In an undated handout photo, Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton in the White House.
(White House via The New York Times)
It has been more than 16 years since the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The 22-year-old White House intern is now a low-profile 40-year-old. The once-embattled President Bill Clinton has assumed a post-presidential role as global philanthropist and the scorned first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton, is now a former senator, a former secretary of state, and a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
And yet, it seems difficult these days to escape the scandal that rocked the late 1990s and led to Clinton's impeachment.
In response to attacks on the Republican Party as waging a "war on women," Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky has repeatedly recalled Clinton's White House indiscretions. Paul said on "Meet the Press" late last month that Clinton had taken advantage of a young intern. "That is predatory behaviour," he added.
On Monday, The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative website, unloaded a trove of documents from Clinton's White House years from a close friend of Hillary Clinton, Diane D. Blair who died in 2000. The Blair papers include diary entries based on conversations with Hillary Clinton, private memos and letters that had been kept at the archives of the University of Arkansas where Blair had taught political science.
The correspondence reveals new insights into how Hillary Clinton dealt the setbacks in the White House, such as her struggles to pass a health care overhaul and difficulties in dealing with journalists who she described as having "big egos and no brains."
"I know I should do more to suck up to the press," Clinton told Blair in 1996, according to the documents. "I know it confuses people when I change my hairdos, I know I should pretend not to have any opinions, but I'm just not going to," she continued. Then, Clinton said: "I'm used to winning and I intend to win on my own terms."
The papers also underscore the tensions contained in Clinton's reaction to her husband's infidelities. As first lady, she was viewed broadly as a champion of women's equality, but, according to the Blair papers, she did not see her husband's behaviour toward Lewinsky as exploitation.
Clinton called Lewinsky a "narcissistic loony toon," according to a 1998 conversation Blair recalled. "HRC insists, no matter what people say, it was gross inappropriate behaviour but it was consensual (was not a power relationship) and was not sex within real meaning" of the word, Blair wrote.
In his attacks on Bill Clinton, Paul also recently said that "the media seems to have given President Clinton a pass" on his affair with Lewinsky. But Blair's papers describe a White House that felt constantly under assault from the news media.
"She can't figure out why these people out there so anxious to destroy them," wrote Blair, who first befriended the Clintons in Arkansas in the late 1970s and who worked on the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns. "I told her I thought she was taking it too personally."
The mentions of Bill Clinton's personal life extend beyond Lewinsky. A February 16, 1992, memo marked "privileged and confidential" highlights "possible investigation leads," including a strategy to stop stories about Clinton's alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers. The memo expressed the need to expose Flowers, who claimed to have had a 12-year relationship with Clinton, as a "fraud, liar and possible criminal to stop this story and related stories." (Spokesmen for the Clintons declined to comment on Monday.)
It is unclear whether the resurrection of Clinton's indiscretions will have any impact on his wife's presidential ambitions. After all, she enjoyed some of her highest approval ratings as first lady when she seemed the injured party in their marriage.
But Paul's attack and the release of Blair's papers come at a time when Hillary Clinton's operation has worked hard to diminish the dramas that played out in the 1990s and shed her image as a calculating, partisan operator. In her four years as secretary of state, Clinton was barred from political activity, and in that time she was able to craft an appealing image as a hardworking, committed public servant who knew how to have some fun.
Blair's writings reinforce that her friend had struggled with her image long before she ran for office herself. She mentions a 1992 poll titled "Research on Hillary Clinton" that found that the traits voters were willing to accept in Bill Clinton - his political shrewdness and tactical mind - could seem "ruthless" when applied to Hillary Clinton.
(Of course, 12 years later, Clinton would lose to Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary, and her image would, in part, be to blame.)
Paul's attacks and the papers could rehash the drama from the Clinton administration, particularly for young voters who have a rosy memory (or no memory at all) of the 1990s. Blair's papers make Bill Clinton's office look particularly dysfunctional.
But, mostly, the papers paint a bleak picture of the Clintons' time in the White House, filled with devastating personal trials, including, but not limited to, the death of Vincent W. Foster Jr., an old Arkansas friend and deputy White House counsel, and the scandal with Lewinsky. Hillary Clinton expressed frustration with Washington's "insane process" and her determination to "figure out how to make the crappy thing work."
The take away, perhaps, is not so much that the past could hurt Hillary Clinton's chances at the White House should she run in 2016. It is a questions of why, after all that heartache, would she want to go back?
© 2014, The New York Times News Service