By all accounts, November 15, 1995 was quite a day for Bill Clinton.
The president was engaged in a life-or-death struggle with House Republicans over the shutdown of the U.S. government. “Not surprisingly, the Republicans tried to blame me for the shutdown,” Clinton writes in My Life
, his new 957-page autobiography. The problem was, “I was afraid they’d get away with it.”
Then, on the 15th, dumb luck intervened. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, talking with reporters, complained bitterly that Clinton had snubbed him a few days earlier when Gingrich had flown on Air Force One to the funeral of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Gingrich said Clinton wouldn’t talk about the budget impasse and even made Gingrich leave by the back of the plane rather than the front exit with the president.
In light of all that was going on, Gingrich’s outburst made him look ridiculous; even he admitted his anger was “petty.” Clinton was delighted when the press raked Gingrich over the coals. The White House was one step closer to victory.
Winning the government shutdown battle was the turning point in Clinton’s recovery from his devastating loss of Congress in 1994. The president was so happy that that very night, November 15, he began his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky.
From the very beginning, Lewinsky has said that was when she and the president first fooled around. But Clinton always denied it. In his testimony before independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s grand jury, he claimed that the affair began in 1996. The White House legal rebuttal to the Starr Report made the same assertion.
Why the difference? On November 15, 1995, Lewinsky was a White House intern. By 1996, she was an employee. In his report to Congress, Starr wrote, “The motive for the president to make a false statement about the date on which the sexual relationship started appears to have been that the president was unwilling to admit sexual activity with a young 22 year-old White House intern in the Oval Office area.”
Lewinsky told Starr’s prosecutors that Clinton had tugged on her pink intern pass and said “this” might be a problem. Lewinsky wasn’t sure whether Clinton meant that the pass did not give her access to visit him in the West Wing, or whether he was worried about the impropriety of the president carrying on with an intern.
In any event, Clinton never admitted that any of what he calls his “inappropriate” activity with intern Lewinsky occurred in 1995. But now, nearly a decade after the original incident, Clinton has changed his story.
In My Life, he writes, “During the government shutdown in late 1995, when very few people were allowed to come to work in the White House and those who were there were working late, I’d had an inappropriate encounter with Monica Lewinsky and would do so again on other occasions between November and April , when she left the White House for the Pentagon.”
Why did Clinton offer a new version of events? Maybe it was just an editing mistake (There are vast segments of the book that don’t appear to have been edited at all). Maybe he didn’t run that part of the book past his Lewinsky legal team. Or maybe he didn’t feel he had to stick to the story any more.
In any event, Clinton’s admission lends some support to his therapy-speak contention that he has always led “parallel lives.” Just look at the bizarre events of November 15. After Gingrich made a fatal misstep, Clinton was so happy about saving his presidency that he destroyed it.
Reviewer Jerry Schwartz of the Associated Press has written that the former president’s autobiography relies on a mind-numbing chronology, with one exception: “Clinton tells about his indiscretions with [Gennifer] Flowers and Monica Lewinsky only when he is caught and exposed–not when they happened.” That’s true. Clinton discusses the government shutdown battle of November 15, 1995 on page 683. He does not mention his misconduct with Lewinsky until page 773.
How much more interesting his book would have been if he had discussed what he did that day–the meetings, the strategizing, the battling with Gingrich–and then told us what he did that night, with Lewinsky.
He had another encounter with Lewinsky on November 17, as the shutdown battle continued. He might have worked that into the story–as it happened. All of which might have given readers a vivid sense of what his life was actually like–at one moment being president, at another moment engaging in insanely reckless behavior that would lead to impeachment.
Instead, Clinton gives readers a few lines from his therapist and the too-cute explanation that he took up with Lewinsky “because I could.” That’s not much of a story. The truth would have been much better.