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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 15th September 2017 > THE ’90S MADE US DO IT

THE ’90S MADE US DO IT

HOW SEX, SCANDAL AND MEDIA SCRUTINY IN THE AGE OF SLICK WILLIE LED TO THE TAWDRY TRUMP TEENS
Kneecaps and Honey Traps DURING THE 1990S, AMERICANS BECAME OBSESSED WITH FAME AND DISGRACE. HERE ARE SOME OF THE DECADE’S MOST NOTORIOUS SCANDALS
PETER YANG/AUGUST; S. GRANITZ/WIREIMAGE/GETTY
Pam + Tommy Forever!
TOLGA TEZCAN/GETTY

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 circum-flex. Other times, he shook his head or narrowed his eyes to express exasperation with his interrogator.

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

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

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

CLINTON: I’m not prepared tonight to say that any married 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.”

WALLY MCNAMEE/CORBIS/GETTY

January 1990

Marion Barry

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BLAME CLINTON? When Gennifer Flowers went public about her a air with then-Governor Bill Clinton, she called a press conference that devolved from farce to vaudeville. It became clear that the retaining wall between news and entertainment had collapsed.
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