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PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, AMERICAN HISTORY (oxfordre.com/americanhistory). (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2020. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 28 May 2020

Summary and Keywords

The Clinton scandals have settled in the annals of American political history in the context of the era’s recurrent presidential misbehavior. Viewed through a historical lens, the activities, investigation, and impeachment trial of the forty-second president are almost inevitably measured against the weight of Watergate and Iran-Contra. As a result, the actions and consequences of this high-profile moment in the late-20th-century political history of the United States arguably took on a weightier meaning than it might otherwise have. If Watergate tested the U.S. constitutional system to its limits and Iran-Contra was arguably as grave, the Clinton affair was crisis-light by comparison. Originating with an investigation into a failed 1970s Arkansas land deal by Bill Clinton and his wife, the saga developed to include such meandering subplots as Filegate, Travelgate, Troopergate, the death of White House counsel Vince Foster, and, most infamously, the president’s affair with a White House intern. Unlike Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, even Bill Clinton’s most ardent critics could not find a national security threat among the myriad scandals linked to his name.

By the time that Justice Department appointee Robert Fiske was replaced as prosecutor by the infinitely more zealous Kenneth Starr, the case had become synonymous with the culture wars that permeated 1990s American society. As the Whitewater and related tentacles of the investigation failed to result in any meaningfully negative impact on the president, it was his marital infidelities that came closest to unseating him. Pursued with vigor by the Independent Counsel, his supporters remained loyal as his detractors spotted political opportunity via his lapses in judgment.

Certain key factors made the Clinton scandal particular to its era. First, in an unprecedented development, the personal indiscretion aspect of the story broke via the Internet. In addition, had the Independent Counsel legislation not been renewed, prosecutor Fiske would likely have wrapped up his investigation in a timely fashion with no intention of pursuing an impeachment path. And, the relentless cable news cycle and increasingly febrile partisan atmosphere of the decade ensured that the nation remained as focused as it was divided on the topic.

Keywords: Bill Clinton, Kenneth Starr, Monica Lewinsky, Whitewater, Independent Counsel, impeachment, culture wars

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