(WOMENSENEWS)–On Jan. 17, 1998, a right-wing website, The Drudge Report, posted a story about a sexual affair between the president of the United States and a White House intern.
Within days the story had made the leap from the right-wing Web to the mainstream press, the latter justifying their tabloid-like coverage with the disclaimer that they were merely reporting on reports that were newsworthy. Nine days later, Bill Clinton stood before the White House press corps, jumpy and red-faced like a cornered adolescent, and declared categorically, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky."
It is incontrovertible that Clinton did have a sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky, a younger adult woman who was not his wife. In fact, many of America’s 20th-century presidents had engaged in extramarital affairs while they served in elected office. Many of the Republicans seeking to drive Clinton from office because of the Lewinsky affair had also wandered sexually from their wives and husbands.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who spent $10 million of good Republican money to air attack ads about the Lewinsky affair on the eve of the 1998 election, was at that very moment cheating on his second wife with a younger staffer, the current Mrs. Callista Gingrich. So too had Rep. Henry Hyde, who presided over impeachment hearings in the lame duck 105th Congress. And so had Rep. Bob Livingston, elected by his Republican colleagues to succeed Gingrich as speaker in the 106th Congress.
Granted, Americans had never been treated to gossip like the Lewinsky affair in real time and in such detail, but until Clinton, the private sex lives of politicians had been largely off-limits in public debate and partisan competition.
Only Sex Left
How then did this most banal non-news become cause for the impeachment of an American president for the first time since Abraham Lincoln’s successor had attempted to reverse the results of the Civil War? How did the nation get to the point where a president could be impeached for lying about sex in a civil case concerning incidents alleged to have occurred before he was president?
Because there was nothing else but sex left, and no one left to care, except the sexual fundamentalists. The problem for Clinton was that the sexual counterrevolution had commandeered not just Kenneth Starr’s investigation, but the Grand Old Party itself.
The rank-and-file sexual fundamentalists had always been the most avid consumers of the titillating fare about Clinton’s alleged sexual escapades, and the timing of the Lewinsky scandal coincided with a new round of the sexual counterrevolutionaries’ disaffection with the Republican Party. That in itself nearly guaranteed that Republican politicians would join in the hysteria in an effort to keep their base mollified.
Gingrich, the leader of the Republican Party after Robert Dole’s crushing defeat in 1996, became the first casualty of the Lewinsky affair. He had ambitions to run for president in 2000, and after Clinton’s reelection, he mothballed the Republican revolution and tried to remake himself as a pragmatist.
Unbeknownst to the public, Gingrich and Clinton had secretly been negotiating a compromise on Social Security in the fall of 1997. After the Lewinsky story broke, however, Gingrich’s pollsters brought him news from Iowa that the Christian Right wanted Clinton taken down and would brook no compromise. To be viable as a presidential candidate, Gingrich had to perform well in the Iowa Republican caucus, in which evangelicals in the anti-abortion and homeschooling movements dominated.
Gingrich chose to follow the base. He ended negotiations with Clinton and returned with vigor to his old slash-and-burn ways. The week before the 1998 midterm elections, Gingrich would authorize a $10 million ad blitz featuring Lewinsky.
Turning Against Republicans
The American people responded to the Lewinsky affair by turning against Republicans. Polls showed consistently throughout the year that two out of three Americans did not want Clinton to resign; did not favor impeachment; thought the affair with Lewinsky was a private matter; disapproved of the GOP-controlled Congress’s handling of the Clinton scandal; and thought Starr’s investigation was partisan, not impartial.
The 1998 November midterm elections gave the American people an opportunity to register their disapproval of Republicans. Democrats won five House seats, lost only one incumbent and defeated two GOP Senate incumbents–Clinton-hunters Al D’Amato and Lauch Faircloth. Not since 1822 had a political party fared so poorly in a similar point in the electoral cycle as the GOP did. The GOP congressional majority, touted just four years earlier as evidence of a permanent Republican realignment, fell to a precarious 11 seats in the House.
Following the lodestar of the sexual counterrevolution, Starr, Gingrich and the Republican Party had overreached and found themselves rebuked by the American voter. Neither the economy, nor the president’s standing, nor other matters that typically determine voting behavior came into play in the 1998 race. Impeachment was the sole and most important issue influencing the vote. As political scientist Alan Abramowitz summed up the results, "It’s Monica, Stupid."
In the end, Gingrich, not Clinton, fell victim to the sexual fundamentalists. Three days after the election, Gingrich resigned the speakership. In January, amid revelations that for six years he had been engaged in an extramarital affair, Gingrich resigned his House seat.
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Nancy L. Cohen is a commentator, historian and Huffington Post contributor. She is the author of three books, including "Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America" and "The Reconstruction of American Liberalism." Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Business History Review and elsewhere.
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