On this day: the Monica Lewinsky scandal

November 19 1998: the Bill Clinton impeachment hearings begin


Only two American presidents have been impeached – Andrew Johnson in 1868, and 130 years later Bill Clinton.

While the first scandal was largely about political expediency and partisan politics, the second centred around the Jewish daughter of a prominent Los Angeles doctor.

Possibly the most famous intern there has ever been, Monica Lewinsky grew up in Beverly Hills and attended a Conservative synagogue school. She was voted “most likely to have her name in lights” in her high school yearbook.

In 1995 she gained bachelor’s degree in psychology at Oregon’s Lewis and Clark College, before being accepted as an intern by the Clinton administration; the start of what became known by many as “Zippergate”.

President Clinton had been under investigation by Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr since 1994 for the failed land deal labelled “the Whitewater affair”. Tapes given as evidence to this investigation revealed phone conversations with Monica Lewinsky discussing her relationship with the president. Then, in January 1998, he uttered the immortal words: “"I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”

During the 1998 mid-term elections, the scandal and the possibility of the president being impeached was a big issue, but despite this the Democrats picked up seats. On November 19 Kenneth Starr laid out the evidence to the United States House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. Yet while he was impeached he was for obstruction of justice and perjury, he was later acquitted by the U.S. Senate.

The scandal made waves around the world, and even provoked a rabbinic argument when Ms Lewinsky’s rabbi, David Wolpe, of the Sinai Temple, Los Angeles, urged President Clinton “to do sincere teshuvah” and said the nation had elected “a precocious, talented child, when it needed a man.” The president’s good friend, Little Rock’s Rabbi Eugene Levy disagreed. He said: “I have to look at the concept of forgiveness.”

The fact that she was Jewish also caused a stir. A Jordanian newspaper reported that she was really an Israeli named Monica Pollak, with dual citizenship and a prior job as head of international relations in the Tel Aviv office of the left-wing Mapam Party. The real Ms Pollak was not delighted by the mix-up.

What the JC said about: Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern who became, literally, Bill Clinton’s closest aide, probably held greater sway over the course of Middle East peace talks than the entire State Department (along the way, ensuring that historians may record that the first Jew in the Oval Office was only in the most tangential of senses attending to matters of state.)…The “Zippergate scandal” did turn out to have a genuine impact on the troubled course of Middle East peace talks. Every time Secretary Albright seemed poised to bring the entire weight of the post-Cold War world’s only superpower to bear on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, her boss, it seemed, found himself battling a fresh raft of sex allegations.

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    Last updated: 9:36am, November 19 2010