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The Big Creep

An attempt to rehabilitate Bill Clinton is in full bloom. Unsurprisingly, the would-be hagiographers leave a lot out.

Feb 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 23 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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The aging fops and dandies who edit Esquire magazine—yes, it still comes out, check a newsstand if you don’t believe me—devoted a chunk of their issue this month to Bill Clinton. It was an unusual move. Typically, under the motto “Man at His Best,” the editors concentrate their attention on those fabulous new chukkas Donna Karan just introduced, or the optimal thread count for Ralph Lauren Egyptian cotton sheets, or the yummy new clover-accented absinthe imported from Azerbaijan at $33 an oz.—or even, when el machismo oversweeps them, a superhot new starlet in slingback spike heels with off-color stitching and a simple but elegant choker. What I mean is, when these gentlemen put a politician, even an ex-president, on the cover and a long interview with him inside, you know something’s up. 

Cartoon of a statue of Clinton being cleaned off

Thomas Fluharty

So there he was on the cover, spookily lifelike, legs akimbo, head cocked, eyes moist, his large, experienced hands fairly gleaming from the exquisite manicure. “Bill Clinton and 78 other things we can all agree on,” read the headline. We may seem like a divided country, the editors were telling us, but at least we can all come together around the Man from Hope: “He has become the rare consensus figure in a country that has lost all sense of consensus.” 

The consensus is so solid that the editors don’t feel obliged to explain what it is. But pretty soon you get the idea. In a patty-cake interview many thousands of words long, Clinton and his interviewers explore “why he’s now the subject of such public and surprisingly bipartisan affection.” We as a people have come to agree that Bill Clinton is a vaguely flawed but always well-meaning fellow, a great president whose greatness was stunted by a lunatic opposition, and who now, having emerged from the fires of Republican defamation, is universally recognized as a visionary of unalloyed beneficence, a statesman, a sage.

Well, this much is true anyway: We are in the midst of a Clinton revival. After a brief dip during his wife’s presidential campaign, the line of his ascent only steepens, carrying him through showers of rose petals towards halos of light. A couple of months ago the sage published a book on public policy, Back to Work, and though it was thick with platitudes about uninteresting subjects, the sales were brisk and the reviews were better than good. Back to Work showed the former president to be a thinker in the 21st-century Manhattan mold—think of Thomas Friedman with rewrite men. The book was full of “ideas,” many reviewers said, and Clinton himself is a “man of ideas.” And ideas of a certain sort do occupy much of his public life. He’s chairman of his own charity, the modestly named Clinton Global Initiative, whose annual meeting is a smokestack discharging great plumes of ideas. It never fails to attract lots of good publicity. 

If you want to pin down what it is that CGI does, good luck to you. The Initiative’s literature describes its mission with loosey-goosey Friedmanian words like “challenges” and “facilitate” and “solutions” and “innovative” and “sustainable” and “leadership” and the verb form of “partner.” (If you’re a thinker in the Manhattan mode, you can mix and match words, it doesn’t matter: “We’ve partnered with other leaders to facilitate innovative and sustainable solutions to our unique challenges.”) On the other hand, “directly implementing projects”—a euphemism for “actually doing things”—is not one of CGI’s priorities. Instead, CGI “is determined to change things now, by discussing some of the world’s most pressing problems.” 

Change by discussion: It’s an innovative idea indeed. CGI’s extremely efficacious discussions bring “together a carefully selected group of the world’s best minds.” They talk about such topics as “sustainable consumption” and “values-based leadership.” But that’s not all. “Most importantly, [CGI] requires each member to make a specific Commitment to Action.” There have been 2,100 commitments to date!

CGI is the kind of charity that students of Clinton’s career would expect him to lead: It hires a legion of over-schooled high-achievers and collects mountains of money and, instead of giving the money to poor people, hospitals, doctors, nurses, food banks, or stuff like that, spends it on an annual conference in which high-achievers talk for long periods of time about what it would be like if they were going to do stuff like that. It is an organization devoted to talk.

There has never been a man who manifestly loves to talk more than Bill Clinton. His fluency, like his ideas, is of a particular kind. It’s unimpeded by any need to be concrete or precise; words in the Clintonian sense are less a means of conveying information than a perfume spritzed around whatever image he hopes to project at a given moment: rumination, wonder, amusement, deep concern, or a rueful acknowledgment of the stubborn lack of conscience shown by his political opposites. This Clintonian gift of gab is on display, and how, in another landmark of the Clinton revival: a nearly four-hour documentary called Clinton that airs this week on PBS. 

Four hours can be a very long time, viewers will discover. Those of a certain age may find themselves growing sleepy, sleepy as the old Clintonian phrases float from the TV. “I will be a repairer of the breach” and “We will build that bridge to the 21st century” and “I feel your pain.” And the names, too, waft aimlessly, half-remembered: Betsey Wright, Bruce Lindsey, Susan McDougal, Webb Hubbell, Sidney Blumenthal .  .  . 

The documentary draws to a close with testimonies from admiring staffers and journalists, who agree that Bill Clinton is an especially complicated man. But then, at that moment, for a few viewers something will snap: They will be roused by the rustling memory of words and names they haven’t heard during their four-hour slog. Bill Clinton is even more complicated than the producers have let on. They have dutifully included Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones, but where’s Marc Rich? John Huang and Roger Tamraz and James Riady? And Juanita -Broaddrick—how about her? And if it’s memorable phrases you want, what about “You better get some ice for that” and “You make my knees knock” and “I was never alone with Monica, right?”

Many people swept up in the Clinton revival are simply forgetful of the Clinton reality, or too young to remember it, and to them these other signature phrases and names will be foggy or un-familiar. The ignorance is easy to correct. Excellent narratives like Michael Isikoff’s Uncovering Clinton and Truth at Any Cost, by Susan Schmidt and Michael Weisskopf, collected the crucial facts at the time. The true nature of the Clinton administration was as closely documented as any in history. Tireless congressional committees released exhaustive reports on matters ranging from the Clintons’ business dealings in Arkansas, to the president’s fundraising once in office, and then finally, in a kind of climax, to the series of felonies touched off by his dealings with Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky. 

Republicans controlled the investigations, of course, and the partisan impulse that sent them sleuthing was undeniable—and often used as an excuse to ignore the unseemly facts they turned up. And a few of the probes, such as Rep. Dan Burton’s study of the suicide of the president’s deputy counsel, Vincent Foster, seemed less partisan than paranoid. The hatred that Clinton stirred among his political opponents was staggering in its ferocity. Nothing of its kind would be seen again in American politics until the next president came along. 

But it’s also undeniable that something fishy was always going on around the Clintons—a constant furtiveness, the ineradicable stink of prevarication and subterfuge: crucial evidence suddenly gone missing, fastidiously kept records with improbably convenient omissions, and above all an Ozark omerta that bound the Clintons’ toadies and attendants from Little Rock to Washington. Even under the heaviest prosecutorial pressure, very few of them flipped. Investigations into the Clintons’ dealings with a sleazy owner of a failed savings and loan stopped halfway when the owner’s wife, a former Clinton mistress named Susan McDougal, went to jail rather than testify. Webb Hubbell, a law partner of Mrs. Clinton’s, did the same—and secured more than $600,000 in consulting fees from people close to the Clintons. 

One of them was a longtime financial supporter and Indonesian businessman named James Riady. The story, as explained in Isikoff’s indispensable book, was typical of the Clinton method. Having donated heavily, Riady was invited to several White House meetings. After one of these, Riady took Webb Hubbell to breakfast. Then Riady went to the White House again, meeting privately in the Oval Office with the president. He brought with him a man named John Huang, who ran the U.S. subsidiary of Riady’s Indonesian financing company. Riady then met with Hubbell again, over lunch this time. Within four days, Riady’s company had paid Hubbell $100,000 in consulting fees. Despite a plea agreement, Hubbell never cooperated with prosecutors in their investigation of the Clintons. 

As one charwoman said to another watching a hooker strut by: “ ’At’s nice work if you can get it.”

There are dozens of stories about the Clintons that are equally rank, most of them involving similarly large sums of money. Even at the very end, on his last day in office, Clinton was granting pardons to men who had donated money to his cause—including a financier then on the lam, Marc Rich, whose pardon, like many others at the 11th hour, was never cleared through the normal Department of Justice process. Rich’s glamorous ex-wife asked Clinton privately for the pardon, after giving large sums to the Clinton presidential library. 

No president has been as ravenous for campaign cash as Bill Clinton. He knew, for example, that Riady’s friend Huang had raised illegal foreign money for political campaigns, but insisted the Democratic National Committee hire him as a fundraiser anyway, over internal objections from the DNC’s finance department. (Imagine a professional fundraiser objecting to anything on ethical grounds.) President Clinton attended fundraisers as often as five and six days a week. He turned perks of the presidency into instruments for raising cash; the White House itself was merchandised. Nearly 80 campaign contributors and bundlers, few of them personally friendly with the Clintons, were invited to spend the night in the Lincoln Bedroom and the Queen’s Bedroom as a token of the president’s gratitude. 

The president and senior aides brought in an estimated $26 million in so-called soft money over 20 months by holding “coffees” for major donors in the White House Map Room and even the Oval Office. The National Security Council identified one big donor of “soft money,” Roger Tamraz, as an agent working against U.S. interests in Central Asia, where he hoped to build a gas pipeline. The president overrode the NSC’s objections to meet with him several times anyway, until Tamraz’s contributions dried up. Several other identified security risks enjoyed the same privileged access. Foreign businessmen from second- and third-world countries felt right at home with Clinton’s way of doing business. 

“I see the White House is like a subway,” a donor named Johnny Chung said. “You have to put in coins to open the gates.” 

In 1997, House and Senate committees spent months pawing through Clinton’s sordid fundraising. More than 40 witnesses either left the country or pled the Fifth. 

America was soon to learn that more than “soft money” was being raised in the Oval Office. (This is the kind of joke we had to endure in the 1990s—one more thing to thank Clinton for.) The report of Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr, which served as the basis for the president’s impeachment in 1998 and 1999, offers the keenest insight into the culture of blame-shifting and lying that emanated from Clinton and accreted around his presidency. Starr’s report is famously revolting in its explicit detail about Clinton’s sexual encounters with the 22-year-old intern Monica Lewinsky, and I’ll spare you. But the non-explicit details are telling too.

For instance, Lewinsky said the president didn’t learn her name till after they had finished their third encounter in the Oval Office. After the sixth encounter, they settled down to their “first substantive conversation.” (So he doesn’t talk all the time.) Once when she begged him to let her service him and he pleaded a lack of time, he caressed her cheek sympathetically. “Every day can’t be sunshine,” he told her. On at least 17 occasions, the president called Lewinsky for phone sex, often first thing in the morning. “Good morning,” he would crow when he was done. “What a way to start the day!” For the longest time, Monica said, he wouldn’t let her bring him “to completion,” in her delicate phrase, until one day he told her he was going to give her a special gift: “I don’t want to disappoint you.” As it happened, he got some of the special gift on her blue dress—physical evidence that doomed him. 

One after another, these incidents and details pile up in Starr’s report, and not one of them constitutes an impeachable offense. But then and now—for 13 years—the common view has been that Clinton was impeached because he had sex with an intern. The PBS filmmakers don’t try very hard to dispel this confusion. In truth, President Clinton was impeached for obstructing justice in a criminal investigation and lying under oath before a federal judge and grand jury. Some of the lies he told were indeed about sex, but that’s because they arose from a sexual harassment suit. As president, Clinton challenged the suit, arguing that a sitting president shouldn’t be subject to civil lawsuits until he was out of office. The argument reached the Supreme Court, which ruled, unanimously, that the harassment suit could proceed. The president, the Court said, “is subject to the same laws that apply to all citizens.”

Clinton didn’t agree.

The suit was brought by a former Arkansas state employee named Paula Jones. To most observers, Jones’s complaint was shaky, and in the end it was thrown out of court because the behavior she described didn’t count as harassment. She alleged that Clinton, governor of Arkansas at the time and her boss’s direct boss, approached her at a state-sponsored jobs fair in a Little Rock hotel. In a deathless come-on, he told her: “You make my knees knock.” Clinton’s gift for such lines, by the way, never fails him. Twelve years before Jones started knocking his knees, Clinton had been accused of sexually assaulting a political supporter named Juanita Broaddrick in another Little Rock hotel room. She ended up with a split lip. According to an account Broaddrick gave to several friends and family members at the time and repeated later, Clinton showed his customary empathy. “You better get some ice for that,” he said, feeling her pain as he slipped out the door.

Jones alleged nothing so gross, but what she did allege, and what others corroborated, was that Clinton instructed a state trooper to bring her to an upstairs conference room to “talk about a new job.” There, Jones said, he propositioned her in a particularly graphic manner. “Kiss it,” the future president said, in still another imperishable mot. She filed suit three years later, after he’d been president for 18 months. Her lawyers were conservative activists with a transparent desire to destroy Clinton’s presidency. 

After the Supreme Court ruled that the case could go forward, Clinton was deposed. He was asked questions about his sex life that “no American citizen would ever want to answer,” as he later put it. Any American who reads through this and his subsequent depositions would agree. The questions were unbearably intrusive. They only grew more so once Starr entered the case in a federal investigation. 

But with Clinton, the repellent questions had a kind of rough justice. As president, he had signed the Violence Against Women Act with a maximum display of self-congratulation, citing it as a courageous blow for women and against injustice. The statute vastly expanded discovery rules available to plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases. Thanks to Clinton’s law, defendants in harassment suits everywhere could be required, under oath, to expose the most intimate details of their sex lives, even in consensual relationships (like the one Clinton had with Lewinsky). If they lied, the questions could get more intrusive still. The rules were—are—just as Bill Clinton suggested they were, after they were used against him: un-American. But they were his doing. 

And he didn’t think they should apply to him. Through a sequence of legal switchbacks, Clinton ended up before a federal judge and grand jury. They were investigating whether anyone was tampering with potential witnesses in the Jones suit. Monica Lewinsky, who in her dawning disillusionment had taken to calling him “The Big Creep,” was among them. In his federal deposition, as he had in Jones’s civil suit, Clinton lied in multiple instances. Indeed, it was Clinton himself who was behind the witness tampering. He had pressured Monica to sign a false affidavit in the Jones case when he learned she was on a witness list. He enlisted his secretary, Betty Currie, to retrieve gifts that he’d given Monica and which were by then under subpoena. Currie hid them under her bed at home. 

Clinton also encouraged Currie to lie in her own deposition. “I was never alone with Monica, right?” he asked her twice privately, shortly before she was to testify under oath, though she knew as well as he that Lewinsky had been alone with him at least a dozen times. Currie also knew it was a lie when the president said to her, “Monica came on to me and I never touched her, right?” Worried that Lewinsky might flip, as others never had, he leaned on a friend to find her a new, higher-paying job. When it became clear that Lewinsky would, under questioning, testify truthfully, he instructed aides to slander her to reporters, on background. Clinton told one aide, an energetic leaker named Sidney Blumenthal, that she was a “stalker,” a mentally unbalanced young woman with a Clinton fixation. And as night follows day, descriptions of Lewinsky as a stalker duly appeared in the papers. 

There was much, much more to Clinton’s behavior that was just as reprehensible, and all of it long ago disappeared down the country’s memory hole. One more instance: After he publicly denied his affair with Lewinsky, he recruited his cabinet officers, among them Bill Daley and Madeleine Albright, to go before the press and reaffirm their trust in him—trust that he knew to be laughable. That’s not an impeachable offense. Taking advantage, as the most powerful man in the world, of a dizzy 22-year-old woman is not an impeachable offense; neither, probably, is using your power as president to libel her after she proved a danger to your political viability. Even the famous incident with the cigar isn’t an impeachable offense. On the other hand, witness tampering and lying under oath to a federal grand jury are felonies, whatever the merits of the underlying case that occasioned the tampering and the perjury. Those are impeachable offenses. And so the president was impeached.

It was impossible at the time, and still is, to disentangle the partisan motives of the congressional Republicans who impeached Bill Clinton from whatever genuine sense of duty they felt to insist that his crimes be formally proved, recorded, and censured. Yet the question is beside the point, for the motives, whatever they were, don’t violate the soundness of the case made against him. An ethics committee of the Arkansas state supreme court, comprising mostly Democrats, came to the same conclusion that congressional Republicans did, and insisted that Clinton be disbarred. The federal judge to whom he lied under oath fined him $90,000, saying “no reasonable person would seriously dispute” that Clinton had given “false, misleading, and evasive answers that were designed to obstruct the judicial process.” These affirmations of the Republican case do undermine the “consensus” that the impeachment was, as the Esquire editors put it, “so political as to be illegitimate.”

The common view of Clinton’s impeachment, like the common view of his presidency in general, is exquisitely wrong. The distance of time and the stilling of passions haven’t made the case assembled by Starr look more trivial and absurd; if anything the case today looks even more compelling to someone who, at this remove, can go through it with a disinterested eye. And the defense mounted by the president’s lawyers and publicists, a tissue of misdirection and question-begging, looks flimsier than ever. The public’s middling attention span, its impatience with legal nicety, its lack of familiarity with routine prosecutorial methods, its horror at the sexual detail unleashed by Clinton’s law—these were bottomless resources that Clinton’s team exploited brilliantly and shamelessly. 

When the Lewinsky scandal erupted in the press, the president and his major-domo, Dick Morris, did what they always did when they were caught politically off-balance: They quietly took a poll. 

The next day Morris explained the public’s mood. The president might be forgiven a sexual affair, even with an intern half his age. But if he lied under oath and continued to lie—in that case, Morris said, the public would run him out of office. 

“Well,” Clinton told Morris, “we’ll just have to win then.” And he did.

Before the last bell is rung, however, a final detail from the Starr investigation deserves a place in the image Americans hold of their 42nd president. 

Late one night in 1995, the president was seeking congressional support for his plan to send American troops to Bosnia. As he took to the phone to lobby Rep. Sonny Callahan of Alabama, he saw that Monica had nothing to do. So he beckoned her over to do the thing he liked best about her.

Being sexually serviced by an intern while discussing the deployment of American soldiers to a war zone isn’t an impeachable offense. But it certainly is an interesting piece of information, isn’t it? A useful clue in trying to figure out what kind of president Bill Clinton was? I hope we can reach a consensus on that.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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