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Monica Lewinsky almost ended Bill Clinton's political career — and started Hillary's

Hillary stands by Bill as he denies inappropriate relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Hillary stands by Bill as he denies inappropriate relations with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Harry Hamburg/NY Daily News via Getty Images

"On Wednesday morning, January 21 [1998], Bill woke me up early," Hillary recalls in her memoir, Living History. "He sat on the edge of the bed and said, 'There's something in today's papers you should know about.'"

There were news reports, Bill explained, that he'd had an affair with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. This was hardly an unprecedented situation. Accusations of an affair with model and actress Gennifer Flowers nearly destroyed his 1992 presidential run. In early 1998, he was already embroiled in a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by Paula Jones, who alleged that then–Gov. Clinton exposed himself to her in 1991. But Bill assured Hillary — just as he assured most everyone around him — that his relationship with Lewinsky was innocent. He helped the intern with job-hunting, nothing more. "This was completely in character for Bill," Hillary writes. "He said that she had misinterpreted his attention, which was something I had seen happen dozens of times before."

By that summer, the story had unraveled. Lewinsky produced a dress with the president's semen on it to Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth Starr, whose purview had expanded to include the affair. On August 17, Bill admitted in grand jury testimony, and on national television, to a relationship with Lewinsky. And because that contradicted his testimony about Lewinsky during the Jones lawsuit, it set the stage for his impeachment on perjury charges.

Hillary has said Bill only admitted the affair to her mere days before admitting it to the country. "I could hardly breathe," she writes. "Gulping for air, I started crying and yelling at him, 'What do you mean? What are you saying? Why did you lie to me?' ... I didn't know whether our marriage could — or should — survive such a stinging betrayal."

The marriage did ultimately survive — and that earned Hillary harsh criticism from the press, including accusations that refusing to divorce Bill was somehow a betrayal of feminism. In April 1999, Maureen Dowd wrote in her New York Times column that Hillary "was unmasked as a counterfeit feminist after she let her man step all over her." But the public at large empathized, and her approval ratings soared.

Even more crucially, the scandal and Bill's impeachment helped spark Hillary's interest in pursuing political office herself. "Hillary had never previously felt the need to assert her own 'legitimacy,' separate from the single voice of her and Bill's journey," Bernstein writes in A Woman in Charge. "Now, with Bill having squandered so much of what was to have been their presidency, she felt differently." As the Clintons' longtime political adviser Harold Ickes put it, "This is a race for redemption," to "permit her supporters to say there was a lot more here than anybody thought."