Having spent some $40 million on the convoluted Whitewater real estate scandal, independent counsel Kenneth Starr expanded his inquiry to include allegations that President Clinton had had an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and that the President had cornered her into lying about it to investigators.
As far as the media seemed to be concerned, everything else going on in the world in 1998 paled in importance to “Zippergate” or “Monicagate” as the scandal was variously known.
It became virtually impossible to turn on the TV or open a newspaper without seeing a photograph of Lewinsky, hearing some titillating new detail about the case, or being subjected to someone’s opinion about the seriousness of the charges against the president.
Clinton stated several times that he “did not have sex with that woman”, but finally admitted to having a relationship with her after the evidence proved insurmountable.
He did, however, continue to insist that his statements had been “legally accurate”, drawing a hair-splitting distinction between oral sex and actual fornication.
Some commentators called for his immediate resignation – or, failing that, his impeachment. Others condemned counsel Kenneth Starr for conducting a “sexual witch hunt” with taxpayers’ money, likening him to Joe McCarthy.
About the only thing anyone seemed to agree on was that Linda Tripp (the government employee and “friend” of Lewinsky’s who had surreptitiously taped their discussions of the intern’s affair with Clinton) was a vindictive and generally repulsive person.
Meanwhile, parents around the world wrung their hands over how exactly to answer their children’s questions about oral sex while stand-up comics alternated Lewinsky jokes with cracks about Viagra.
For all of Kenneth Starr’s findings and allegations, Clinton’s approval remained remarkably high, and poll after poll showed that Americans just wanted to “move on”.
The US House of Representatives voted in October 1998 to open impeachment hearings, but voters responded to the Republican Party’s increasingly shrill and self-righteous anti-Clinton tirades by handing Republican candidates a series of surprise defeats in the November elections.
While the President made a solemn vow to spend the rest of his time in office attending to “the people’s business”, Lewinsky’s perspective on the scandal became an immediate best-seller, and her giggly appearances on Barbara Walters’ March special pulled in so many female viewers that some media watchers dubbed it “the Super Bowl for women”.