Five Years After Monica Lewinsky Scandal

The year 1998 started off unusually calm for the Clinton administration. Earlier scandals seemed under control and the White House was busy building a bridge to the 21st century. That was before the world met Monica.

It's been five years since news broke of the scandalous affair between President Clinton and former intern Monica Lewinsky — a few trysts that nearly ended a presidency.

As the president set out on the morning of Jan. 17, 1998, he didn't know that the day's events would change forever the legacy he was busy planning.

The Big Question

It all started with a surprise question during his testimony in the lawsuit filed by Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state worker who alleged Clinton, while governor, had sexually harassed her in 1991.

When Jones' lawyers asked if he had been having an affair with a former White House intern, Clinton denied there was a sexual relationship.

The real opening act in the Lewinsky scandal came four days later, when the rest of the world learned the young woman's name.

"I slept in for the first time since I'd been at the White House," said former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart. "And at about 9 a.m. I called in and said the dumbest thing in the history of presidential politics, 'Is there anything going on?'"

Networks cut into soap operas in the middle to of the day with special reports.

"I mean the media frenzy that resulted from the first day of reporting I'm not sure we'll ever see again," Lockhart said.

Salacious Details

ABCNEWS producer Chris Vlasto remembers how quickly the story expanded.

"I remember looking at when [independent counsel] Ken Starr came out, there's hundreds of cameras around him — it was exceptional and you become a bit afraid at how large it became and you wanted to make sure you were right," Vlasto said.

Over the next days, weeks and month the world learned all the intimate details of the relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky. Everything from the tie she gave him to her semen-stained blue dress ended up in the infamous Starr report.

Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton, said everyone involved in the case felt immense pressure since so much was riding on the outcome.

"I had been in the middle of a few frenzies, but compared to this it was the difference between a bomb and a nuclear bomb," Davis said. "Everybody recognized what was at stake here could be the presidency itself."

In December 1998, Clinton became only the second president in U.S. history to be impeached. He was charged with grand jury perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with a coverup of his relationship with Lewinsky. The trial began in the Senate on Jan. 7, 1999. A little over a month later, on Feb. 12, Clinton was acquitted. He had kept his job, but his reputation had taken a beating.

Bad Behavior All Around

Looking back, presidential historian Michael Bechloss says the scandal brought out a lot of bad behavior.

"It was an ugly year. It was a brutal year. People were vicious to one another," Bechloss said.

Vlasto said almost everyone involved in the case got hurt in some way. "Every player involved was attacked and I don't think anyone came out unscathed," he said.

The five years that have past since the scandal may not be enough to judge the long-term impact of the Lewinsky scandal on American politics. It's possible, especially in the newly sobered, post-Sept. 11 world, that as riveting as it seemed at the time, it could have little lasting impact. When all is said and done, the scandal that rocked the world in 1998 might end up being little more than a memorable footnote in U.S. political history.

Monica Lewinsky moved to lower Manhattan after the scandal came to a slow end. Now 29, she has had a handbag line and an HBO cable special. She's now planning on going to law school.

ABCNEWS' Claire Shipman reported this story on Good Morning America.

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