This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, an affair that resulted in Bill Clinton's impeachment. As tumultuous as the Clinton years were, in retrospect they seem a bit quaint: a time when bipartisan deals could still be struck, when the nation was still trying to find a language to talk about sexual harassment, when the internet was still a delightful novelty.
But that past is not so distant. In the turmoil of the Lewinsky scandal, we can see modern American politics being born. From the obsession with scandal to the pursuit of unpopular policies to the emergence of a new and powerful political media, the Lewinsky scandal was the first political moment to bear the hallmarks of our present moment.
The affair began not in 1998 but 1995, during a protracted government shutdown. With non-essential employees furloughed, unpaid interns had to take their place. One of those interns? Monica Lewinsky. She and Clinton met, flirted, and consummated their relationship during the shutdown, and would continue to liaise for another year and a half.
But the relationship did not turn into a scandal until early 1998, when it came into contact with the Starr investigation. The Republican Party had, from the start of Bill Clinton's candidacy, been in scandal mode, searching for an event that would cripple the popular politician.
Buoyed by a new right-wing media, Republicans chased scandal after scandal: Whitewater, Troopergate, Filegate. But nothing stuck. Not even Ken Starr, the independent prosecutor put in charge of investigating the Clintons' real estate holdings, could find evidence of a crime.
But he did find Monica. And soon, so did a blogger named Matt Drudge.
The Drudge Report broke the Lewinsky story on January 17, 1998, followed five days later by legacy media outlets like the Washington Post and ABC News. Lurid details of an extramarital affair set in the Oval Office soon became the story of the decade. And in its unfolding, it revealed the new currents of American politics.
For the first time, the internet set the agenda for a major political story. By the late 1990s, a critical mass of Americans were connected to the internet, able to explore the web with new, user-friendly browsers like Netscape and Internet Explorer. As a result, the internet had started to gain a reputation as a legitimate source of information, rather than a frivolous novelty.
Just as important as the new technology, however, was the nature of the media that broke the story. The Drudge Report and the print magazine The American Spectator were the primary drivers of the Clinton scandals. While conservative media had been in existence for some four decades, in the 1990s they were newly powerful thanks to the rise of talk radio and Fox News. During the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment, these media set the agenda for much of the rest of political journalism, a role they have played ever since.
The scandal also marked the beginning of a new era of conflict-driven partisan politics. Clinton's first term featured no end of partisan fighting, especially once Republicans took Congress in 1994 and forced a government shutdown a year later. Yet bipartisanship was still possible, even on big issues like welfare reform and children's medical insurance.
Impeachment was a turning point. It represented the weaponisation of politics, a breathtakingly partisan act disconnected from larger issues of threats to the republic. An affair with an intern is many things, but it is not an impeachable offence. (This is even more evident today, given recent allegations that the current president had an affair with a porn actor while married with an infant son.) Impeachment was about reversing the election and thwarting Clinton's agenda, and little more.
Just as important, impeachment was a deeply unpopular policy. This represented a genuine sea-change in Republican strategy, one that has reshaped the party. When Newt Gingrich became Speaker of the House in 1994, he did so on the back of his Contract with America, a list of policy priorities chosen because they were "60 per cent issues" — that is, each had the support of at least 60 per cent of the American public.
At the time of the impeachment hearings, two-thirds of Americans opposed it.
The move cost the GOP some seats the 1998 elections. But two years later they won back the Oval Office, even while losing the popular vote, and began to learn that, for Congress at least, pursuit of unpopular policies didn't necessarily mean a loss of power. Thanks to the political influence of the party's base and tactics like gerrymandering and voter restriction, Republicans learned they could do things like shut down the government, damage the country's credit rating, and attempt to pass unpopular health-care and tax legislation without actually losing elections.
American politics today can seem incomprehensible, like a system suddenly gone mad. But that madness sits at the confluence of a number of historical developments, all of which first began to crystallise 20 years ago, when an Oval Office affair became a scandal that remade the nation.