June 23, 2004 -- -- When Bill Clinton looks back at his denials that he had an affair with Monica Lewinsky, he regrets lying, but also believes that telling the truth could have cost him the presidency.
In January 1998, Clinton was asked about his relationship with Lewinsky, a former White House intern, in sworn grand jury testimony in a sexual harassment lawsuit being brought by another woman, Paula Jones. The president flatly denied having sex with Lewinsky and asking her to lie about it under oath.
His statements came to the attention of Whitewater special prosecutor Kenneth Starr, whose investigation of the matter eventually led to Clinton's impeachment.
Why didn't the former president simply tell the truth?
"I didn't do it because there was so much hysteria and because I didn't know what Ken Starr was going to do to anybody," Clinton said in an interview with Good Morning America's Charles Gibson. "I thought the American people almost always get it right, if they're given enough time and enough information. There was just this madness. Everybody was saying 'Clinton's dead meat.'"
Many people told him that telling the truth would have cost him the White House, Clinton says.
"I will never know what would have happened, but I can only tell you this," Clinton said. "I have not talked to a single person who was there then, who knew what was going on, who believes that I would survive as president if I had said that. Not one. Not any one."
Regrettable Sound Bite
In a now-infamous sound bite at a White House event, Clinton denied the affair for a second time. He wagged his finger and said: "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky. I never told anybody to lie, not a single time, never. These allegations are false, and I need to go back to work for the American people."
He regrets saying those words now.
"That was a mistake and I think I shouldn't have said it,' Clinton said." I think what I should have said was the truth. I should have said I didn't violate the law and I never asked anybody else to violate the law, and that's all I should have said." At the time he used poor judgment, Clinton said.
"It was a moment where I was frankly rattled. I used poor judgment, and I was wrong, and I'll regret it till the day I die," he said. "It was terrible."
In the midst of the scandal, Hillary Clinton appeared on national television to defend the allegations against her husband, saying that he was the victim of a "right-wing conspiracy." But Bill Clinton now admits that he helped the "conspiracy" along by essentially handing over the sword to his enemies.
"But that does not excuse what they did in trampling the Constitution," Clinton said. "And so while I'm responsible for what I did, they're responsible for what they did. And they can't make me responsible for what they did any more than I can blame them for the kind of mistakes I made, even though I hope no other American ever has to live with years and years and years of somebody trying to put you and your wife in jail, and hurting innocent people, and knowing the whole thing's a lie."
On Dec. 19, 1998, Clinton was impeached by the House of Representatives on the grounds of perjury, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice relating to his relationship with Lewinsky and subsequent actions. In February 1999, in a Senate vote basically along party lines, Clinton was acquitted and allowed to stay in office.
‘Not Entirely Rational’
Looking back at the Lewinsky affair that nearly cost him the presidency, Clinton says that at the time he was rattled by Starr's Whitewater investigation, which began as a probe of a land deal the Clintons were involved in in Arkansas, and was simply not thinking rationally. "First of all, most personal encounters are not entirely rational," Clinton said. "Secondly, I'm not sure if most people would be entirely rational if they had been bankrupted and seen their friends indicted because they wouldn't lie, seeing innocent people sent to jail, and seeing people in your business cover it up and legitimize what happened. So I was pretty 'wigged out.'"
He was also angry that Republicans had regained power in Congress.
"I was mad. I was mad at myself for losing the Congress because I tried to jam too much change down the American system," Clinton said. "In '93 and '94, the government was shut down, I wasn't sure whether I was going to win that fight or not, and as I say in my book, I was engaged in these two titanic struggles, one for the future of the country and one with the demons I've had since I was a child."
While he eventually won the public struggle, he felt he lost a private one.
"I have no excuses for what I did," Clinton said. "That doesn't excuse what others did."
In his autobiography, My Life, Clinton writes about parallel lives. There is external life that takes its natural course, which in his case is happy and quite successful, and an internal life where secrets are hidden, he writes.
Is that parallel life a fatal Shakespearean flaw?
"I don't think so, because it was not evil, it was not designed to hurt people," Clinton said. "All Shakespearean tragedies lead to death, and in many cases, the king, because of his personal flaws, abuses his power. And the one problem I didn't have was abuse of power. I think that I fought against abuse of power."