Politics & Policy

Bill Clinton Finally Comes Clean — Sort Of

The former president talks about the early days of the Lewinsky scandal.

In perhaps his most revealing interview since leaving office, former president Bill Clinton said Wednesday that during the early days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he felt he had no choice but to lie about his relationship with the former White House intern, because if he had told the truth, “the overwhelming likelihood is that I would have been forced from office.”

#ad#In the past, Clinton has said he lied out of intense shame over his conduct and to spare his family the embarrassment such an admission would bring. He has also said he lied because of his concerns about the virtually unchecked powers of independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

But Wednesday night, in an extensive interview with PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, Clinton offered another reason for his actions. It came in response to Lehrer’s questions about the January 21, 1998 interview in which Lehrer was the first journalist to question Clinton about the Lewinsky matter. During that interview, Clinton said a number of times that, “There is no improper relationship….There is not a sexual relationship”–a use of the present tense that suggested he was trying to hide an earlier relationship with Lewinsky. On Wednesday, Lehrer asked the former president whether that answer had been “an intentional dodge.”

“It was an intentional dodge,” Clinton said. “I didn’t want to lie to you, and I thought that I had to, as I said in the book, buy two weeks time for things to calm down in order to avoid having Ken Starr and his boys win this long fight that they were fighting against me.”

As the scandal moved through its first week, however, Clinton’s denials became more assertive and more definitive, culminating in his “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” statement on January 26, 1998.

At times during those early days, before the White House gained traction in its counterattack against the independent counsel, Clinton appeared to have a tenuous hold on office. Even First Lady Hillary Clinton, in her famous “vast right-wing conspiracy” interview on January 27, said that if the allegations against her husband were proven true, “I think that would be a very serious offense.” The worst-case scenario for the president was that he would lose the support of some Democrats in Congress, who might then join Republicans in pressing Clinton to leave. At that point, he might have found it very difficult to hold on.

Clinton conceded as much in the NewsHour interview Wednesday, when Lehrer asked Clinton, “If you had, in that interview with me, said, ‘Yes, I did have an improper sexual relationship with this young women. I’m so sorry I did it. It was a terrible–and all the things you say now about it–’It was a terrible mistake in judgment. It’s an awful, awful thing,’ what do you think would have happened?”

“I think that people would have said, ‘He probably committed perjury at his deposition,’” the former president answered, “which I maintain to the present day that I did not.”

“But the allegation is that you did,” Lehrer said.

“That’s correct,” Clinton said. “And I think with–given the media hysteria and the fact that people were saying all the things that were said one more time, I was dead as could be, I think the overwhelming likelihood is that I would have been forced from office, because I think the Democrats would have–some Democrats might have abandoned me.”

In his best-selling memoir, My Life, Clinton tells the story somewhat differently, leaving out the explicitly political calculation that lay behind his decision to deny a relationship with Lewinsky. “I was misleading everyone about my personal failings,” Clinton writes on page 775. “I was embarrassed and wanted to keep it from my wife and daughter. I didn’t want to help Ken Starr criminalize my personal life, and I didn’t want the American people to know I’d let them down.”

No doubt those matters did concern Clinton. But throughout the scandal, his most pressing consideration was keeping the support of congressional Democrats. At key points in the controversy–its first days, the week in August when Clinton testified before Starr’s grand jury, the days leading up to impeachment–a loss of even a few key Democratic lawmakers might have been terribly damaging. But in the end, Democrats stayed in lockstep behind him, and Clinton survived.

Byron York — Byron York is is the author of The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy.

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