It’s been nearly 25 years since the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky cigar scandal made headlines. Plenty of presidents have been known for extramarital affairs. Most of the public assumed John F. Kennedy’s connection to Marilyn Monroe was more than mere friendship. The lurid details remained as guarded as state secrets until Clinton’s dalliance in the late 90s. The internet age had just begun when the forty-second president’s affair and all the sensational details -as we would say today- went viral.
Cigars were making headlines throughout the decade, and one of Clinton’s cigars would become the focal point of one of the more infamous episodes of the American presidency.
The Cigar Scandal
Clinton’s alleged affair with Gennifer Flowers might have nearly cost him the election in 1992. His encounters with Lewinsky nearly cost him the presidency.
In late 1997, when news broke that Clinton had a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Clinton was already well into his second term. He was riding high with more than a 50% approval rating. Ironically, his approval rating would boost by over 6 points amid the cigar scandal.
Ken Starr, the independent counsel, was already hounding Clinton on matters related to real estate investments and other White House controversies. However, the sexual nature of the Lewinsky scandal would overshadow it all.
In January 1998, Clinton famously denied any sexual relations with “that woman” and Lewinsky initially refused to testify. However, upon the suggestion of friend Linda Tripp, she had saved a piece of evidence that would prove vital: the now famous semen-stained blue dress.
By the summer of 1998, the story heated again. It didn’t take long for the sordid details to come out. We may never know whether they were all factual, but after Starr granted Lewinsky immunity, she agreed to testify. Clinton would admit to a grand jury that his relationship with Lewinsky was “physical” and “improper” and redefine what constituted “sexual” relations.
By December, Clinton would be charged with perjury and obstruction of justice and become the second president in United States history to be impeached.
The blue dress is perhaps the most famous evidence, but running a close second was Clinton’s cigar. His love for cigars is almost as well-known as his love for women.
Lewinsky testified she had nine sexual encounters with Clinton from 1995 to 1997. As the story goes, the 49-year-old Clinton used a cigar in a sex act with the 23-year-old intern. The specifics have varied over the years, but you don’t need too much imagination. According to some reports, Lewinsky never testified to the events. The story endures in American history and cigar lore.
Hillary would not allow smoking in the White House, but he smoked when he had the time, particularly on the golf course. During his time in office, Clinton was a “chewer”. According to Lewinsky, Clinton was chewing on a cigar before one of their encounters. She went on record saying, “…I looked at the cigar and I looked at him and said we can do that, too, sometime.” The innuendo was clear, and the rest is history.
The cigar in question was allegedly a Gurkha, a brand the former president still prefers. Clinton smoked their traditional lines but upgraded to Gurkha’s His Majesty Reserve line. Priced at more than $1,000 each, it is a considerable upgrade!
Lewinsky has Tweeted about indulging in an occasional cigarette, but she has never admitted to smoking premium cigars despite her role in the notorious cigar scandal. She did, however, gift the president a silver tabletop cigar holder.
Cigar Scandal Aftermath
In the end, the Senate acquitted Clinton of all charges. He wrote his memoirs and has a lucrative career as a public speaker. Clinton has also appeared at many Democratic Conventions and was a loyal and vocal supporter of his wife Hillary’s political ambitions, including her presidential run in 2016.
History has not been too kind to him. As the “#MeToo” movement took hold following the election of Donald Trump, the public began to look at “Monicagate” through a new lens. Although Lewinsky maintains that the relationship was consensual, Clinton’s role took on a predatory tone.
In recent years, Clinton has largely stayed out of the limelight. At 75, he is a shadow of his former self and makes news for brief hospital stays and bouts of illness. However, he is still often seen smoking a fine cigar.
Lewinsky has gradually altered her image. Following the cigar scandal, she became a pop culture celebrity. After years of public shaming, opinion began to sway in Lewinsky’s favor. She has dabbled in a variety of projects over the years. She has been a spokesperson for Jenny Craig Diet and Weight Loss Centers, designed handbags, and hosted Saturday Night Live. These days, when she isn’t getting into Twitter spats with Beyonce, Lewinsky is producing movies and touring the country as an anti-bullying advocate.
She has also written about her relationship with Clinton several times. Now 49, her most recent endeavor was co-producing a season of FX’s television series American Crime Story: Impeachment. The series traces her time at the White House and Clinton’s subsequent impeachment.
It’s hard to imagine how a story like the Clinton-Lewinsky cigar scandal would play out today. In the social media era, there seems to be a new scandal every hour. Perhaps that’s why this presidential fling has lasting power. It came before the era of cultural fragmentation and the blitz of media outlets. The entire country and most of the world watched as the story unraveled. It may seem tame by some of today’s standards, but it is a lasting legacy of the early internet age.
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