The Clinton Impeachment

“The very definition of a republic is ‘an empire of laws, and not of men.'” John Adams

In May of 1994 Paula Jones, a secretary working for the Arkansas state government, filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against President Bill Clinton, alleging that he had harassed her while serving as Governor of Arkansas. In preparing their case, her lawyers interviewed female government employees who had been subordinate to Clinton, in an attempt to establish a pattern of workplace misbehavior on his part. Quite a few women told stories of inappropriate sexual advances, and Clinton denied them all.

One of the women deposed by the Jones legal team was a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky, who had had a sexual affair with the President quite literally in the Oval Office. Understanding how damaging this workplace affair could be to his defense in a sexual harassment lawsuit, President Clinton went to extremes in his attempts to cover it up. With assistance from United States Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, the Jones legal team was able to prove that President Clinton’s denials about Monica Lewinsky were false, and in 1998 the President was impeached by Congress on the grounds that he had perjured himself, and tampered with witnesses and evidence, to cover up the Lewinsky affair.

The reason President Clinton was impeached is that he tried to deny Paula Jones her fair day in court, in a nation where the principle of “Equality before the Law” is supposed to be sacred. But don’t expect to hear that in a college history class.

The Party Line

When the President was impeached before the US Senate, he was acquitted on a party line vote. On both the perjury charge and the obstruction of justice charge, every Democrat in the Senate voted “not guilty.” It is to be hoped that at least a few of those Senate Democrats felt some embarrassment  two years later when President Clinton admitted that he had lied under oath (committed perjury) while giving his deposition in the Paula Jones case.

Senate Democrats are not alone in letting partisanship color their perceptions of the articles of impeachment against President Clinton. College professors overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party with their votes, their stated party affiliation, and their campaign contributions; and this partisan outlook colors the way history professors and textbook writers portray the Clinton Impeachment.

The standard history textbook portrayal is that vindictive Republicans, who had been looking for some excuse to impeach a popular and powerful Democrat, persecuted President Clinton over a private sexual relationship. It might not be a coincidence that this view matches precisely the characterization that Clinton’s aides and supporters were promoting before and during the impeachment proceedings.

Spinning History

In the textbook Give Me Liberty, for example, author Eric Foner portrays Independent Counsel Starr as a political opportunist who pried into Clinton’s sex life because he couldn’t find anything else to use against the President: “In 1993, an investigation began of an Arkansas real-estate deal known as Whitewater, from which (President Clinton) and his wife had profited…In 1998, it became known that Clinton had carried on an affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. Kenneth Starr, the special counsel (sic) who had been appointed to investigate Whitewater, shifted his focus to Lewinsky. He issued a lengthy report containing almost pornographic details of Clinton’s sexual acts with the young woman and accused the president of lying when he denied the affair in a deposition for the Jones lawsuit.”

Foner then goes on to put the impeachment story in perspective, quoting from one of his favorite philosophers:

Karl Marx once wrote that historical events occur twice – first as tragedy, the second time as farce. The impeachment of (President) Andrew Johnson in 1868 had revolved around some of the most momentous questions in American history – the Reconstruction of the South, the rights of the former slaves, relations between the federal government and the states. Clinton’s impeachment had to do with what many considered a juvenile escapade. Polls suggested that the obsession of Kenneth Starr and members of Congress with Clinton’s sexual acts appalled Americans far more than the president’s (sic) irresponsible behavior. Clinton’s continued popularity throughout the impeachment controversy demonstrated how profoundly traditional attitudes toward sexual morality had changed.

Foner barely mentions Paula Jones, and doesn’t seem to think much of the concept of Equality before the Law.

The college textbook Nation of Nations,1 goes even further in defending Clinton and attacking Kenneth Starr. President Clinton was impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice in the Jones lawsuit, but Nation of Nations literally does not mention Paula Jones in its depiction of the impeachment!

By four years into the Whitewater investigation, Special Prosecutor (sic) Kenneth Starr had spent $30 million and produced only the convictions of several of the president’s former business partners…Then in January 1998, Starr hit what looked like the jackpot. Linda Tripp, a disgruntled federal employee with ties to the Bush administration and to a conservative literary agent, produced audiotapes of phone conversations in which a 21 year old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, talked of an intimate relationship with the president.

In addition to editing Paula Jones’ name out of a legal case that she initiated, the authors of this history textbook are distorting history when they say that Linda Tripp, a White House secretary, had “ties to the Bush administration.” It is true that Tripp had worked in the White House while George H.W. Bush was President (and retained her job, like most White House employees, when the new President took office). But it is less than honest to imply that she had a cozy relationship with the senior President Bush or his supporters. It is widely believed that she went to the press with accusations of adultery against President Bush while he was President, and that the Bush family bears a grudge against her for the betrayal.

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And the Law Won

Ultimately President Clinton was forced to accept the fact that he was not above the Law. He ended up admitting guilt and paying Paula Jones an $850,000 settlement He was also stripped of his license to practice law, and ordered to pay a separate settlement to Jones’ lawyers for illegally undermining their case. It is unlikely that Ms. Jones would have been thus vindicated if Independent Counsel Starr had not gotten involved in the case. The attorneys she had hired did not have the resources that a US Independent Counsel has, and without Kenneth Starr’s involvement they might not have been able to get justice for their client.

As with so many political issues, the portrayal of the Jones case in mainstream history books says more about the agenda of the authors than it does about the issues involved. If President Clinton had been a member of the party that college professors oppose, instead of being a member of the party they support, the depictions of his impeachment would probably be very different.

1Davidson, Gienapp, Heyrman, Lytle, and Stoff; Nation of Nations

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