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'Lost Tapes: The Clinton Impeachment' Reminds Us Everything Old is New Again
October 29, 2018  | By David Hinckley
 

Lest anyone think Smithsonian’s new Lost Tapes special on the impeachment of President Bill Clinton is just an exercise in uncomfortable nostalgia, the documentary opens with an old news clip of Clinton at a podium saying he will “make America great again.”

Hmmm. Small world.

Lost Tapes: The Clinton Impeachment, which airs Monday at 9 p.m. ET, marks the approximately 20th anniversary of the late-‘90s battle that ended with the Senate refusing to kick our 42nd president out of office.

It also reminds us that whenever anyone says “the country has never been as divided as it is now,” we should remember that we’ve had some pretty contentious partisan stretches here and there. 

Lost Tapes, which remains a mildly misleading title for an interesting series, draws almost entirely on vintage news and television footage to assemble its story.

The Clinton Impeachment picks up in 1994 when Kenneth Starr (left) is appointed as a special prosecutor to investigate whether Clinton and his wife Hillary profited from Whitewater, an Arkansas land deal that went bad.

Around the same time, former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones charged that when Bill Clinton was governor, he forced her into a sex act.

Starr began looking into that case as well. A year later, Clinton launched an affair with Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern. That was a bad idea for reasons far too numerous to recount, starting with morality and fidelity and ending with the fact that this too became a focus for the Starr investigation.

As often happens in these matters, those involved first tried to weasel out of the truth before finally being forced to ‘fess up.

Clinton always insisted he never lied, though he would admit to not “volunteering” the whole truth. He also ultimately admitted the affair, which ran for 18 months, and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives impeached him, which means it filed charges of perjury and obstruction of justice.

Republicans also controlled the Senate but did not have the 67 votes – two-thirds – required for conviction.

When the formal vote was held in February 1999, 10 Republican senators voted no on the perjury charge and five on obstruction of justice. So it wasn’t a cliffhanger, but more like an anticlimax, and Clinton served out his term as an unusually popular president.

Lost Tapes doesn’t attempt to draw lessons from the story. It doesn’t suggest that if any similarly crucial vote were held today, it would be a surprise if five or 10 members from either opposition party crossed the line.

It doesn’t contemplate the degree to which partisan politics motivated the impeachment campaign or the Starr investigation. The Clintons and other Democrats argued then, and would still publicly argue today, that this was the most overwhelming if not the only impetus. Republicans say the impetus was Clinton’s behavior.  

The most intriguing hint of a behind-the-curtain snapshot comes from historian Taylor Branch who held regular private conversations with Bill Clinton during that time.

Clinton seemed oddly detached from the whole drama, Branch says. Clinton looked at it analytically, through the prism of politics.

Nor does The Lost Tapes directly address whether the whole impeachment discussion, which ran for almost five years through three national elections, had any direct repercussions.

We know what happened with Clinton. Paula Jones got an $850,000 settlement. Lewinsky became a minor celebrity who today is active in anti-bullying campaigns. Starr went on to become president of Baylor University before resigning amid allegations Baylor had brushed aside sexual harassment cases.

As a sort of incidental footnote, Lost Tapes reminds us that during the impeachment drama, several prominent Republicans who denounced Clinton for his amorality ended up quitting after admitting to extramarital affairs of their own.  

Perhaps this edition of The Lost Tapes was put together by Feet of Clay Productions.

 
 
 
 
 
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