- The affair between President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky imploded both of their lives.
- They have separately moved on to varying degrees of success, though the past still haunts them.
- Over the years, Lewinsky has become more vocal about Clinton’s “abuse of power” in their affair.
In an affair that would shape history, Monica Lewinsky said she fell for former President Bill Clinton’s “lethal charm” when she was a White House intern in 1995.
Their first dalliance was in November 1995 during a colleague’s birthday party at the White House when Lewinsky lifted her jacket to show him the straps of her thong, The Washington Post reported in 1998. Shortly afterward, they had a sexual encounter where he took a phone call from a member of Congress — something Clinton would do repeatedly during their 18-month affair.
As the details of the affair came to light via the independent counsel Kenneth Starr’s investigation, they would show a starstruck intern lovesick over a hot-and-cold man twice her age who “grew angry at times at her persistent attentions,” according to The Post.
In one instance, she threatened to tell her parents about their affair after he had ignored her, and he soothed her by alluding to the future when he might be out of the office and more available to her.
“I just knew that he was in love with me,” Lewinsky recalled, The Post reported.
The pair exchanged notes, phone calls, and gifts over the course of several months while they rendezvoused in the Oval Office and the adjoining study and bathroom. She gave him about 30 small presents while he gave her 18. Some of these would come back to haunt them both, according to The Post.
In February 1997, he gifted her a hat pin and a Walt Whitman poetry collection. They had a sexual encounter where semen stained her blue dress. The dress would later be submitted as evidence in the Starr investigation.
Another time, she gave him a yellow tie — one of many — that he later wore amid the Starr investigation. Prosecutors questioned whether he was sending her a signal by wearing it on the day of her testimony, CNN reported.
After months of their on-again-off-again affair, which was sometimes sexual and other times not, Clinton emphatically and repeatedly denied having a relationship with Lewinsky in January 1998.
“I want to say one thing to the American people. I want you to listen to me,” Clinton said at a White House press conference on January 26, The Post reported. “I’m going to say this again — I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
Despite the president’s denials, Lewinsky was thrust into the spotlight. She had been transferred from the White House to the Pentagon in 1996 once aides suspected their affair, and Clinton had told her that he’d help get her transferred back.
Lewinsky started seeking work in New York with Clinton’s help from within the administration, interviewing at the United Nations, Revlon, and American Express, according to The Post. She received multiple offers, but as news of the scandal broke in January 1998, the offers dried up or the companies rescinded them as Lewinsky became the butt of a national joke.
She remained out of the public eye for long periods of time as harassment intensified. In one instance, a man parked outside of Lewinsky’s family home in California selling t-shirts that said “Zipper Gate ’98,” referencing Clinton unzipping his pants.
Just like Clinton, Lewinsky also denied the affair, signing an affidavit to that effect in January 1998. Unbeknownst to her, Starr already had tapes of Lewinsky describing the affair to Linda Tripp, a Pentagon staffer who secretly recorded the conversations with a hidden microphone the FBI provided to her.
“I never expected to fall in love with the president,” Lewinsky said at one point, The Post reported. “I was surprised that I did.”
By July, she agreed to an interview with Starr’s office, where she was “questioned extensively over the next 15 days, by Starr’s office and the grand jury,” according to The Post. Her attorneys worked out a deal granting her immunity. Clinton, who agreed to testify after being subpoenaed, was asked to provide a blood sample for DNA testing that would link him to the semen on Lewinsky’s dress, which served as evidence of the affair.
In August 1998, Clinton testified before the grand jury, admitting to “inappropriate intimate contact” with Lewinsky but refusing to provide additional details about the physicality of their relationship.
“I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate,” Clinton said, The Post reported at the time. “In fact, it was wrong. It constituted a critical lapse in judgment and a personal failure on my part for which I am solely and completely responsible.”
Years later, former First Lady Hillary Clinton would describe her reaction to her husband’s admission in a Hulu documentary, saying she was “devastated and so personally hurt,” per CNN.
“I said, ‘If this is going to be public, you have got to go tell Chelsea,'” Hillary Clinton recalled in the Hulu doc, referring to the couple’s daughter.
The future senator and Democratic presidential candidate would later say that staying married to Bill Clinton was the “gutsiest” thing she had ever done, Insider previously reported. It was a decision the public widely criticized her for.
In the 2020 documentary, the former president recalled how he “just hated to hurt” his daughter by admitting to his infidelity, CNN reported.
The day after Clinton admitted his affair to the nation, he and his family went on vacation to Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. As the family walked to Marine One, Chelsea Clinton held both of her parents’ hands in what would become an iconic photo of solidarity amid the scandal.
“Chelsea put herself between us and held both our hands. That was not anything other than her trying to keep us together,” Hillary Clinton said in the documentary, CNN reported. “And when she did that, oh my gosh, I thought, ‘That is just so incredible, so strong, and so wise.'”
“She was filling in our empty space there, and the picture is worth a million words,” Bill Clinton said in the documentary.
Clinton maintained support even as the scrutiny intensified and headlines labeled him a liar for denying the affair for so long.
Protestors argued outside of the Capitol in the days leading up to his impeachment. Some held signs that said “Impeach the Liar,” and “Clintons lose/ Americans win,” while others championed “Witch Hunt must end,” and “Stop the lynching,” according to BuzzFeed News.
Meanwhile, A-listers and Clinton supporters like actors Jack Nicholson, Barbara Streisand, Ted Danson, and Mary Steenburgen gathered in Los Angeles at an anti-impeachment rally, The Associated Press reported.
Still, Clinton’s popularity and charm didn’t save him from impeachment.
The Starr report cited 11 grounds for impeachment, Insider previously reported, and the House Judiciary Committee approved four articles of impeachment: lying to a grand jury, perjury, obstructing justice, and abusing power. Clinton was impeached on December 19, 1998, for perjury and obstruction of justice.
Clinton said he was “profoundly sorry” but still refused to heed calls for his resignation, promising to remain in the White House to “the last hour of the last day of my term,” The Guardian reported.
In later interviews, Clinton would admit that lying about the affair “was a mistake” and that he “shouldn’t have said it,” ABC News reported.
“It was a moment where I was frankly rattled. I used poor judgment, and I was wrong, and I’ll regret it till the day I die,” Clinton said. “It was terrible.”
Clinton would be acquitted of both articles of impeachment on February 12, 1999, but until that point and even afterward, the country still had many laughs at Lewinsky’s expense.
A gag order legally bound her from speaking publically about the experience, and she endured hundreds of insults on a national stage from media personalities and comedians, Vanity Fair reported. Jay Leno alone jabbed at Lewinsky over 450 times on “The Tonight Show,” the outlet reported. Comedians targeted her appearance, age, weight, and résumé.
Meanwhile, Lewinsky tried to start a business making pocketbooks, and she later became a spokesperson for the diet company Jenny Craig, advertising that she lost over 30 pounds with the program.
She also issued an apology to the country and to Hillary and Chelsea Clinton in an ABC News interview that Starr granted her.
“I wouldn’t dream of asking Chelsea and Mrs. Clinton to forgive me, but I would ask them to know that I am very sorry for what happened and for what they’ve been through,” Lewinsky, who was 25 at the time, told Barbara Walters in the interview.
Despite the public scorn, Clinton’s career was able to continue. He finished his second term as president, and in 2001, he established the Clinton Foundation, a foundation of nonprofits that includes the Clinton Global Initiative.
He campaigned with his wife as she ran for president twice and served as the Secretary of State under the Obama administration.
The affair with Lewinsky only cast a faint shadow — literally — on his presidency, but the public perceived him as a statesman with flaws, still able to be celebrated. Artist Nelson Shanks unveiled a flattering portrait of Clinton in 2006, and nearly a decade later, Shanks detailed that the portrait includes a shadow representing Clinton’s affair.
“He and his administration did some very good things, of course, but I could never get this Monica thing completely out of my mind and it is subtly incorporated in the painting,” Shanks told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “It is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him.”
Lewinsky’s redemption arc took over a year longer than Clinton’s, undoubtedly due to her age, as well as the nation’s evolving view on women’s treatment in the workplace in light of the #MeToo movement.
In 2014, Lewinsky shared more of her side of the story with Vanity Fair, detailing how the president used his position to his advantage in their affair.
“Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: it was a consensual relationship,” she wrote. “Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position.”
She talked about moving to England for grad school before returning to the US and struggling to find the right job fit. She said the media “circus quieted down, but it never quite moved on, even as I attempted to move on.”
In 2015, Lewinsky’s TED Talk about shame went viral. She spoke about experiencing online bullying and harassment as the internet gained widespread popularity, and she has since gotten involved in several anti-bullying campaigns.
By 2018, she’d made a “profound shift” in her views, according to The Associated Press, calling her affair with Clinton “a gross abuse of power.”
At 49 years old, Lewinsky is now the same age Clinton was when their affair began. Though decades have passed, she said the way the public still treats her makes it seem like no time has passed at all.
As a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Lewinsky wrote in 2018 that she was uninvited from a philanthropy event after the same event recruited Clinton to make the opening remarks.
She added that it was “a privilege” to have been invited all, noting that she was no stranger to being disinvited from social gatherings after hosts “had looked over the guest list and reconsidered my potential presence.”
“I secretly and gratefully recognized it as a modest marker of How Much My Life Has Changed,” Lewinsky wrote at the time. “And yet, I’m sometimes reminded, like I was last Friday, of ways that it hasn’t — ways I’m still stuck in the cocoon of 1998.”
A month later, Clinton would separately say that he did not feel he owed Lewinsky a direct apology, though he said he “apologized to everybody in the world.”
When promoting “Impeachment: American Crime Story” as an executive producer in 2021, Lewinsky said Clinton “should want to apologize” but that she no longer needed it.