten Years On" in the Jan. 15 Times. The best part is when Linda Tripp, on being confronted by reporter Damian Whitworth in her tchotchkes shop in Middleburg, Va., pretends to be someone else named "Karen."

Can you blame her?

[Update, Jan. 18: The Washington Post has a sort-of anniversary piece  today, pairing discussion of Bill Clinton's recent crankiness on the campaign trail for Hillary with his lingering bitterness over Monicagate. The author is Peter Baker, author of The Breach, an excellent book about Clinton's impeachment. Weirdly, though, Baker writes that the anniversary of when Monicagate broke as a news story is Jan. 21. That ignores Drudge's Jan. 19 item, which was heard 'round the world. (Believe me. I remember.)]

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