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Clinton and Jefferson: How Sex Can Define a Presidency

By Zachary Rubin

[1] On January 19th, 1998, a political gossip column known as The Drudge Report reported that the editors of Newsweek had received information via investigative reporter Michael Isikoff revealing that President Bill Clinton had sexual relations with a former White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. After the Washington Post confirmed the story in subsequent days and the White House staff members continually denied such allegations, President Clinton uttered eleven words on January 26th, 1998, that would ultimately and arguably define his presidency: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." Consequently, President Clinton faced massive media scrutiny, as pundits heavily debated whether Clinton had lied or obstructed justice in telling the nation that he had not slept with Miss Lewinsky. After months of deep investigation by independent counsel Kenneth Starr, President Clinton ultimately faced impeachment by the House of Representatives in the later months of 1998.

[2] Yet, on the eve of the November 1998 Congressional elections, prominent scientific magazine Nature released a report about one of America's founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, confirming through DNA analysis that he fathered slave Sally Hemings' youngest child. While the Jefferson-Hemings relationship was unconfirmed for hundreds of years and was believed by some to be nothing more than a tale of fiction, the DNA evidence illustrated that one of America's white knights, the author of the Declaration of Independence, most likely acted immorally by having sex with one of his slaves and hiding that fact from the general public. Acting swiftly, Clinton apologists utilized this new evidence in a way to attempt to save the president from further scrutiny by comparing Jefferson to Clinton and rationalizing Clinton's actions with an "everybody's done it" approach. The implications of this strategy led to the formulation of an intriguing question amongst many within mainstream media: is the President just a man, or should he be viewed as above the average man, righteous and noble in all of his endeavors? As evidenced in Clinton's eventual impeachment by the House of Representatives on December 19th, 1998, it is clear that while some believe that the president should be treated as just a man, many find that the president should be treated above the everyday man in all personal and external affairs.

[3] One of the most notable groups that gave strong support to President Clinton during this trying time was the "Historians in Defense of the Constitution." In a joint document, this group -- co-sponsored by Arthur M. Schlesinger (City University of New York), Sean Wilentz (Princeton University), and C. Vann Wodward (Yale University) -- greatly criticized the efforts of Congress to impeach President Clinton because of his sexual misconduct, obstruction of justice, and perjury (Professor John Pettegrew of Lehigh's history department is a signatory). In particular, the group found that the impeachment of the President was "reserved . . . for high crimes and misdemeanors in the exercise of executive power," not personal, private affairs (1). Furthermore, this group of historians found that the impeachment of President Clinton would "establish a precedent for the future harassment of presidents" and would not satisfy what the Framers, including Jefferson, saw as grounds for impeachment (2). Ultimately, as staunch supporters of Clinton and of the Democratic Party, these historians found that Clinton's immorality should not constitute impeachment and deplored the drive of Kenneth Starr to indict the president.

[4] Joseph J. Ellis, a critically acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning author and professor at Mount Holyoke College, most eloquently stated that he believed that presidents are just like other average men, sometimes flawed in their minds and their actions, and utilized Jefferson more directly than that of the "Historians in Defense of the Constitution." To spin the story in favor of Clinton during the impeachment proceedings, Ellis stated that "our heroes -- and especially Presidents -- are not gods or saints, but flesh-and-blood humans, with all of the frailties and imperfections that this entails" (3). Jefferson, for example, while he's found to be a bit paradoxical as an American political figure because of his conduct, is still notably revered in the hearts and minds of Americans. Essentially, Ellis found that Clinton "called one of the most respected character witnesses in all of U.S. history to testify" on his behalf, ultimately making his sins seem "less aberrant and more palatable" (4).

[5] Rick Shenkman of the Washington Monthly agreed with Ellis and cited how Jefferson and numerous other presidents before Clinton were philanderers who attempted to keep their lives private as mass media exploded in the late 19th century. According to Shenkman, James Garfield, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson were all "well-known Lotharios [who] deliberately contrived to leave the false impression with the public that they were good family men who never strayed" (5). The difference with Clinton in this manner, according to Shenkman, is that no other president was put in the position of having to answer questions about his sex life under oath. Simply put, the author found that it "was simply easier to get away with cheating" (6). Thus, it can be implied that Jefferson and Clinton, along with the other presidents who committed such acts in the past, should be placed on the same pedestal, leaving Clinton exonerated for his actions.

[6] While Ellis and Shenkman describe the heart of Clinton's defense by citing Jefferson's DNA test and the endeavors of past presidents, many, like Nicholas Stix found that such a defense to be a mere "hoax" in an attempt "to rescue [Ellis's] sexually compromised hero, Bill Clinton" (7). Jamie Dettmer of Insight found that in her experience "covering American politics these days is like observing a schoolyard. . . . misbehavior abounds" (8). In particular, she found the leftist defense tactic of "Sir, Sir, Jefferson did it, too" approach as short-sighted and insignificant, as "the erring of one person doesn't justify the misbehavior of another" (9). Ultimately, Dettmer, who was writing for a notably conservative online and print magazine, believed that these Clinton supporters are "not a bright lot" in their use of Jefferson to justify Clinton's actions, since, even though they have found a proper witness, "they have opted for the wrong strategy" (10).

[7] Mona Charen, contributor to the Jewish World Review, echoed her displeasure with the leftist defense throughout Clinton's impeachment proceedings, stating that Clinton was guilty of much more than an extramarital affair. Charen stated how she found President Clinton's actions to be "the conduct of a profoundly juvenile man giddy at his power and utterly deaf to notions of propriety, honor or decency" (11). Furthermore, using Lewinsky as a "sex toy, unzipping his fly and gesturing her to service him" was simply an abuse of office and one that should be punishable regardless of whether the venerable Thomas Jefferson acted in a similar manner (12). Ultimately, Charen found that the nation should not tolerate the actions of the president and exonerate him because of such a lewd precedent. Specifically, "Clinton's conduct is illustrative of the moral rot that has already done severe damage to the nation," and not impeaching him would continue to hurt the country (13).

[8] Stix, Dettmer, and Charen were not the only individuals commenting on this particular situation; the American people voiced their opinions as well. Thomas Cunningham of St. Petersburg, Florida, wrote to his local paper that Clinton and Jefferson are not comparable and such comparisons made by lefty apologists are "unsubstantial and weak" (14). In particular, Cunningham enumerates on the many differences in the two situations, including their marital status (Jefferson was a widower; Clinton was married), the value system of each era (white male interaction with slaves was common; adultery is illegal in the present time), and the location of such actions (Jefferson was at his private home in Virginia; Clinton was in the White House, effectively destroying the sanctity of this prestigious building). Ultimately, Cunningham found that it was "in poor taste to attempt to justify Clinton's perjury and adultery by comparing it to some events that occurred two centuries ago" (15).

[9] While Ellis and his Democratic followers did an effective job in promoting that Clinton should receive preferential treatment in his impeachment proceedings simply because the prestigious Thomas Jefferson committed similar acts (Clinton was later found not guilty by the Senate in regards to obstruction of justice), it is clear that the American public thought much less of the president after the scandal came to a close in early 1999. According to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll and article entitled "Majority of Americans Glad Clinton is Leaving Office," it was revealed that 68% of Americans believed that Clinton would be remembered more for his sexual scandal than any other actions he undertook as president (16). Furthermore, when asked if they believed that President Clinton was honest and trustworthy, 58% of Americans answered "No" (17).

[10] Thus, what can we conclude from this unique political commentary comparing the sexual conduct of Thomas Jefferson to that of Bill Clinton? Is a president simply a mortal man with flaws, or is he supposed to be above the everyday man because of his status? It seems clear that the entire exposé of Jefferson, the DNA test, and his relationship with Hemings was merely an attempt by loyal Democratic politicians to protect Clinton from continual public mockery during his impeachment. Richard Brookhiser noted that "since the scandal did not destroy the Founders' careers . . . then [it should not] destroy Clinton's now"; yet, he moved on to state that the President of the United States is a notably regal and virtuous position in which this individual will be scrutinized on every possible move in every possible scenario (18). Unfortunately for President Clinton, he will be remembered most notably for his affair with Miss Lewinsky and not his efforts in negotiating peace in the Middle East and Africa or his work with helping America's business grow and flourish.

[11] As for Jefferson, while he will most likely be held in the same respects he had been prior to the release of this information, President Obama and future presidents should note that taking on this position means that one must temper his (or her!) personal and sexual temptations for the greater good of the nation. The president is a person who is elected to represent the best of America and promote the well-being of the nation, thus making him or her more vital and important than the everyday person. If our figurehead's public flaws are so overwhelming -- whether sexual, intellectual, or both -- we cannot expand and prosper as a country. In the end, Thomas Jefferson and Bill Clinton were seemingly outstanding men who did help this nation grow; however, their sexual conquests may have and may continue to hurt and tarnish the legacy of one of our nation's most storied institutions.

(1) "Historians in Defense of the Constitution." Salon.com 30 Oct. 1998. Web. 25 Apr 2010. Pg. 1.

(2) "Historians in Defense of the Constitution." Pg. 2.

(3) Ellis, Joseph. "When a Saint Becomes a Sinner." U.S. News & World Report 9 Nov 1998. Web. 25 Apr 2010. Pg. 1.

(4) Ellis, Joseph. Pg. 2.

(5) Shenkman, Rick. "Sex, Lies, and Presidents." Washington Monthly Online Oct 1998. Web. 25 Apr 2010. Pg. 2.

(6) Shenkman, Rick. Pg. 2.

(7) Stix, Nicholas. "Giving Thomas Jefferson The Business: The Sally Hemings Hoax." Nicholas Stix, Uncensored 10 Apr 1999. Web. 25 Apr 2010.

(8) Dettmer, Jamie. "Dealing With High-Profile Delinquents." Insight on the News 30 Nov 1998. Web. 25 Apr 2010. Pg. 1.

(9) Dettmer, Jamie. Pg. 1.

(10) Dettmer, Jamie. Pg. 2.

(11) Charen, Mona. "Can Just Sex be Impeachable?" Jewish World Review 9 Oct 1998. Web. 25 Apr 2010. Pg. 2.

(12) Charen, Mona. Pg. 2.

(13) Charen, Mona. Pg. 2.

(14) Cunningham, Thomas. "Clinton, Jefferson aren't comparable.". St. Petersburg Times 8 Nov 1998. Web. 25 Apr 2010. Pg. 1.

(15) Cunningham, Thomas. Pg 1.

(16) Holland, Keating. "Majority of Americans Glad Clinton is Leaving Office." CNN 10 Jan 2001. Web. 25 Apr 2010. Pg. 1.

(17) Holland, Keating. Pg. 1.

(18) Brookheiser, Richard. "The Scandal II; Founding Principles; White House spin aside, America was built on virtue." National Review 7 Dec 1998. Web. 25 Apr 2010. Pg. 1.