On January 17th, 1998, President Clinton videotaped a deposition for the Paula Jones lawsuit against him. December 19th, eleven months later, Bill Clinton became only the second president in our nation’s history to face impeachment from congress. The 1998-1999 was a tumultuous year for the President, the media, and the American people as a whole.
Yet, the most intriguing and surprising aspect of the scandal was not that Bill Clinton would ever cheat on his wife or that his administration would survive such a terrible scandal. Nor was it a revelation that the media would be zealously intrigued by a sex scandal involving the President. The one aspect of the Lewinksy Scandal that was truly interesting was the response of the public. Despite the knowledge that Clinton had an affair with an intern and probably lied about it, Clinton’s job approval rating did not decrease or even stay the same– his ratings rose to levels approaching 70%
Every time a new damning piece of evidence came to light, media pundits everywhere believed that Clinton’s ratings would fall. Yet, they were wrong. The Republican Party believed that the scandal would finally bring down Clinton and his popular support. They also were wrong and paid a considerable political price. How did this happen?
To help understand and explain this phenomenon, I will examine three political actors -- the President, the media, and the public – and their relationship with each other. I will discuss President Clinton’s past and his history of scandals. The way that each actor has dealt with Clinton’s scandal-ridden past has had an important effect on how each responded to and was affected by the Lewinsky Scandal. Each actor’s respective response to the scandal will be illustrated and then explained. While many explanations have emerged to explain or at least make sense of the Lewinsky scandal and its effect on politics, I believe that the best explanation lies in studying Clinton’s scandal-ridden past.
While it is too early to accurately judge the presidency of Bill Clinton, most would agree that he was successful in office. He was the first democrat to successfully be reelected since Franklin Roosevelt. Yet, when a sufficient amount of time has passed and historians attempt to categorize and analyze Bill Clinton’s presidency, his legacy will ultimately be tied to scandal. The numerous scandals that Clinton faced – and survived –were an important aspect of the Clinton presidency. On one hand, they showed the well-documented weakness of Clinton’s personal character – his infidelities, his evasiveness, and his lack of integrity. Yet, Clinton’s ability to survive these scandals are a true testament how politically cunning and brilliant the man was.
In examining the political life of Bill Clinton, five major scandals stick out: his draft record; Gennifer Flowers and Infidelity; the Marijuana controversy; Whitewater; the Lewinsky Affair. Any one of these scandals could easily – and have on numerous occasions– ruin a political career. Yet, in each of these episodes Clinton was unusually adept at surviving and restoring his image.
The importance of illustrating Clinton’s past encounters with scandal is not to show the moral weakness of Clinton’s character; nor is it to show cagey moves of a political mastermind. Rather, I have illustrated Clinton’s past to show how it has affected our three main actors: the President, the media, and the public. If Bill Clinton had been a shining example of virtue and integrity, if his office had never been associated with scandal or unprepared in the art of damage-control, if the media could easily dismiss such claims,—essentially, if Bill Clinton was not Bill Clinton, the Lewinsky affair would have transpired much differently. All three actor’s response to the Lewinsky affair is directly affected by the previous scandals of the Clinton Presidency.
The Clinton Presidency faced a never-ending theme of scandals. The multiple encounters with scandal clearly had an effect on Clinton and the Executive Office as a whole. First of all, the continual scandals proved to be an enormous distraction for the White House. The White House was in a constant state of crisis management and damage control.
Because scandals were a common theme of his tenure as president, his character was always under attack from the Republicans. As a result, Clinton harbored a deep resentment towards many Republicans and media – he believed that he was constantly on the wrong end of partisan attacks.
The multitude of scandals, however, taught Clinton and his associates how to handle and survive scandals through effective damage control and image restoration strategies. Clinton’s nickname as the “Comeback Kid” paid tribute to his undeniable ability to survive and manage scandals. All of the major scandals outlined before made the President and his staff well experienced in scandal politics. His first major scandal, his draft record, taught him the value of denial. The Gennifer Flowers experience showed Clinton when to deny and when to attack the accuser. The marijuana controversy taught Clinton to be more careful when his response of “I didn’t inhale” became famously ridiculed.
The myriad of scandals also influenced the media – both in terms of its
relationship with the President and its role as intermediary between the President and the public. Clinton’s numerous scandals affected the media in several ways.
The media’s role in scandal politics has been extensive and pervasive; it is recognized as the main cause for the prominence of political scandals . The media “has assumed credit for the exposure of Watergate and stimulated an industry and sub-culture intent on exposing corruption and wrongdoing in politics” . More so than ever before, media is concerned with the bottom line – money. Scandals are more intriguing than policy issues. After Woodward and Bernstein, lucrative careers and established reputations in the media are not made through objective reporting and journalistic integrity, but through exposing wrongdoings and the salacious secrets of our politicians.
This scandal-dominated era of politics plays a part in explaining Clinton’s legacy of scandals. Clinton was not the first president to have an affair or perpetrate other scandalous activities, but his personal life has certainly endured the most scrutiny and federal investigations. But the media did not make Clinton ‘dodge’ the draft or sleep with Gennifer Flowers. Clinton, as it is now well known, had many personal misgivings and character flaws. Upon choosing to run for president, all candidates are aware of the media’s scrutiny and lack of privacy – which makes Clinton’s personal behavior appear seem even more unintelligent.
Clinton’s numerous scandals were not just a result of a muck-raking media, but encouraged further media investigation and attention – resulting, of course, in more scandals. The never-ending stream of scandals clearly made media skeptical and suspicious of Clinton. While none of the scandals constituted illegal behavior, they, as a whole, created an atmosphere of suspicion and a “lack of trust in the President’s word” (Busby p.27). Because of the suspicion, the media became increasingly “nosy” and, because of the high demand and value of a scandal, more aggressive.
Another effect of the numerous scandals was that it created negative attention and an adversarial relationship between Clinton and the media – specifically the White House Corps. In past presidencies, the White House corps reporters were the chosen medium through which the President communicated his message; a symbiotic relationship prevailed through which the President, by allowing special access to the reporters, gave the news to the reporters. When Clinton came to office, he tried to forgo this traditional relationship and used less traditional mediums – Internet, talk radio, and other types of New Media. This plan failed and was a source of hostility between the Old and elite Media and the White House.
Another consequence of Clinton’s scandals is that they fostered a relationship of distrust and antagonism between the President and the White House press corps and, in a general way, the media at large. Because of the scandals, a large portion of media attention focused on Clinton’s alleged misgivings and wrongdoings; as a result, Clinton did not trust the press. He believed that they were always out to “get him”. Because of this sentiment, Clinton disliked many of the reporters and would often lose his temper in front of reporters who antagonized him.
Accordingly, the White House press corps became antagonistic towards the President. The myriad of scandals fostered suspicion. Because the basis of their job was to report the objective truth, they dislike a man who could rarely be objectively truthful. Because of his mastering of the “non-denial denial—evasive answers that skirted the truth” , the White House press corps were disillusioned by Clinton: “Privately they continued to rail at his lack of candor and their belief that Clinton arrogantly felt that he could get away with anything.”
Finally, the public was affected by Clinton’s scandal-ridden tenure. Not surprisingly, the continuous scandals were damaging to Clinton’s personal reputation. The public, similar to the media, became suspicious of Clinton’s character. While none of the many scandals and allegations ever materialized, they, “as an aggregate mass, created an atmosphere of suspicion and a lack of trust in the President’s word” .
At the same time, however, the scandals desensitized the public. Because of the scandals, the expectations of Clinton’s moral compass were lowered. As more scandals ensued, people were less intrigued and surprised. The media’s continual investigations and the Republicans attacks on Clinton seemed increasingly zealous and partisan to the public .
The scandal-ridden past of Bill Clinton greatly influenced all three actors and helps explain their response to the Lewinsky Affair. Clinton’s past also greatly influenced the relationship between the three actors. The scandals cultivated a lack of trust between all three. Because of the numerous allegations surrounding Clinton, the media became very suspicious of Clinton and aggressive in its investigations. As a result, Clinton was equally suspicious of the media’s intentions and angered by their intrusion into his private life. The public, as a result of the scandals, lost its trust in Clinton and held his personal life in low regard. The media’s increasing attention to scandals fed the public’s appetite for salacious scandals but, at the same time, began to lose its credibility in the eyes of many Americans.
The Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal began in January 1998. Clinton was accused of having an improper sexual relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Beyond the moral misconduct were accusations that Clinton may have “committed perjury, suborned perjury, and obstructed justice in connection with the alleged affair.” The scandal evolved into an impeachment inquiry, “indicating the gravity of these charges.” Leading the inquiry was Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. Starr was the Whitewater Special Counsel and received permission from Attorney General Janet Reno to expand his investigation. The main issue of the investigation was whether Clinton engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship with Monica Lewisnky and lied about that relationship in a legal deposition with Paula Jones’s attorneys.
Before the Lewinsky Affair, the Clinton administration was experienced in defending the President from scandals and accusations. Yet, the Lewinsky Affair quickly transformed from a discreet affair into a Constitutional crisis. By its conclusion, the President would eventually become only the second President to become impeached by Congress.
Clinton’s initial response to the accusations were similar to his previous experiences with scandal -- damage limitation and image restoration Clinton’s damage control, designed to “court public sentiment and diminish the visibility of this potentially damaging episode” , followed three paths. Firstly, he denied allegations of an affair with Monica Lewinsky. He used deliberately ambiguous language and left many unanswered questions concerning the nature of their relationship.
His second strategy summoned a full investigation of the facts. This was done purposely to “disassociate the President from the ongoing events.” Given the fact that only Clinton and Lewinsky knew of the precise details and nature of their relationship, his pledge to help uncover the events, “appears superficial at best.”
Clinton’s third strategy in damage limitation was to continually pledge his commitment to the national agenda. By doing so, he catered to the sentiment of the public and attempted to deflect the media’s attention from the scandal. Clinton continually emphasized his need to “get back to work for the American people.” His State of the Union address gave Clinton the perfect opportunity to deflect the scandal and allow him to reiterate to the public his national agenda.
The best explanation for Clinton’s response to the Lewinsky Affair lies in his previous experience with scandal politics and damage control. After many years of scrutiny and allegations, the White House was experienced at handling and managing scandals. Moreover, his continual ability to escape scandals unscathed made it impossible for Clinton to concede any wrongdoing. The arrogance, as demonstrated by his continual denials and tedious use of language, is a direct result of his past encounters with scandals and the media.
The media holds a crucial role in depicting the scandal to the public. The media’s response to the Lewinsky affair can be best described as a conflict between intrigue and revulsion. A major problem in reporting the scandal was its sexual nature. The key feature of the media’s response was the emergence of the ‘New Media’ and its effect on the ‘Old Media’.
The sexual nature of the scandal offered the media an enticing opportunity, but also served up a problematic issue:
“The scandal inadvertently became a debate about much more than obstruction of justice and perjury, and centered as much on sex and the private relationship conducted by Clinton. While it enlarged the appeal of the story, it made the presentation of the material difficult without appearing to be prying too much into Clinton’s personal life.”
The media – mainly referring to the Old Media and elite media – was unsure of how to cover the story. The sexual nature of the story could not be avoided. While the Lewinsky scandal appealed to all media, it “forced the elite media to consider matters it might normally leave to the tabloid element of the profession.”
The media, therefore, was hesitant to investigate deeply into the scandal of the President for several reasons: disinterest in the president’s private life; peers and standards; a feeling that discussion of sexual nature demeaned the commentators’ professionalism.
Another important aspect of the media’s response and coverage of the scandal was the emergence of the ‘New Media’ and its effect on the Old Media. The emergence of the ‘New Media’ during the scandal greatly altered the way in which news is reported. New Media is generally defined as the Internet, cable, talk radio,etc. The Internet played an especially important role in the scandal: “ the web was not simply a convenient conduit for releasing an exclusive story – it was the entity that was driving the media frenzy.” The emergence of the New Media and its increased importance affected Old Media. The New Media allowed for instant coverage. It also opened up the “gates” kept by the Old Media; anyone with a computer could access and broadcast any story. The emergence of the New Media splintered the media into countless outlets. This in turn increased competition for news – particularly breaking news stories – and to keep new audiences.
The media’s response to the Lewinsky scandal can also be explained through Clinton scandal-ridden past. As stated before, the previous scandals created a serious rift between the media and President Clinton. Clinton was constantly evasive and antagonistic towards the press. The media was not afraid to go after Clinton and his personal life if they had felt he had lied or broken the law.
The media’s response to the Lewinsky scandal, in many ways, demonstrates the self-appointed role many in the media feel as the watchdog of the government: “Journalists now view themselves as the guardians of the political system, not just informing the public but protecting it from politics and politicians.” Since Watergate and the advent of scandal politics, the media has become the fourth branch of the government – the ‘check and balance’ of the government and its politicians. The media felt as though Clinton – as evident by his continual allegations and scandals – was an evasive liar. But the media was not able to “translate its outrage and criticism of the President into any meaningful change in public opinion.” In the end, the public did not assume the position held by the media – regardless of its extensive coverage and analysis of the scandal.
While Clinton and the media, as political actors in the scandal, were important, the public’s response to the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal was the major and most important factor in determining the outcome. Similar to the media, the public’s response can best be described by intrigue and revulsion. The public seemed “intent on watching the media product” , but at the same time would not endorse the media’s coverage or it’s invasion of the President’s sex life.
Unlike the institutions of the President and the media, the public’s response to the scandal can be directly gauged through polling of public opinion. Public opinion was especially important because of the Impeachment proceedings. Impeachment, the goal of many Republicans and the Independent Counsel, is an attempt to remove the President through political means and conflicts with the expression of popular will and popular sovereignty. All of the major political players—Clinton, Congress, Starr, the media—relied on public opinion for direction and, in Clinton’s case, vindication.
The public opinion polls taken during the scandal were important and also intriguing. Despite the scandal and the knowledge that the President did have an affair and tried to cover it up, the public remained remarkably stable in its support of Clinton and the belief that he should remain in office.
While his approval rating took an initial hit when the story broke, Clinton’s support steady increased as the scandal progressed. His approval ratings peaked following his State of the Union address when Clinton’s support hovered around 70%.
Throughout Clinton’s trial in the Senate, Americans approval of the President and their opposition to impeachment remained unchanged. Support for Clinton’s removal never rose above 35% and people as a whole ignored the trial (less than 30% followed the trial closely). When the Senate acquitted the President, 63% of the American people agreed with their decision.
Yet, still unanswered is the most intriguing and important aspect of the Lewinsky Affair-- explanation of Clinton’s approval ratings. Despite the widespread disapproval of Clinton’s conduct with Lewinsky, the public continued to support the President. After an initial and abrupt dip in approval ratings, Clinton enjoyed a high job approval rating. This was the most important factor in deciding his fate as President; impeachment and resignation would not occur unless public opinion CH.
According to Molly W. Andolina and Clyde Wilcox, authors of “Public Opinion: The Paradoxes of Clinton’s Popularity”, there are five major reasons for why Clinton’s job approval remained so high. One of the strongest indicators of presidential popularity is the economy: “presidents are generally more popular when the economy is strong and must less popular when the economy is weak.” The U.S. economy under Clinton flourished and many indirectly credited Clinton with the seemingly prosperous times. Clinton also remained popular because he had popular policies. Also important, was the fact that Clinton’s enemies were generally unpopular (Kenneth Starr, the Far Right). The public also supported Clinton for his charisma, his ability to “feel your pain. ” Finally, people, while intrigued by the story, felt the scandal was a private matter.
While these five reasons for Clinton’s popularity are certainly relevant and seem true, I think that the public’s support for Clinton is best explained by Clinton’s history of scandals. At the heart of the Lewinsky Scandal was one thing– a choice. The public was forced to choose between strong approval of Clinton’s performance as President and a belief that this behavior was sufficiently immoral to remove him from office. To many Republicans and media, this choice could be debated, fought over. The public could be won over if enough evidence emerged showing Clinton lied and cheated. Similarly, Clinton also believed that this choice could be won if he could deny the affair and explain the scandal as a partisan attack. Both sides, I believe, are wrong; the choice had already been made by the public long before.
During the Clinton Administration, the public had become accustomed to scandals and the constant “bashing of Clinton’s integrity” – as a result, the public expectations of Clinton’s integrity were never high. The myriad of scandals Clinton faced, “desensitized the public to some degree.” Another scandal involving Bill Clinton did not and would not surprise anyone. Moreover, the severity of the Lewinsky scandal was lessened because Clinton was involved in so many scandals. A scandal of this magnitude and nature normally ruins the career of a politician. If some politician has a seemingly perfect track record and espoused moral views, a scandal of this type would reek of hypocrisy and indignation. But with President Clinton, the public knew Clinton and his personal shortcomings. Because of his past, the public was in some ways apathetic to the new scandal. The public was familiar with “his involvement in scandal politics and allegations of womanizing.” A scandal involving Clinton and sex, remarkably, did not have significant shock value.
More importantly, the barrage of Clinton scandals made the public differentiate between Clinton, the person, and Clinton, the politician. This is evidenced by polls taken concerning Clinton’s job approval and personal integrity. Even before the scandal broke, people did not believe Clinton was a very honest and trustworthy person. Bill Clinton “might be an adulterer, might be a liar, and might be evasive…, but he was considered by many an astute politician who delivered on his election pledges to the American people.” The public could differentiate between Clinton, the weak person, and Clinton, the strong leader.
While many in the Republican party and members of the elite media felt as though Bill Clinton was not morally capable of leading the country -- that the public would choose to expel Clinton. But, the public demonstrated this in 1996, when Clinton was elected to a second term. Because of their familiarity with Clinton and his scandalous past, the public is not shocked by allegations of an affair nor do they really care – the public could differentiate between the two aspects of Bill Clinton.
In conclusion, the Lewinsky affair was an important event for three main political actors: the President, the media, and the public. The nature of how they relate to one and other was forever changed by the political scandal that almost cost President Bill Clinton his office. In explaining the response of each actor to the scandal one must analyze the past – specifically the scandal-ridden administration of President Bill Clinton. The scandals cultivated a lack of trust between all three. Because of the numerous allegations surrounding Clinton, the media became very suspicious of Clinton and aggressive in its investigations. As a result, Clinton was equally suspicious of the media’s intentions and angered by their intrusion into his private life. The public, because of the scandals, lost trust in both institutions. More importantly, Clinton past scandals help to explain the response of each of the actors: why Clinton was able to survive the scandal; why the media was too aggressive in its coverage; most importantly, why the public stood by Clinton and approved of his performance as President.
Robert Busby, Defending the American President: Clinton and Lewinsky Scandal (New York: Palgrave, 2001) p.171.
John Anthony Maltese, “The New Media and the Lure of the Clinton Scandal”, ed. Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox, The Clinton Scandal: and the Future of American Government (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000) p.203.
Robert Busby, Defending the American President: Clinton and Lewinsky Scandal (New York: Palgrave, 2001) p.27
Larry J. Sabato, Mark Stencer, and S. Robert Lichter, Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000).
Joseph R. Blaney and William L. Benoit, The Clinton Scandals and the Politics of Image Restoration (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 2001).
Robert Busby, Defending the American President: Clinton and Lewinsky Scandal (New York: Palgrave, 2001).
President Bill Clinton, January 26, 1998.
Robert Busby, Defending the American President: Clinton and Lewinsky Scandal (New York: Palgrave, 2001).
Larry J. Sabato, Mark Stencer, and S. Robert Lichter, Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal (New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2000).
John Anthony Maltese, “The New Media and the Lure of the Clinton Scandal”, ed. Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox, The Clinton Scandal: and the Future of American Government (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000) p.198.
Michael J. Gerhardt, “The Impeachment and Acquittal of William Jefferson Clinton”, ed. Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox, The Clinton Scandal: and the Future of American Government (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000) p.146.
Robert Lichter, Center for Media and Public Affairs.
Robert Busby, Defending the American President: Clinton and Lewinsky Scandal (New York: Palgrave, 2001)p.186.
Paul J. Quirk, “Scandal Time: The Clinton Impeachment and the Distraction of American Politics”, ed. Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox, The Clinton Scandal: and the Future of American Government (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000).
Molly W. Andolina and Clyde Wilcox, “Public Opinion: The Paradoxes of Clinton’s Popularity”, ed. Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox, The Clinton Scandal: and the Future of American Government (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000)p. 117.
Molly W. Andolina and Clyde Wilcox, “Public Opinion: The Paradoxes of Clinton’s Popularity”, ed. Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox, The Clinton Scandal: and the Future of American Government (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000) p.117.
Michael J. Gerhardt, “The Impeachment and Acquittal of William Jefferson Clinton”, ed. Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox, The Clinton Scandal: and the Future of American Government (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2000).
Robert Busby, Defending the American President: Clinton and Lewinsky Scandal (New York: Palgrave, 2001) p.47.