High Crimes or Misdemeanors?
1998 News of the Nation
The Clinton sex scandal of course eclipsed all other news events in 1998. President Clinton's foreign policy triumphs—his significant contributions to the peace accords in Northern Ireland and the Middle East—shone dimly next to the glare generated by his affair with a young White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. In his Jan. 1998 testimony in the Paula Jones sexual harassment suit, Clinton denied that he had had a sexual relationship with the intern and had attempted to cover it up. When word of the alleged affair became public, he again adamantly denied it. The allegations gave new impetus to Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's 41-month, $40-million investigation of the Whitewater real estate deal and other possible presidential wrongdoings. Finally, on Aug. 17, 1998, after relentless media attention, leaks, and news of Lewinsky's upcoming testimony, President Clinton admitted to having had an “inappropriate” relationship with the intern. The President's overall popularity among Americans, however, remained high. The country seemed willing to ignore Clinton's weaknesses in character as long as the economy was good, his policies were popular, and the United States remained strong abroad.
The “Starr Report” was released to the House of Representatives on Sept. 9. While the report outlined 11 possible grounds for impeachment stemming from the Lewinsky affair, it did not cite any impeachable offenses relating to the original subjects of the investigation, including Whitewater. Starr's accusations against Clinton included perjury, witness tampering, and obstruction of justice. Highly embarrassing to Clinton in its attention to sexual detail, the report was seen by the President's supporters as a gratuitously libidinous, politically inspired vendetta by Starr, a conservative Republican. A videotape of the President's testimony before the grand jury was released on Sept. 21, showing Clinton evading questions about his sexual relationship through legalistic hedging. As calls for the President's impeachment were raised, the definition of “high crimes and misdemeanors” was debated, with public opinion ranging from contentions that Clinton was morally unfit for the presidency to the belief that betraying his wife, however reprehensible, was not the same as betraying his country. Although polls clearly indicated that Americans had no stomach for impeachment hearings, and the public's conviction was backed by the November elections—Republicans lost five House seats—impeachment moved forward in highly partisan and acrimonious congressional proceedings. In December the House Judiciary Committee approved four articles of impeachment: for grand jury perjury, civil suit perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power. Republicans rejected Democrats' call to censure Clinton for “reprehensible conduct” rather than continue with impeachment, but on Dec. 19, Clinton became the second president in American history to be impeached. Two of the four articles of impeachment passed (Article I, grand jury perjury, and Article III, obstruction of justice), the votes drawn along party lines.