Former President Clinton's long-winded and self-justifying autobiography, My Life, has been issued in paperback and is once again climbing the bestseller charts. And once again we can only hope that our fellow Americans not inhale. Clinton claims in the book that he wears his impeachment fight as “a badge of honor,” because for him it was a struggle with the powers of darkness. He calls it “my last great showdown with the forces I had opposed all of my life,” such as segregationists, opponents of women's rights, and special interests. He adds that he actually relishes having had “the good fortune to stand against this latest incarnation of the forces of reaction and division.”
This is nonsense on more than one level. For one thing, we can be certain that Clinton would have preferred that he not be tarred as the second president in U.S. history to be impeached and the first to be impeached for actual illegal and scandalous conduct. (Historians agree that Andrew Johnson's impeachment was purely political.) But more important, far from being assailed by the dark forces he had opposed all of his life, the fact is that Clinton got hoisted on his own petard, caught in the sexual harassment spider web that “women’s rights” advocates had created and to which he himself had added as president.
This is a key aspect of the impeachment saga that was unaccountably ignored at the time. The amazing fact is that Clinton got into trouble by lying under oath in response to questions that could only be asked of him because of a law that he had signed. As Jeffrey Rosen details in The Unwanted Gaze (2000), in 1994 Clinton signed a crime bill containing amendments to the rules of evidence that permitted prosecutors and plaintiffs in sexual assault cases to question defendants about their sexual history in order to find possible previous offenses. While the new rules were mainly intended to assist in rape cases, the definition of sexual assault was so broad – “contact, without consent, between any part of the defendant's body or an object and the genitals or anus of another person” – that they would inevitably be used in cases that fell far short of rape.
According to Rosen, legal experts warned Clinton and his feminist allies that the definition of assault was too broad, that the new rules would warrant an unprecedented intrusion into a defendant's privacy (as well as the privacy of women in the defendant's background), and likely result in the introduction of graphic sexual testimony. But for Clinton and the advocates of women's rights, such considerations could not be allowed to stand in the way.
Meanwhile, also in 1994, Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment against Clinton for exposing himself and making physical advances to her during a state convention in a Little Rock hotel suite in 1991 when he was governor. Among other suave moves by Clinton, Jones claimed that he had dropped his trousers, wiggled his penis, and told her to “kiss it.”
As the implications of the new amendments became clear, Jones was able to define her complaint to include sexual assault, since her encounter with Clinton had also involved his fingering the hem of her culottes and moving his hand toward her pelvis. When her suit finally went to court some years later, this entitled her lawyers to question Clinton about his other rumored workplace affairs with women, among them Monica Lewinsky, the young intern from whom he had received oral sex in the White House during a period stretching from late 1995 to early 1997.
In January 1998 Clinton was deposed under oath in the Jones suit about his relations with Lewinsky, and he lied repeatedly, denying any sexual affair. He also encouraged Lewinsky to lie as well, which she did, and through his friend Vernon Jordan he got her a job in New York City. Information regarding the president's possible obstruction of justice in the Jones suit came to the attention of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr who had been investigating the Clintons’ Whitewater land deal.
Starr obtained authorization from Attorney General Janet Reno to add this matter to his purview of investigation. His assistants eventually deposed Clinton under oath before a grand jury in August 1998, when he once again lied about the relationship. In addition, he had given false information to aides so that they would relay falsehoods to the grand jury during their own testimony.
Politics aside, many people conscientiously believed that a president's repeatedly lying under oath and obstructing justice in defiance of the laws he had sworn to uphold – some of which, coincidentally, he had himself signed into effect – was sufficient reason for impeachment and perhaps even removal, regardless of the nature of the underlying offense.
If Clinton had really wanted to fight the forces of darkness, he could have said, in light of his own experience, that the sexual harassment and assault statutes had to be revised so as to restore protections for the privacy of the accused that the new amendments had removed. After all, prosecutors and plaintiffs tend to take advantage of every legal approach available to them, and if the law allows them to ask defendants under oath about their sexual history, they will do so.
But Clinton did not take such a presidential approach. Instead, after inviting the country to deplore the intrusive questioning to which he had been subjected, he reaffirmed the 1994 evidentiary guidelines in new legislation passed in 2000, holding other men liable to such questioning, with the feminist community once again cheering him on. Likewise, Clinton denounces Kenneth Starr rather than the legal apparatus, created in part by him, in which Starr managed to catch him.
In interviews conducted at the time of the first publication of his autobiography in 2004, Clinton admitted that he had prevaricated about the Lewinsky affair but insisted that he had to do so in order to save his job. It turns out that in early 1998, shortly after Clinton's deposition in the Jones lawsuit, a poll taken by his then advisor Dick Morris showed that the American people could accept the idea of an adulterous affair but would favor impeachment or resignation if the president had lied about it under oath. But Clinton took care of that, giving them time to lower their standards. His tactic was to lie until the shock of the accusations wore off, and so let the American people gradually come to accept what only months before they had found unacceptable. Expecting his interviewers and audiences to accept his actions as sensible and understandable, he makes them complicit in his misdeeds.
What he is really saying is:
I needed time to corrupt you, and you needed time to be corrupted, time to see that it was no big deal that your president lied to you; that he lied under oath; that he encouraged other witnesses to lie under oath; that he obstructed justice; that he disgraced his family, his country, the White House, the Oval Office, and the presidency. Polls showed that those things did bother you, but given time to get used to them, you dropped your standards and agreed that “It was just about sex,” “Everybody does it,” and, “Let's move on.” (And some of the very feminists who had made workplace sex – including consensual sex, especially if between a boss and a subordinate – a matter of such monumental importance as to warrant inquisition under oath into a defendant's private life, now formed a chorus to chant these very mantras.)
In the event, Clinton survived in office despite his transgressions in the Jones and Lewinsky affairs. When he also managed to ward off credible allegations from yet other women, such as Kathleen Willey and Juanita Broaddrick, concerning unwanted intimate touching, veiled threats, misuse of power, and even rape – charges that were excused, dismissed, ridiculed, and ignored by women's rights advocates – Clinton began to realize that there was nothing he couldn't get away with. And so, a couple of months before leaving office, he had himself photographed for the cover of Esquire, sitting on a stool with a smirk on his face and his legs spread. Photographed from below in such a way as to make his genital area appear enlarged, he seems to say to all of America what he said to Paula Jones: “Kiss it.”
Still, the occasional angry outbursts that studded his interviews at the time of the publication of his autobiography suggest that somewhere, some place, Clinton knows that a semen-stained dress is no badge of honor.