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‘Tabloid Interest’: The Class of 1999 Looks Back on The Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal

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A president was getting impeached for the first time in 130 years, but Harvard students were more focused on finals.

“I haven’t been glued to it or anything,” Tad A. Fallows ’02 told The Crimson in January of 1999, just days after the Senate’s trial of President Bill Clinton began.

Indeed, as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal — in which then-President Bill Clinton would first deny and then admit his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky — developed, some members of the Class of 1999 said that the news did not dramatically shape their time at Harvard.

Twenty-five years later, and in a much more polarized nation than that of 1999, students look back on the tawdry scandal that would engulf the White House.

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‘Somewhat Frivolous’

When news of the scandal broke — first online in the Drudge Report, followed shortly after by The Washington Post — it caught many on campus by surprise, and fascination.

“Initially, like the rest of the country, I think everyone was sort of surprised,” Rustin C. Silverstein ’99 said in an interview. “And curious, titillated by the revelations as they started to come out.”

Though much of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal played out as undergraduates lived on campus during the spring and fall of 1998, many of those present recall it being a subject of interest — but one mostly relegated to the background.

“It was a prominent event in the background that people would talk about in certain circles, and would occasionally come up,” Lanhee J. Chen ’99 said. “I don’t recall it being all formative, in terms of our experiences.”

“It felt more like background noise,” he added.

Silverstein emphasized that the scandal, though of interest to some, did little to impact day-to-day life.

The scandal was viewed mostly as “tabloid interest,” he said. “Somewhat frivolous.”

Chen said that while “there was a lot of awareness” for those more politically aware, a lot of students turned the events into a punchline.

“We did these T-shirts every year for Harvard Model Congress for the conference,” Chen said. In 1999, “the T-shirt had some design on it, and there was a guy saying, ‘more fun than a deposition.’”

“To the extent there was discussion, it wasn't particularly serious or heated discussion,” he added. “It was really sort of more poking fun at the entire situation.”

But while many viewed the scandal from a distance, several Harvard undergraduates served as White House interns alongside Lewinsky herself. One Harvard College student, J. Caroline Self ’99, who worked in the White House from June to December 1996, was called to testify in front of a grand jury in February 1998.

For some of those who worked alongside Lewinsky, such as Carlton F.W. Larson ’97, the scandal contained a personal element.

“It was so personal in a way,” Larson said. “It’s very, very strange to see someone you know caught up in something like this.”

“The initial feeling is just sort of complete disbelief,” he said. “This can’t possibly be real.”

‘Nobody Wanted to See Him Thrown Out of Office’

Still, the scandal and its impact played out tangibly on Harvard’s campus as well, with debates in the Institute of Politics and dueling on-campus rallies.

Less than three weeks after news of Clinton’s relationship with Lewinsky first surfaced, the Harvard Political Union, a campus debate society affiliated with the IOP, hosted a debate on the scandal.

As the House debated and then voted on articles of impeachment, groups both in support of and against impeachment rallied on Harvard’s campus, though pro-Clinton, anti-impecahment sentiment dominated faculty and the student body.

“Clinton was very popular with young people,” Larson said. “And so there was certainly a segment of people that just really rallied to his support.”

“People were upset that he had done what he had done with Monica Lewinsky,” Harvard Law School professor Alan M. Dershowitz, who was prominently involved in several anti-impeachment rallies, said. “But nobody wanted to see him thrown out of office because of it, because they liked his policies.”

The debate around Clinton’s impeachment arrived at The Crimson as well. As The Crimson covered news around the scandal, opinion pieces covering a range of views on the scandal formed much of the campus newspaper’s editorial section.

“The conservative views were always in the minority,” Geoffrey C. Upton ’99, a former Crimson editorial chair, said. “We did definitely have effort to have some balance.”

By September 1998, the editorial board called on Clinton to resign, though it would oppose impeachment in December 1998, urge the Senate to acquit Clinton a month later, and praise the eventual acquittal in February.

‘Much More Polarized’

A quarter of a century later, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal has long fallen from the public eye. But to some of those who experienced it as Harvard undergraduates, its lessons — and foreshadowing — live on.

At the time of the event, Larson, who worked a few cubicles away from Lewinsky in 1995 as interns, detailed in The Crimson his attempts to speak with media outlets and push back against a “climate of uninformed speculation.”

But over three decades later, some students feel that political discourse in the public arena has not changed for the better.

“What you realize is the degree to which our politics have changed,” Chen said of the years since the scandal. “I’d argue for the worse.”

“We’ve become much more polarized, we’ve become much more partisan. We’ve become a lot more visceral,” he added. “Not that we all got along in 1999.”

The presence of divided government in Washington — Congress, for the first time in decades, had assumed unified Republican control, while the presidency was in the hands of a Democrat — also worked to bring about a degree of partisan polarization, according to Silverstein.

“For the first time in 40 years, there was divided government in Washington,” he said. “It was, I think, the beginnings of the hyper-partisan environment that we’re still living in now.”

—Staff writer Matan H. Josephy can be reached matan.josephy@thecrimson.com. Follow him on X @matanjosephy.

—Staff writer Samantha D. Wu can be reached at samantha.wu@thecrimson.com.

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