would Bill Clinton’s scandals break the internet in 2022?

Months before he romped home to win the 1992 U.S. Presidential Elections, Bill Clinton’s campaign to lead his country almost went to pot. The then 45-year-old had yet to be chosen as the Democratic candidate to run against incumbent George HW Bush when a newspaper article in a local New York tabloid suggested that he had taken illegal drugs. He spent the rest of the week trying to bat away the accusation, saying in response that he had “never broken the laws of my country”. The accusations wouldn’t go away, however, and on the night of March 29 1992, he was asked about his alleged use again. This time it was television.

“When I was in England,” he responded, referring to his time as a student at Oxford. “I experimented with marijuana a time or two and I didn’t like it and didn’t inhale and never tried it again.” At the time, many commentators believed his now infamous I didn’t inhale line was damaging. Editor of the Daily Post, Matthew Storin who broke the story, dubbed the Arkansas Governor a “slick willy” but for the Democrats, and most importantly, the voters that November, Clinton’s apparent drug use mattered little.

“Critical to the admission was that it happened during the primaries,” says Sandra Scanlon, Lecturer in American History, UCD School of History. “It was very early in his bid. So by the time he ran for president, the whole thing was done and dusted.” As was often the case with Clinton, luck played its part. Only five years beforehand, a Supreme Court nominee, Douglas Ginsburg, had to give up his nomination because he admitted using marijuana. Al Gore, during his presidential bid in 1988, admitted to smoking pot. By the time Clinton owned up, it had all been seen before.

Bill Clinton: "didn't inhale" line wasn't a goer with commentators, but when the 1992 US Presidential race regardless
Bill Clinton: “didn’t inhale” line wasn’t a goer with commentators, but when the 1992 US Presidential race regardless

Of course, both this and rumours of affairs and misappropriation were sticks that the Republicans tried to beat Clinton with when he eventually won the primaries and ran for president. But some of the scrutiny might well have played in his favour.

“There was quite a lot about him that some felt was anti-American,” says Sandra. “He was the first presidential candidate who hadn’t served in the military and he had opposed the Vietnam War. He was seen as anti-establishment. But I think that is probably why he appealed to people. There was this post-Cold War environment, there had been twelve years of the Republicans in charge so there was a desire for change and you had this young person coming in with a vibrancy about him. He had a much more positive image.” 

Of course, Clinton and his “slick willy” persona were scrutinised on a daily basis by both print and broadcast media. But the 42nd president lived in a time before social media. A time that seems so much slower now in terms of news cycles and the stories that feed them.

“I don’t know how Clinton would have managed if social media were around back then,” says Sandra. “Everything is so much more immediate now with social media but that also allows politicians the opportunity to get over things more quickly. You saw that with Trump.” 

Trump often played the media at its own game. Scandals broke on a daily basis and so quickly that journalists never had time to finish investigating one story before moving to the next. The former Apprentice star just kept them spinning plates, fed his fanbase exactly what they wanted and pushed people further apart. For many, Trump was and still is symptomatic of how social media and mainstream media now seem to chase each other in the battle for attention. Often without realising where that chase might end.

“What’s different now from the time of Clinton is how people in America, in particular, consume their news,” says Sandra. “It’s not like everyone is getting mainstream news. People can find news that reinforces pre-existing ideas You see that with the rise of Fox News. Perhaps, had Fox News been big in 1992, Clinton might well have been under a lot more pressure. There would have been constant coverage and investigations into things like his alleged affair with Jennifer Flowers for example.” 

A photograph showing former White House intern Monica Lewinsky meeting President Bill Clinton at a White House function submitted as evidence in documents by the Starr investigation and released by the House Judicary committee September 21, 1998.
A photograph showing former White House intern Monica Lewinsky meeting President Bill Clinton at a White House function submitted as evidence in documents by the Starr investigation and released by the House Judicary committee September 21, 1998.

Clinton would also have to grapple with online movements like #MeToo, a phenomenon which, had it been around in her day, might well have led to a very different attitude towards and outcome for a certain Monica Lewinsky. 

Last year, for instance, the once internationally popular Mayor of New York, Andrew Cuomo resigned his post due to allegations of sexual harassment and assault. Arguably, Prince Andrew would still be considered a respected monarch had it not been for the movement. 

But while the likes of Twitter and the scrutiny it enables have encouraged positive societal changes, there is little doubt that there are downsides to the apparent increase in political engagement.

“Politicians talk to us all the time about their Twitter feed and the stuff people send them,” says Seán Defoe, Political Correspondent with Newstalk. “It’s absolutely horrendous. Most of them don’t read half of the stuff they get sent because of the amount of abuse they get now. It has really ramped up and it’s having a knock-on effect on politicians and people’s view of them. I know many retired politicians who are very glad they’re out of politics in the social media age.” For Seán, social media has led to a new type of scrutiny around politics and politicians.

“I think since the crash and correspondingly when the era of social media began we lost a lot of tolerance for that politician who you knew was a bit dodgy but ‘sure wasn’t he sorting the roads’. Much of that reverence has gone out the window.” While the disappearance of that reverence might not be any harm, Seán worries about modern mob scrutiny with both its propensity for overreaction and appetite for political blood.

“Everything seems to be a resignation issue,” he says. “It’s absolutely right to scrutinise and even criticise politicians, I do it myself every week. But not everything is as black and white as this person is terrible and this person is great. It’s usually somewhere grey, in the middle. But I think social media is probably pushing it in the other direction and leading to polarisation.” 

Five political houdinis 

Boris Johnson – Partygate 

The British PM was caught with his party pants well and truly down. At the height of the accusations around parties at Number 10, Bojo’s time looked well and truly up. But he waited and waited and a war came along. Partygate now looks well and truly over.

Donald Trump – Locker Room Talk 

Not long before the election, a recording of Trump was leaked and showed up all over social media. His language was vile, his misogyny clear to see and it surely meant the end. He won and four years of chaos and scandal ensued.

US President Bill Clinton (left) toasting in Fagans Pub Drumcondra, Dublin with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Tuesday, December 12, 2000
US President Bill Clinton (left) toasting in Fagans Pub Drumcondra, Dublin with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, Tuesday, December 12, 2000

Bertie Ahern – Crash, What Crash?

After nine years at the helm of unprecedented growth and prosperity, Bertie decided he’d had enough. His timing was as ever impeccable. Shortly after handing over the ropes to the long-suffering Brian Cowen, the country was tethered to the IMF and the country spent the next few years in the doldrums.

Margaret Thatcher – Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina

In late 1981 with the economy on the floor and her party openly conspiring against her, the Iron Lady needed a miracle. It came from a military junta in Argentina who decided to attack The Falklands. She won, stayed in power and ten years of Thatcherism came next.

Silvio Berlusconi – More slippery than spaghetti 

He has faced accusations of false accounting, bribery of tax police and illegally funding his own political party. His first stint as prime minister ended in 1995 partly due to corruption charges. But he was PM on two more occasions after that. Three convictions on corruption and fraud charges have all been overturned on appeal. And let’s not forget all the bunga-bunga stuff. Yet the 85-year-old still sits as an MEP for North-West Italy.

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