TWO DECADES AGO, ON A FRIGID night just be­fore the New Hampshire pri­mary, Amer­ica first met Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton as a cou­ple.

It was Jan­uary 26, 1992, a drowsier time when daily pa­pers con­trolled the nar­ra­tive of pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns; when CNN was the only cable news network on the air, and blogs didn’t ex­ist. Bill Clin­ton was the favorite to win the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion and face Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush in Novem­ber.

And then he had what a chief ad­viser of his would call a cat­a­strophic “bimbo erup­tion.” Her name was Gen­nifer Flow­ers, and the Star, the su­per­mar­ket tabloid, was about to pub­lish a story say­ing she and Clin­ton had had a 12-year af­fair. In re­sponse, Arkansas’s first cou­ple had agreed to a do an emer­gency in­ter­view with Steve Kroft of 60 Min­utes, to talk about their mar­riage. The Arkansas gover­nor and his wife in­sisted on ap­pear­ing to­gether, and it was her words, more than his, that saved his can­di­dacy.

The Clin­tons sat be­side each other on a couch: Bill, in a suit, with his hands al­most prayer-like be­tween his knees, and Hil­lary, with her arm draped on his back or stray­ing oc­ca­sion­ally to set­tle on his arms. She wore a thin black head­band and a turquoise suit with match­ing turtle­neck and eye shadow. She ex­am­ined her hus­band lov­ingly, yet main­tained a com­mand­ing air, nod­ding ap­prov­ingly as he spoke, then jump­ing in as nec­es­sary.

Her hus­band’s re­sponses to Kroft’s ques­tions were mea­sured, firm and softly de­liv­ered. At some points, a viewer couldn’t help think he was a nim­ble ac­tor, pat­ting his heart and lean­ing for­ward. Now and again, he ap­peared hurt, even vaguely aghast, his bot­tom lip res­o­lutely chewed or his eye­brows gone all cir­cum­flex. Other times, he shook his head or nar­rowed his eyes to ex­press ex­as­per­a­tion with his in­ter­roga­tor.

You’ve said that your mar­riage has had probKROFT: lems…. What do you mean by that?

I think...peo­ple that have been mar­ried a CLIN­TON: long time know what it means and know the whole range of things it can mean.

Are you pre­pared tonight to say that you’ve KROFT: never had an ex­tra­mar­i­tal af­fair?

I’m not pre­pared tonight to say that any marCLINTON: ried cou­ple should ever dis­cuss that with any­one but them­selves.... And I think what the press has to de­cide is: Are we go­ing to en­gage in a game of “gotcha”?

Fi­nally, Kroft tried to ar­tic­u­late what many view­ers were think­ing: “I think most Amer­i­cans would agree that it’s very ad­mirable that you’ve stayed to­gether—that you’ve worked your prob­lems out, that you’ve seemed to reach some sort of un­der­stand­ing and an ar­range­ment.”

“I wanted to slug him,” Clin­ton would later con­cede in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, My Life. “In­stead, I said, ‘Wait a minute. You’re look­ing at two peo­ple who love each other. This is not an ar­range­ment or an un­der­stand­ing. This is a mar­riage.’”

Hil­lary pounced, and her cool­headed re­sponse was the re­ver­ber­at­ing sound bite: “You know, I’m not sit­ting here, some lit­tle woman stand­ing by my man, like Tammy Wynette. I’m sit­ting here be­cause I love him, I re­spect him, and I honor what he’s been through

and what we’ve been through to­gether. And, you know, if that’s not enough for peo­ple—then, heck, don’t vote for him.”

Then, in a por­tion of the seg­ment that was never broad­cast, the over­head lights that had been set up some­how be­came un­moored, along with their wood-beam mount. The rig­ging top­pled over, with a clam­ber, barely miss­ing Hil­lary. “They just kind of popped off,” Kroft re­mem­bers, “and came crash­ing down on the back of the sofa be­hind the Clin­tons...[who] lurched for­ward [to avoid the] burn­ing fil­a­ments and fly­ing glass.”

A tragedy averted, Bill Clin­ton took his wife in his arms, clutched her close, and kept telling her, softly, that he loved her—that ev­ery­thing would be OK. The cou­ple would be fine, but the in­ter­view—and Clin­ton’s pres­i­dency—marked the be­gin­ning of a seis­mic shift in Amer­i­can cul­ture, which led to much of what we ab­hor about the present day.

Sex, Voyeurism and Re­al­ity TV

THE SHAME-STRAFED 1990S be­gan two years be­fore that in­fa­mous in­ter­view, with a blar­ing tabloid head­line in the New York Post: “Best Sex I’ve Ever Had.” The story was about real es­tate mogul Don­ald Trump and his lover, Marla Maples—she was sup­pos­edly talk­ing about his prow­ess in the bed­room. This was well be­fore Trump’s ca­reer as a re­al­ity-tv star (though he had al­ready boasted he could be­come pres­i­dent).

The decade ended on the eve of the 2000 elec­tion with Amer­i­cans in sus­pended ag­i­ta­tion. They were doubtful that pres­i­den­tial hope­ful Al Gore could emerge from the shadow of yet another Clin­ton ex­tra­mar­i­tal re­la­tion­ship (with White House in­tern Mon­ica Lewin­sky) and his sub­se­quent im­peach­ment (he couldn’t). They also hoped that our com­puter pro­grams could avoid a global Y2K melt­down (they did, though many tech for­tunes would evap­o­rate a few months later with the end of the dot-com bub­ble).

In be­tween those events, it was much ado about Clin­ton, the man whose time in of­fice per­fectly cap­tured the rapid changes tak­ing place in Amer­i­can cul­ture dur­ing the 1990s—the voyeurism and vir­u­lence aroused by so­cial me­dia; the thirst for scan­dal in­cited by 24/7 tabloid news; the false nar­ra­tives con­cocted by re­al­ity TV; the break­down of pri­vate bar­ri­ers (as a result of the World Wide Web); the tacit per­mis­sion to lie about un­eth­i­cal con­duct; and the par­ti­san ran­cor per­pet­u­ated by the cul­ture war.

This was the decade when Amer­i­cans, as never be­fore, con­fronted an ex­pand­ing public en­croach­ment on their per­sonal lives. They were en­ter­tained and alarmed by tales of well-known fig­ures en­snared in scan­dal. They grap­pled with mat­ters sur­round­ing

sex­u­al­ity, the web and nascent so­cial me­dia. Sex moved to the forefront of their lives—from the creation of Vi­a­gra and the growth of in­ter­net porn to the some­times ven­omous backlash against both.

To­day, a gen­er­a­tion af­ter Clin­ton was sworn in as pres­i­dent, it’s no co­in­ci­dence we ended up with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump. Clin­ton’s naughty ’90s led to the pre­var­i­cat­ing age of Ge­orge W. Bush (re­mem­ber “Mis­sion Ac­com­plished”? Sad­dam Hus­sein’s weapons of mass de­struc­tion?). Those 16 years cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment in which, af­ter two rel­a­tively scan­dal-free terms of Barack Obama, a di­vided Amer­ica, ac­cus­tomed to its ver­sions of faux re­al­ity, chose Trump, a se­rial un­truth-teller as pres­i­dent—a man many vot­ers felt they knew be­cause of his re­al­ity-tv show.

‘You Ate Good Pussy’

IN EARLY 1992, af­ter the Clin­tons ap­peared on 60 Min­utes, many vot­ers ad­mired their un­flinch­ing com­mit­ment to each other. But at least one viewer was aghast. “I was seething with out­rage,” Flow­ers would re­count in her mem­oir, Pas­sion and Betrayal. “To watch the two of them sit there with in­no­cent looks on their faces, ly­ing to the en­tire coun­try, was in­fu­ri­at­ing.”

The next night, Flow­ers showed up at a packed press con­fer­ence. The me­dia free-for-all—350 peo­ple by one es­ti­mate, with CNN cov­er­ing it live—rep­re­sented a nadir in real-time TV news. Flow­ers wore a bright hon­ey­suckle suit with black lapels and some ma­jorly ’80s shoul­der pads. Her lips were full and red and al­most car­toon­ishly solemn. Her py­rotech­nic blon­de­ness, with its cas­cade of dark roots, wreathed her face like a spray of gold­en­rod. “The truth is I loved him,” she said. “Now he tells mee to deny it. Well, I I’mm sick of all the de­ceit, and I’m sickck of all the lies.”

She had the tapes to prove it too. In one snip­pet, she and Clin­ton talked about what she might say if re­porters asked about the ru­mored af­fair; what she re­called with a naughty laugh, was that she would tell them, “You ate good pussy.” Later, Clin­ton seemed to be urg­ing Flow­ers to deny what sounded very much like an af­fair. “If they ever hit you with it, just say, ‘no’ and go on.… If every­body sort of hangs tough, they’re just not go­ing to do any­thing.… They can’t, on a story like this…if they don’t have pic­tures.”

The press con­fer­ence soon de­volved from farce to vaude­ville. One re­porter asked if Flow­ers would “be so kind as to elab­o­rate on the sex and the re­la­tion­ship you say you had with him over 12 years? We want you to talk about it. That’s why the cam­eras are all here.” (Flow­ers de­clined, telling her to read the Star.)

As the crowd con­tin­ued to fire off ques­tions, one man dis­tin­guished him­self from his peers—“stut­ter­ing John” Me­len­dez, a fix­ture on the Howard Stern ra­dio show who’d made his name by am­bush­ing celebri­ties with com­i­cally con­fronta­tional queries. “Did Gover­nor Clin­ton use a con­dom?” he asked, straight-faced. At once, it be­came clear that the re­tain­ing wall be­tween news and en­ter­tain­ment had col­lapsed. And now a mock re­porter ap­peared, us­ing tabloid lan­guage to lam­poon the press, politi­cians and their pieties.

Stut­ter­ing John’s fol­low-up ques­tion: “Will you be sleep­ing with any other pres­i­den­tial candidates?”

His one-lin­ers un­der­scored why the press pack was there. This was the dawn of the sex-scan­dal lynch mob. They had come to lis­ten in on what they nor­mally wouldn’t hear. They had come to see for them­selves what Bill Clin­ton might have seen in Flow­ers. And they had come, cheeky dev­ils, to be in the same room with a woman lusty enough to charm a gover­nor—and crafty enough to switch on a tape player.

Flow­ers had merely whet­ted their ap­petite. They would soon be sali­vat­ing for more.

The Great Amer­i­can Sex Tape

SOME TIME IN THE MID-’90S, Amer­i­can deco­rum dis­ap­peared. The me­dia be­gan to pay far more attention to the dis­grace of others. If there was a tipping point, it may well have been May 6, 1994, the day Paula Jones filed a civil law­suit against Bill Clin­ton, al­leg­ing that he had made an in­sult­ing sex­ual propo­si­tion to her while he was the gover­nor of Arkansas—and later de­famed her. (Clin­ton would deny the charges.)

A month later, an au­di­ence of nearly 100 mil­lion watched what’s now deemed one of the first real-life re­al­ity-tv shows: a pha­lanx of po­lice cars pur­su­ing for­mer NFL star O.J. Simp­son in his white Ford Bronco, days af­ter the killings of his wife and her male com­pan­ion. Simp­son’s sub­se­quent trial would dom­i­nate na­tional head­lines for more than a year.

The Jones and Simp­son cases sig­naled a mas­sive cul­tural shift. In pre­vi­ous decades, Amer­i­cans, as a rule, had tried to sup­press many of their baser in­stincts. Upon en­coun­ter­ing a hu­mil­i­at­ing real-life cir­cum­stance, they may


have been drawn to it, but they were si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­pulsed. No more. By the mid-’90s, with the rise of the me­dia’s tabloid fix­a­tion, 24/7 news and the in­ter­net, our dom­i­nant impulse was to eaves­drop, to leer, to pry into the pri­vate af­fairs of others, par­tic­u­larly fa­mous peo­ple. The de­ci­sion by many in the me­dia to turn ev­ery al­leged wrong­do­ing into an ex­cuse for spec­ta­cle helped news con­sumers ac­cept and then ex­pect ex­plicit de­tails about em­bar­rass­ing, sex­u­ally com­pro­mis­ing or crim­i­nal events.

Many of those events stand out—from the Simp­son trial to “the wife with the knife,” Lorena Bob­bitt, who cut off her hus­band’s pe­nis af­ter she says he raped her (he de­nied it). But one in­ci­dent speaks most clearly to the col­li­sion of celebrity me­dia, sex and voyeurism, and fore­shad­owed how the in­ter­net would play such a para­mount part in our ev­ery­day ex­is­tence.

In late October 1995, dis­grun­tled handy­man (and some­times porn ac­tor) Rand Gau­thier re­port­edly stole a safe from the home of buxom Bay­watch star Pamela An­der­son and her hus­band, Tommy Lee, the tat­tooed drum­mer of the heavy metal band Möt­ley Crüe. The con­tents in­cluded a home video show­ing the new­ly­weds in var­i­ous states of con­nu­bial union. Some­how that footage was then du­pli­cated, pack­aged and sold off. De­spite the law­suits that fol­lowed, an in­ter­net porn mogul ac­quired a copy of the pirated tape and mar­keted it as a triple-x film.

The video be­came the Cit­i­zen Kane of celebrity sex tapes, and peo­ple all over the world—some of whom had never be­fore felt com­pelled to watch porn—or use the in­ter­net, were ea­ger to see it. In her 2005 book, Pornofied, Pamela Paul wrote that the video “is cred­ited with bring­ing more users on­line than any other sin­gle event.”

This celebrity sex tape scan­dal wasn’t the first (in 1988, ac­tor Rob Lowe filmed an en­counter with two young women, one of them a mi­nor), but it was shock­ing be­cause it was ex­plicit, it was off-lim­its—clearly in­tended for the cou­ple’s pri­vate con­sump­tion—and it was among the ear­li­est videos to show fa­mous peo­ple get­ting it on. Its reach was also im­mense. Be­fore the end of the decade, ac­cord­ing to The Wall Street Jour­nal, a not-in­signif­i­cant per­cent­age of the in­ter­net’s tens of mil­lions of web­pages (many not re­lated to porn) would be meta-tagged with the words “Pam” or “Pamela” or Sex­tape”—as the site’s own­ers were hop­ing to draw resid­ual clicks, gelt by as­so­ci­a­tion. A bevy of pur­loined sex tapes have fol­lowed—star­ring Paris Hil­ton, Kim Kar­dashian and Ken­dra Wilkin­son, all of whom be­came re­al­ity-tv stars. (It wouldn’t be un­til 2017, how­ever, that ma­jor me­dia out­lets would spec­u­late about a phantom—and likely bo­gus—sex tape in­volv­ing the pres­i­dent of the United States.)

By the mid-’90s, the web was the world’s mas­tur­ba­tion mecca and the epi­cen­ter of the cul­ture wars.

Elec­tile Dys­func­tion AMER­ICA’S RA­BID, HYPERPARTISAN di­vide be­gan in the early ’90s—and it was mostly about sex. Pop cul­ture had be­come crude. Pornog­ra­phy was rampant. Ca­sual sex­ual en­coun­ters were more preva­lent and less stig­ma­tized. There was a ma­jor up­surge


in cases of sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases. And “the di­vorce rate re­mains, stub­bornly, one in two,” jour­nal­ist Joe Klein wrote in a 1992 Newsweek cover story: “The out-of-wed­lock birth rate has tripled since 1970.… A nau­se­at­ing buf­fet of dys­func­tions has at­tended these trends—an ex­plo­sion in child abuse, crime…name your pathol­ogy.”

Nei­ther Democrats nor Repub­li­cans cel­e­brated these de­vel­op­ments, but Bill and Hil­lary Clin­ton were in the left place at the right time. In the seven months be­tween their 60 Min­utes ap­pear­ance and the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion, the cou­ple brought an­i­mos­ity against those who would de­fend one’s right to choose—and one’s right to love whomever one chose. De­spite Bill Clin­ton’s broad ap­peal, he and his wife, both proud fem­i­nists, were widely vil­i­fied. They were the dreaded duo of the 1960s coun­ter­cul­ture. Or so said Repub­li­cans, evan­gel­i­cals, right-wing ra­dio hosts and sec­u­lar and re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives.

Whether out of gen­uine con­cern or cyn­i­cal elec­toral pol­i­tics, Repub­li­cans tried to cap­i­tal­ize on that view, us­ing in­creas­ingly harsh rhetoric and tac­tics against the Clin­tons, be­gin­ning with their 1992 Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Hous­ton. The gath­er­ing was sup­posed to pro­pel Pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush, a mod­er­ate, to a sec­ond term. But in­side and out­side the an­ti­quated Astrodome, a far more rad­i­cal, trash-the-bas­tards theme had taken hold. Decades be­fore the crowd at the 2016 GOP con­ven­tion chanted: “Lock her up!” T-shirts at the ’92 Repub­li­can con­fab ad­vised: Blame the Me­dia. Stick­ers urged: Smile If You Have Had an Af­fair With Bill Clin­ton. One plac­ard bore a cannabis logo: Bill Clin­ton’s Smok­ing Gun. Another: Woody Allen Is Clin­ton’s Fam­ily Val­ues Ad­viser.

The vir­u­lence went be­yond the mor­dant slo­gans. For­mer Nixon speech­writer and ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive com­men­ta­tor Pa­trick Buchanan had se­cured nearly a

quar­ter of all Repub­li­can votes in the pri­maries. Bush had to ap­pease Buchanan’s forces or have his con­ven­tion im­plode, so he and the GOP man­darins gave over large swaths of the party plat­form to the hard-lin­ers. It was packed with pro­vi­sos re­lated to sex­ual mores, cul­tural kashruth and the supremacy of the nu­clear fam­ily. It sought to ban gay mar­riage, adop­tion by gay cou­ples, the sale of porn and public fund­ing that might be used to “sub­si­dize ob­scen­ity and blas­phemy mas­querad­ing as art,” among other things.

The mod­er­ate Repub­li­can­ism of Bush would strug­gle to wear two masks—and he wound up los­ing to Clin­ton that fall. And dur­ing the new pres­i­dent’s first term, rad­i­cal GOP in­sur­gents, led in part by Newt Gin­grich, in­au­gu­rated an era of “hy­per­bolic par­ti­san­ship,” ac­cord­ing to his­to­rian Ge­of­frey Kabaser­vice. “It was Mr. Gin­grich who pi­o­neered the po­lit­i­cal dys­func­tion we still live with…usher[ing] in the present po­lit­i­cal era of con­fronta­tion and ob­struc­tion.”

An eru­dite his­tory buff with a cheru­bic pres­ence and sil­very helmet of hair, Gin­grich be­came a quan­tum force in Amer­i­can con­ser­vatism. On Septem­ber 27, 1994, he as­sem­bled 367 men and women, all run­ning in that year’s midterm elec­tions, and as­sem­bled them as one bat­tal­ion on the Capi­tol steps. As the cam­eras rolled, he had each can­di­date sign a so-called Con­tract with Amer­ica. This mea­sure, be­yond ad­dress­ing pop­u­lar is­sues such as tax breaks, street crime, an in­vig­o­rated mil­i­tary and a balanced bud­get, fo­cused on some of the same cul­ture-war pri­or­i­ties laid out at the 1992 Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion. This was great po­lit­i­cal theater. It also an­i­mated and uni­fied the party. Gin­grich helped Repub­li­cans make mas­sive gains in Congress. And though he’d even­tu­ally over­reach, leav­ing an open­ing for Clin­ton to win re-elec­tion, the hyperpartisan en­vi­ron­ment he helped cre­ate pre­saged the Tea Party, the ra­bid Repub­li­can re­sponse to Obama and the rise of birtherism and other blovi­at­ing buf­foon­ery.

He also had some cru­cial help.

A Brief His­tory of Right-wing Slime

GIN­GRICH, BUCHANAN AND other forces on the right re­ceived a ma­jor boost from a newly resur­gent rightwing press—from talk ra­dio’s an­gry high priest of the right, Rush Lim­baugh, to the GOP’S fair-haired hatchet man, David Brock—a jour­nal­ist who slimed the likes of Anita Hill, the woman who ac­cused Supreme Court Jus­tice Clarence Thomas of sex­ual ha­rass­ment. (He would deny all charges.)

Join­ing Lim­baugh and Brock was the decade’s most trans­for­ma­tive con­ser­va­tive voice: Fox News. The right-wing cable network, de­vised by Ru­pert

Mur­doch and de­vel­oped by Roger Ailes, pre­miered in 1996. At the time, CNN was be­ing de­rided on the right as un­apolo­get­i­cally left­ist; some called it the Clin­ton News Network. Ailes for­mu­lated Fox dur­ing the GOP’S stun­ning Gin­grich-led resur­gence. It went on the air as Bill Clin­ton ran for his sec­ond term. And Ailes would prove to be its ideal ar­chi­tect: a TV sage with Mcluhanesque in­stincts; a po­lit­i­cal strate­gist who had helped shape hard-right “brands” such as Nixon, Lim­baugh and even­tu­ally Trump.

Ailes en­vi­sioned his chan­nel building its brand on the ran­cor of the dis­en­fran­chised, the public itch for tabloid sto­ries and a moral seething about the Clin­tons and the cul­ture’s pro­gres­sive drift. Tem­pes­tu­ous and in­ces­tu­ous (many of its com­men­ta­tors were GOP stars), Fox News would be­come the party’s 24/7 in­fomer­cial, a hand­maiden of the right’s suc­cesses into the next cen­tury. All the while, it would ad­ver­tise it­self as po­lit­i­cally even­handed—what Sam Ta­nen­haus, the con­ser­va­tive his­to­rian, would de­scribe as a “sar­donic par­ody (‘fair and balanced’) of a main­stream me­dia [that] it as­sumes to be rife with con­tempt.”

The fourth horse­man in this posse was Matt Drudge. He grew up as a Belt­way boy who de­liv­ered The Washington Star, moved to Hol­ly­wood, man­aged the trin­ket shop at the CBS Stu­dio Cen­ter and in 1995 started a gos­sipy email blast. He called his creation the Drudge Re­port—the first com­pre­hen­sive on­line ag­gre­ga­tor of opin­ion, head­lines, and celebrity and po­lit­i­cal poop. For a while, his tar­get au­di­ence was the ru­morati within Washington, Hol­ly­wood and the me­dia. But by June 1997, once AOL started co-host­ing his site, Drudge was a web­wide phe­nom­e­non and a fe­dora-wear­ing favorite of Amer­i­can con­ser­va­tives.

With his web links and gos­sipy drop­pings, Drudge was a na­tional neme­sis and a guilty plea­sure. He linked to far-right col­umns and home pages, some of them bor­der­line bat­shit—and gave their rants and ru­mors equal weight with wire-ser­vice items. He re­ported on other re­porters’ re­port­ing—and got the big­gest po­lit­i­cal news break of the decade—bill Clin­ton’s ex­tra­mar­i­tal re­la­tion­ship with Lewin­sky, which in turn, would lead to the pres­i­dent’s im­peach­ment.

Lim­baugh, Brock, Ailes and Drudge ruled rightwing ra­dio, print, cable and the web. In the ’90s, me­dia types would de­bate whether the eth­i­cal stan­dards of main­stream news­men and -women ap­plied to blog­gers and their ilk. But within a decade, that ques­tion was moot. And thanks in part to this quar­tet of rogues, the di­vid­ing lines were ever less dis­tinct be­tween news and ru­mor, be­tween in­for­ma­tion and en­ter­tain­ment, be­tween the me­dia’s treat­ment of one’s public and pri­vate be­hav­ior.

A clear line can be drawn, at­tests Ta­nen­haus, from Drudge in the 1990s to Don­ald Trump 25 years later. “It all goes back to Drudge in Hol­ly­wood,” he says, in an as­sess­ment of Trump’s ad­vis­ers: “From Drudge to the late alt-right news pioneer An­drew Bre­it­bart and then to Steve Ban­non, Pres­i­dent Trump’s [for­mer] chief strate­gist. It’s not just the alt-right. It’s alt-pol­i­tics—out­side the two par­ties, all via sen­sa­tion­al­ist me­dia.”

As the web and so­cial me­dia gained cur­rency, these new-me­dia,


ul­tra­right con­spir­a­tors were dis­sem­i­nat­ing ru­mor, agenda-bent screeds and a long and gnarly anti-bil­lary thread—from the slur that they had set up the “mur­der” of con­fi­dant Vince Foster to the loony con­coc­tion of the Piz­za­gate child-sex ring. That blur­ring of fact and fic­tion, and the far right’s ac­cu­sa­tions of a “lib­eral bias” by a sup­pos­edly mono­lithic main­stream me­dia, led many to see the press, not the politi­cians, as the prob­lem, de­spite the bevy of re­porters still un­earthing le­git­i­mate cor­rup­tion and scan­dal.

But the dam­age was done. The def­i­ni­tion of truth and facts had be­come mal­leable.

The Michael Jor­dan of Men­dac­ity

IN MY LIFE, BILL CLIN­TON fi­nally ad­mit­ted the ob­vi­ous: that he had lied. “Six years af­ter my Jan­uary 1992 ap­pear­ance on 60 Min­utes, I had to give a de­po­si­tion in the Paula Jones case, and…i ac­knowl­edged that, back in the 1970s, I had had a re­la­tion­ship with [Flow­ers] that I should not have had.”

It wasn’t just the Flow­ers af­fair that fit into his ly­ing theme. In the fall­out of his sec­ond-term scan­dal, he al­most lost the pres­i­dency by ly­ing un­der oath about whether he’d had sex. Yet many Amer­i­cans weren’t fazed by this pat­tern. For all the pique and winc­ing and minc­ing, this ten­dency to parse the truth was a Clin­ton habit, a strat­egy, an eth­i­cal tic—and one that many ap­peared to be adopt­ing in their own lives.

The les­son of the Water­gate scan­dal of the 1970s was that the cover-up—the lie—is al­ways worse than the crime. But mod­ern pres­i­dents have long terms and short me­mories. Clin­ton and Ge­orge W. Bush af­ter him would el­e­vate ly­ing into spin art. Over the 16-year span of their back-to-back ad­min­is­tra­tions, truth—as pre­sented by pres­i­dents, White House aides, po­lit­i­cal spin­meis­ters and me­dia out­lets— be­came rhetor­i­cal taffy. News con­sumers be­came sea­soned skep­tics, learn­ing to ex­pect and tol­er­ate a cer­tain level of elas­tic ve­rac­ity (a qual­ity the co­me­dian Stephen Col­bert later iden­ti­fied as “truthiness”).

Much of this flim­flam, of course, pre­dated the 2000s. In his book Fan­ta­sy­land, Kurt An­der­sen traces al­ter­nate Amer­i­can re­al­ity back 500 years. More re­cently, some form of elas­tic ve­rac­ity had been rolled out by Lyn­don John­son’s Viet­nam ad­vis­ers and spokes­men, honed by Nixon and his White House aides dur­ing Water­gate and fine-tuned by Rea­gan dur­ing the Iran-con­tra scan­dal—all be­fore the pre-em­i­nence of cable news and the in­ter­net.

Yet Slick Wil­lie turned out to be the Michael Jor­dan of this craft. He perfected spin­ning as his de­fault mode at the very mo­ment truthiness was be­com­ing an ac­cept­able re­sponse in hu­man in­ter­ac­tions of ev­ery kind—from Wall Street to the ball­field (re­mem­ber the juice-in­duced Sammy Sosa-mark Mcg­wire home-run race of 1998?).

As the ’90s pro­gressed, Clin­ton be­gan to in­car­nate the equiv­o­cal. “A clear pat­tern has emerged—of de­lay, of ob­fus­ca­tion, of lawyer­ing the truth,” Joe Klein wrote in a 1994 es­say in Newsweek. “With the Clin­tons, the story al­ways is sub­ject to fur­ther re­vi­sion. The mis­state­ments are al­ways in­cre­men­tal. The ‘mis­un­der­stand­ings’ are al­ways in­no­cent—ca­sual, ir­reg­u­lar, pro­mis­cu­ous. Trust is squan­dered in dribs and drabs. Does this sort of be­hav­ior also in­fect the pres­i­dent’s public life, his for­mu­la­tion of public pol­icy? Clearly, it does.”

Dee Dee My­ers, Clin­ton’s for­mer press sec­re­tary, is more char­i­ta­ble: “[It] was a tac­tic that Clin­ton used more ef­fec­tively—and I don’t mean it in a good way—than any­one I’d ever worked for. In pol­i­tics, peo­ple lawyer the truth, and Clin­ton did. [He] would say things that were tech­ni­cally true but that cre­ated a mis­im­pres­sion that kind of in­ten­tion­ally sent peo­ple in the wrong di­rec­tion. Or, more of­ten, I think he


tried to leave him­self wig­gle room and change his mind and say he never said [that].”

Years later, both Hil­lary Clin­ton and Trump, per­haps the two most dis­trusted op­po­nents in a mod­ern pres­i­den­tial con­test, per­pet­u­ated the post-fact syn­drome dur­ing their 2016 race for the White House. Clin­ton, from her tenures as first la­dyy (Trav­el­gate) up through her time as sec­re­tary of state (Email­gate), was con­sid­ered by many to be an un­con­scionable ob­fus­ca­tor, while Trump el­e­vated ly­ing to a dark art. “On the Poli­ti­Fact web­site,” New York Times colum­nist Ni­cholas Kristof would re­port, “53 per­cent of Trump’s [public state­ments were rated as demon­stra­bly] ‘false’ or ‘pants on fire’—a num­ber that would climb to “71 per­cent…‘mostly false’” on the eve of the elec­tion. This en­demic fab­ri­cat­ing was tac­ti­cally de­cep­tive in a man­ner rem­i­nis­cent of to­tal­i­tar­ian lead­ers—a pat­tern made all the more omi­nous, as Van­ity Fair edi­tor Gray­don Carter has pointed out, since Trump would rou­tinely crib his “talk­ing points from the dark cor­ners at the bot­tom of the In­ter­net.”

Trump would prove to be the ideal can­di­date for the era of fake news, hate blogs, “agita”-prop, fearand-bal­last news net­works, non­stop gos­sip and Twit­ter-feed screeds. And it is no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to state that his can­di­dacy would not have been pos­si­ble, or vi­able, had it not been for the rhetor­i­cal and stylis­tic prece­dents set by the ever-pars­ing Bill Clin­ton—and his men­da­cious de­trac­tors on the right.

Crude and Canny

TWO AND A HALF DECADES af­ter the Clin­tons ap­peared on 60 Min­utes, Amer­ica elected a pres­i­dent, who once bragged that fame al­lowed him to grab women by their gen­i­tals—largely with­out con­se­quence.

By then the rules of sex scan­dals in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics had changed. The 1990s had ush­ered in per­sonal brand­ing, re­al­ity pro­gram­ming, 24/7 news, tabloid scan­dal cov­er­age and on­line self-ex­pres­sion. Although crude and preda­tory, Trump was a me­dia mae­stro. He seemed to un­der­stand that har­ness­ing the twin forces of tra­di­tional me­dia and so­cial me­dia was the new mode for as­sert­ing power, for ma­nip­u­lat­ing public opin­ion (to ac­quire power), for hu­mil­i­at­ing or un­der­min­ing others (who were dis­play­ing too much power) and for per­pet­u­ally de­flect­ing or di­vert­ing the in­flu­ence of those in other power cen­ters (to main­tain power). Kim Kar­dashian knew it, the Is­lamic State group knew it, Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin knew it. And Trump did too.

His vic­tory au­gured a new and chill­ing re­al­ity in Amer­i­can life. And there was an un­mis­tak­ably ’ 90s tenor to it all. Trump’s jour­ney to the White House would have been inconceivable with­out the coarseness of the Clin­ton years, a coarseness equally at­trib­ut­able to pop­u­lar cul­ture and the new­found web, the pres­i­dent’s scan­dals and the pruri­ence of his right-wing crit­ics.

As Nina Burleigh wrote in Newsweek af­ter the 2016 pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, “Amid Trump con­firm­ing the size of his man­hood on na­tional TV, the re­turn of Bill Clin­ton’s sex­ual-as­sault ac­cusers and a gnarly cam­paign-cap­siz­ing FBI an­nounce­ment re­gard­ing An­thony Weiner’s sex­ting, elec­tion 2016 was a na­tional ref­er­en­dum on women and power.”

And on men in power. And race and power. And the sub­sti­tu­tion in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics of rage for rea­son, en­ter­tain­ment for in­for­ma­tion and blus­ter for truth.

THE NAUGHTY ’ 90S: Decades af­ter Jones, far right, ac­cused Bill Clin­ton of mak­ing un­wanted ad­vances, Amer­i­cans elected Don­ald Trump as pres­i­dent. His messy di­vorce from Ivana Trump, left, no longer seemed to mat­ter.

Septem­berer 1997 Marv Al­bert lbert The sportscaster is con­victed of as­sault and battery, stem­ming from an in­ci­dent in­volv­ing a woman he had oc­ca­sion­ally trysted with. aster nd rom y

Jan­uary 1998 Bill Clin­ton CThe Drudge Re­port says Clin­ton had ex­tra­mar­i­tal en­coun­ters with Mon­ica Lewin­sky, a White House in­tern. The pres­i­dent’s tes­ti­mony about their re­la­tions leads to his im­peach­ment. Dru Cl ext en­coun H pre tes­timo re im

Au­gust 1997 Princess Diana Diana and a male com­pan­ion die shortly af­ter their car crashes in a Paris tun­nel. Their driver—legally in­tox­i­cated at the time and killed in the ac­ci­dent—was re­port­edly try­ing to elude the pa­parazzi.

FAR-RIGHT SUPREMACY? At the 1992 GOP con­ven­tion, Repub­li­can man­darins gave over large swaths of the party plat­form to hard-lin­ers such as Pat Buchanan.

Au­gust 1997 Frank Gif­ford Sportscaster Frank Gif­ford—who is mar­ried to pop­u­lar TV talk­show host Kathie Lee Gif­ford—is caught with a flight at­ten­dant, part of a se­cretly pho­tographed honey trap.

May 1997 Po­lice stop Ed­die Mur­phy while he’s with a trans­gen­der pros­ti­tute. The co­me­dian is not charged and says he was just help­ing some­one in dis­tress.

April 1997 Michael Kennedy Robert F. Kennedy’s son is al­leged to have been car­ry­ing on with his chil­dren’s un­der­age baby sit­ter. Michael Kennedy dies sev­eral months later in a ski­ing ac­ci­dent.

MUST-SEE TV: The re­lease of the Pam An­der­son and Tommy Lee sex tape and the cov­er­age of the O.J. Simp­son trial were two piv­otal events that marked the dis­ap­pear­ance of Amer­i­can deco­rum.

De­cem­ber 1996 Jon­benét Ram­sey The bru­tal slaying of the 6-year-old in Boul­der, Colorado, sparks ob­ses­sive press cov­er­agec and in­ten­si­fies crit­i­cism of the child beauty pageant boom. Ram­sey’s mur­der re­mains un­solved.

Au­gust 1996 Dick Mor­ris Dur­ing the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion, thehe Star in­forms Pres­i­dent Clin­ton’s po­lit­i­cal strate­gist that it’s about ut to pub­lish a story say­ing ng the mar­ried Mor­ris hadd been spend­ing time with th a pros­ti­tute. He re­signs. s.

July 1995 Princess Stephanie of Monaco mar­ries her ex-body­guard Daniel Du­cruet, who is al­ready the fa­ther of two of her chil­dren.

June 1994 Anna Ni­cole Smith The pil­lowy model mar­ries 89-year-old J. Howard Mar­shall II, an oil baron six decades her se­nior, who is worth half a bil­lion dol­lars. He dies the next year.

June 1995 Hugh Grant The ac­tor is ar­rested with a hooker in Hol­ly­wood. He tries to re­deem him­self by go­ing on The Tonight Show, say­ing, “I did a bad thing. There you have it.”

Jan­uary 1994 Michael Jack­son The king of pop agrees to an out-of­court set­tle­ment in a child-mo­lesta­tion suit, re­port­edly pay­ing out $20 mil­lion.

Jan­uary 6, 1994 Fig­ure skater Nancy Ker­ri­gan is whacked with a ba­ton dur­ing prac­tice. Ker­ri­gan’s ri­val, Tonya Hard­ing, and her hus­band, set up the hit.

De­cem­ber 1992 Lyle and Erik Me­nen­dez The broth­ers go on trial for killing their par­ents. De­spite claim­ing their fa­ther sex­u­ally abused them, they are con­victed of first-de­gree mur­der and con­spir­acy and must spend the rest of their lives in prison.

Fe­bru­ary 1992 Mike Tyson The boxing champ is con­victed of rap­ing De­siree Washington, a beauty queen. Re­leased from jail in 1995, Tyson re­gains his ti­tle but later for­feits his boxing li­cense af­ter bit­ing off part of Evan­der Holy­field’s ear in a bout.

BE­LIT­TLED WOMEN: Af­ter go­ing public with their sto­ries about Bill Clin­ton, both Jones, top, and Flow­ers be­came fod­der for an in­creas­ingly scan­dal-hun­gry 24/7 press.

October 1991 El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor The ac­tor weds her sev­enth hus­band, Larry Forten­sky. As cer­e­mony takes place, a pa­parazzo paraglides down from the sky and lands on the lawn, only to be clocked by se­cu­rity guards.

May 1992 Amy Fisher Smit­ten with her mar­ried lover, Joey Butta­fuoco, the teenager shoots his wife (she sur­vives). Butta­fuoco does four months be­hind bars for sleep­ing with a mi­nor. Fisher serves seven years for reck­less as­sault.

LOVE AND DAM­AGE CON TROL: Af­ter the Gen­nifer Flow­ers ac­cu­sa­tions in 1992, Hil­lary Clin­ton’s words, more than Bill’s, saved his can­di­dacy and helped him win the pres­i­dency.

July 1990 Roseanne Barr At the start of a San Diego Padres base­ball game, a jeer­ing crowd drowns out the co­me­dian’s con­tro­ver­sial ren­di­tion of “The StarSpan­gled Ban­ner.”

March 1991 Wil­liam Kennedy Smith Af­ter go­ing out with un­cle Ed­ward Kennedy, the med stu­dent re­turns to the fam­ily home with a young woman. He is ar­rested on—and later cleared of— rape charges.

July 1991 Pee-wee Her­man The co­me­dian, whose real name is Paul Reubens, is caught in an adult movie theater and charged with in­de­cent ex­po­sure. Claim­ing his in­no­cence, he pleads no con­test and avoids a public trial.

Jan­uary 1990 Mar­ion Barry The mayor of Washington, D.C., is nabbed in an FBI sting while smok­ing crack with a for­mer girl­friend. The scene is recorded on video­tape as Barry is placed in hand­cuffs and de­clares, “Bitch set me up.”

Fe­bru­ary 1990 Don­ald and Ivana Trump The cou­ple an­nounce their sep­a­ra­tion af­ter the New York Post trum­pets an al­leged com­ment from Marla Maples, Trump’s lover: “BEST SEX I EVER HAD.”

May 1990 Chris­tian Brando is ar­rested and later found guilty of vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter in the death of the boyfriend of his half-sis­ter.

BIG LIT­TLE LIES: Even Clin­ton’s supporters say he would try to lawyer the truth to leave him­self wig­gle room to change his mind.

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