Think back to snowy January. January 26, to be exact. That was the day the Almanac featured The Nation’s coverage of Bill Clinton’s denial of “sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” Now, seven months later, we mark the anniversary of Clinton’s admission of an affair with the former White House intern. As the Almanac entry from January shows, The Nation never really doubted that Clinton was lying through his teeth; but it took his very belated confession as further cause for alarm about the abuses of special prosecutor Ken Starr and as confirmation of the magazine’s earlier concerns about the connections between the president’s reckless behaviour in private life and his mendacious triangulations in politics.
Clinton’s testimony will probably stand as the summary moment of this presidency: when all the swirling destructive forces without and within the White House—around and within the President himself—converged. Among those forces are deep, sometimes generational, conflicts about sexuality and culture that have festered since Clinton’s 1992 election; conservatives like Tom DeLay who are calling for the President’s resignation on moral grounds have demonized Hillary and Bill Clinton as the embodiments of a corrupt sexual culture stretching from abortion to gay rights to, well, blowjobs in the Oval Office. The public, the polls show, doesn’t buy this scarlet-letter line, standing far ahead of the punditocracy in the sensible perception that sexual engagements, presidential or otherwise, are, as Mississippi John Hurt used to sing, “nobody’s dirty business but my own.”
None of this is to minimize Clinton’s massive political irresponsibility and epic self-indulgence when confronted with first the Lewinsky allegation in his Paula Jones deposition and then with Starr’s expanded inquiry in January. Clinton’s seven-month lie did more than humiliate his family and supporters; it gave Starr an excuse for dangerous, unprecedented expansion of his grand jury dragnet, and it fed the escalating tabloid fixation of the media. A family-values hypocrite caught with his pants down, Clinton allowed this circus to continue without taking a forthright stand on behalf of sexual privacy until now, instead hoping that a lie could outlive Starr’s relentless investigative machine. Clinton’s behavior in the Lewinsky matter has been consistent with the conduct of his presidency, from the betrayal of Lani Guinier through welfare “reform”: He’s willing to sacrifice principles, constituencies, friends and finally even the self-respect and dignity of his family to his political and personal interests.
To mark The Nation’s 150th anniversary, every morning this year The Almanac will highlight something that happened that day in history and how The Nation covered it. Get The Almanac every day (or every week) by signing up to the e-mail newsletter.