Marc Ambinder

The Clinton impeachment and history

Thinking about of Matt Lewis' musings about our obsession with sex over real scandal, I came across an interesting example of how it is often hard for history to disentangle the two. When Bill Clinton was impeached in 1998, I was a sophomore in college. So when I took the Advanced Placement U.S. History test and SAT subject tests two years earlier, I hadn't ever heard of Monica Lewinsky.

Sixteen years later, and the Lewinsky affair is to high school students what the Reagan recession was to me. Here is a question that the Barron's Test Prep company asks:

80. President William Jefferson Clinton was impeached because he:

(A) had inappropriate sexual relations with a junior staffer

(B) used federal employees to solicit women for sexual favors

(C) had unscrupulous real estate investments back in Arkansas

(D) lied under oath and obstructed justice during a federal investigation

(E) defied the Supreme Court and refused to testify claiming executive privilege

So what's your answer?

Mine was (A). Whitewater (the subject referred to in 'c' led to the Paula Jones lawsuit, which led to the Lewinsky affair, all wrapped up in Kenneth Starr's investigation, and House Republicans, seeking censure for his misconduct, effected his impeachment, using the pretext that he lied under oath.

The test's answer is "D" — that he was impeached not because of the sexual relationship "with that woman, Mrs. Lewinsky," but because of his conduct during the investigation that followed. 

Technically, D is correct; the bill of impeachment includes the two charges. 

But as a matter of historical truth, or of a truth more closely approximating what actually happened, I would still hold on to "A." The GOP used the pretext of formal "high crimes and misdemeanors" to punish and embarrass Clinton because he embarrassed the country.

You'll recall what it was that Clinton lied about: whether he told the truth when denying that he had had "sexual relations" with Lewinsky, exempting from that definition the oral sex the two did engage in. He allegedly obstructed justice by reviewing his view of the case with Betty Currie, his secretary; allegedly, he was inducing her to perjure herself.

None of this had anything to do with the original reason why an investigation was opened, or why Starr was appointed. Argue all you want about the motives of those who voted to impeach him, but it was the sex that set the whole train in motion, and the intrusive Starr investigation that followed, that framed Clinton's obfuscation before a grand jury (definitely not something that anyone ought to do, by the way) as a high crime and misdemeanor worthy of an historic reproach.

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