25 Years Later, Looking for Lessons in the Clinton Scandal

WASHINGTON — The story was as tawdry as they come: The president of the United States had been having sex with a former White House intern in the space off the Oval Office and now was being investigated for lying under oath and obstructing justice to cover it up.

The newspaper that landed on doorsteps around Washington that morning, 25 years ago Saturday, kicked off a furor that led to the first presidential impeachment trial in 130 years and transformed politics in the capital as President Bill Clinton battled for survival. A quarter-century later, the lessons are still being debated with each successive scandal.

The current White House imbroglio, while hardly as titillating or politically dangerous, is a case study in what today’s political actors took away from that unseemly-but-can’t-look-away episode. Some Democrats complain that President Biden’s team, now confronting a federal investigation, failed to heed the best practices drawn from the Clinton experience while others insist that it is, in critical ways, following the playbook.

The discovery of classified documents at Mr. Biden’s home and private office prompted his own attorney general, Merrick B. Garland, to appoint a special counsel to look into the matter, much as Mr. Clinton’s attorney general, Janet Reno, felt compelled to authorize the independent counsel Ken Starr to investigate her president’s efforts to hide his encounters with Monica S. Lewinsky, the former intern. No one thinks the two are equivalent, but in the post-Clinton-and-Starr Washington every such moment is measured against the history of that turn-of-the-century spectacle.

“The investigation of President Clinton sparked by the explosive news of his affair with Monica Lewinsky ushered in a new era,” said Ken Gormley, president of Duquesne University and author of “The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr.” While the affair had nothing to do with the original Whitewater real estate allegations being investigated by Mr. Starr, “opponents in Washington began connecting dots that didn’t connect. Ever since, presidents can face danger around every corner.”

Ken Starr, the independent counsel who investigated Mr. Clinton’s affair, testifying at an impeachment hearing before the House Judiciary Committee in 1998.Credit…Stephen Crowley/The New York Times

With the virtue of hindsight, the episode has been re-evaluated repeatedly over the years. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, many felt the obsession with Mr. Clinton’s sex life and legal misconduct had been ludicrously misdirected. In a later era, with another president accused of instigating an insurrection to overturn an election, lying about extramarital romps in the West Wing hardly seems serious.

Yet in light of the #MeToo movement, neither is it taken as lightly. While Ms. Lewinsky was a willing partner, the power differential between a president and a former intern 27 years his junior looks different today. And given other women’s accusations of sexual assault by Mr. Clinton (allegations he denies), some Democrats have concluded they should not have defended him at the time.

Mr. Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky, of course, were not the only ones whose reputations were marred as a result. Mr. Starr, who died last year, was reviled by many as a sex-obsessed Inspector Javert who took the whole matter too far. Some of the Republican congressional leaders who pursued Mr. Clinton had their own adultery revealed and in some cases were forced from office. Few emerged unscathed and this weekend’s 25-year anniversary is going largely unmarked.

But not forgotten. While many of today’s political operatives in Washington were in elementary school at the time of the Clinton scandal — perhaps shielded from it by parents leery of all the talk of thongs, cigars and a sullied blue dress — some of the veterans of that era are still around and at the center of the current investigation.

Bob Bauer, Mr. Biden’s top personal lawyer, advised the House and Senate Democratic leaders during the impeachment and trial of Mr. Clinton. Ron Klain, the current president’s White House chief of staff, served in the same role for Vice President Al Gore back then. Steven J. Ricchetti, now Mr. Biden’s counselor, was Mr. Clinton’s deputy chief of staff.

Some fellow Democrats complain that they have not applied the lessons of the Clinton era. Lanny J. Davis, who served as a White House lawyer for Mr. Clinton and a vocal defender, said the Biden White House should have proactively disclosed the discovery of papers in the president’s garage in Wilmington, Del., rather than waiting until the media reported it.

“Been there, done that,” Mr. Davis said on Saturday. He expressed sympathy for the Biden team, saying he did not want to be an outside kibitzer and understood the arguments of lawyers who opposed premature public disclosure. “But they don’t counter the political damage if it’s coming out anyway.”

Others took different lessons from the Clinton case, though. Paul Begala, who was Mr. Clinton’s White House counselor, said Mr. Biden should remember that Mr. Clinton had made a point of leaving it to others to talk about the investigation while he appeared to focus on policy issues that were important to the public.

“Biden’s following a lot of the lessons of Clinton,” Mr. Begala said. “The most important lesson is the voters, the people, want someone focused on their problems, not their own. What sustained Clinton, what got him to 71 percent in the polls, was not that people approved of having an affair with a young woman in the office. It’s that they were appalled that Republicans tried to derail this young president who seemed to be working for them.”

“The most important lesson is the voters, the people, want someone focused on their problems, not their own,” said Paul Begala, Mr. Clinton’s White House counselor during the Starr investigation.Credit…Cynthia Johnson/Getty Images
“Use the investigation to your advantage by saying that you can’t comment because it’s an ongoing investigation when in fact you could comment,” said Solomon Wisenberg, a deputy independent counsel under Mr. Starr.Credit…Molly Bingham for The New York Times

In this regard, having a special counsel inquiry actually can be a benefit because it allows Mr. Biden’s aides to deflect questions by saying that they cannot talk extensively about the matter in public while investigators are looking into it. No law, of course, prevents them from explaining to the public what happened, but it provides what Mr. Begala called “a shield” against media inquiries.

Solomon L. Wisenberg saw that from the other side a quarter-century ago. As a deputy independent counsel under Mr. Starr, he said the lesson that subsequent presidents have learned from Mr. Clinton is to exploit the investigation to avoid public accountability.

“Use the investigation to your advantage by saying that you can’t comment because it’s an ongoing investigation when in fact you could comment,” he said. “That definitely started with Whitewater.”

Mr. Biden’s lawyers found the first batch of classified documents in a former think tank office on Nov. 2 and promptly notified the National Archives and Records Administration, which is charged with securing such papers. The archives then notified the Justice Department. Mr. Biden’s lawyers found a second batch of classified records in his Wilmington house on Dec. 20 and informed the Justice Department.

But the White House kept quiet publicly for two months until Jan. 9, when CBS News first reported the original discovery. Even then, while confirming the story, it failed to acknowledge the second discovery, which was reported by NBC News later in the week.

Mr. Biden’s team sought to work closely with Justice Department investigators in hopes of convincing them that it was cooperating and that the mishandling of the documents had been nothing but a good-faith mistake. Disclosing the matter publicly, Mr. Biden’s team maintained, might have irritated Justice Department officials by appearing to litigate the matter in the media.

Douglas B. Sosnik, who was Mr. Clinton’s senior adviser a quarter-century ago, said that made sense. While he and other political aides often quarreled with Mr. Clinton’s lawyers over how much information could be released, he has come to believe that the longer-term goal should be to safeguard the president’s legal position even at the expense of being battered by reporters in the White House briefing room.

“While I would be shocked if the Biden classified papers investigation ever amounted to anything, I think a valuable lesson from the Clinton years that does apply today is the importance of never jeopardizing your legal position for a good day of press as well as continuing to maintain a fully functioning White House that is not dragged into the investigation,” he said.

“Thus far, I would say that the Biden White House has done a good job of doing both,” he added. “The criticism that they have received thus far is just a lot of noise that won’t matter in the end.”

Mr. Biden’s lawyers found two batches of classified records at his home and office late last year. They notified the National Archives but did not make the discoveries public, which drew criticism once the episode came to light.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

In one important sense, Mr. Biden’s team, for the moment at least, is diverging sharply from Mr. Clinton’s approach. While Mr. Clinton’s lawyers worked relatively cooperatively with the first Whitewater independent counsel, Robert B. Fiske Jr., they took a far more aggressive posture with Mr. Starr, who was perceived as partisan.

While Mr. Clinton generally maintained his public focus on policy, his team vilified Mr. Starr, undercutting his credibility and focused attention on the investigator’s conduct rather than the president’s. That was a strategy adopted by President Donald J. Trump, who went to war with Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel in the Russia investigation, although unlike Mr. Clinton he led the attacks personally.

Mr. Biden and his advisers, by contrast, have offered no criticism of Robert K. Hur, the new special counsel appointed by Mr. Garland and a former Trump-appointed U.S. attorney. But some legal veterans warned that hands-off approach could change depending on where the inquiry goes.

“The lesson from a special counsel’s perspective is, you’ve got to be tough from the beginning and you’ve got to be above suspicion yourself, because you’re going to be attacked,” said Mr. Wisenberg. “I think Ken was too nice at the beginning. He assumed they’d be done in six months. You’ve got to be tough and your people have got to be above suspicion.”

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